FCC Moves To Break Broadcast-License Logjam

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The FCC last week came out with new rules to settle a dispute over doling out broadcast licenses when both commercial and noncommercial operators apply for the same channel. For the most part, commercial broadcasters won the day.

If the rules—a rewrite of rules struck down by the courts—stand, they would not only resolve an allocation dilemma created when Congress ordered the FCC to auction commercial licenses in 1997 but would clear the way for the auction of more than 400 FM permits. The FCC also would be free to complete review of almost 3,000 other applications for noncommercial FM licenses, low-power/ translator TV allotments and other assorted commercial channels.

Uncertainty over dealing with conflicts between commercial broadcasters, which must resolve competing applications through auctions, and noncommercial broadcasters, which are forbidden from bidding in auctions, has stalled the addition of many new stations since July 2001, when federal judges struck down rules permitting noncommercial applicants to join the bidding.

Although the commissioners tried to soften the blow to noncommercial applicants, the decision largely went against nonprofits seeking to gain spots outside of channels reserved specifically for them. Under the decision, noncommercial broadcasters can't apply for non-reserved FM or TV licenses unless there are no competing applications from commercial broadcasters.

The FCC noted, however, that it will expedite qualified noncommercial applications for FM and TV channels outside the reserved band as long as there are no conflicts with commercial applicants.

On the FM band, the FCC has reserved the 20 channels between 88.1 MHz and 91.9 MHz for noncommercial use. There is no corresponding band on the TV dial, but the commission has designated a similar proportion of reserved channels—roughly 20%.

The Association of Public Television Stations had no comment, but the decision is likely to disappoint public broadcasters. They had argued that a bar to competing with commercial stations would be tantamount to an outright ban on applications for non-reserved channels.

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