The Touch-FM bust demonstrates why LPFM needs to be treated like translators
While I feel that unlicensed radio activity is breaking the law (which it is), I do have some sympathy for those who feel they have to resort to such measures, especially when the facilities are designed in such a way that they will not interfere.
On Thursday, April 17, 2014, the facility of Touch 1-zero-6 point 1 was raided by the FCC and US Marshals. The unlicensed broadcast station has been operating from the top of a 4-story building in the Boston area for several years. The principals of the station were fined several years ago but never even responded to the NAL, more or less paid it. According to allegations, the station may have been used as a political campaign platform for mayoral candidate Charles Clemons. Over the past few years, Touch 106.1 was praised as the remaining black voice in the Boston area, especially after the elimination of programming on a licensed radio station WILD-AM a few years ago.
Statements made during the raid included claims that the station did not interfere with any other station. I wanted to examine that claim further and this is what I determined:
Based on the location of the antenna on the building, the station is located at 29 meters height above average terrain thus making it eligible for a full 100 watts under the LPFM rules.
If this station was to be licensed under the current FCC LPFM rules (with the current restrictions of the Local Community Radio Act):
This station would be short spaced to co-channel Class-B station WCOD-FM in Hyannis, MA. The station is also first-adjacent channel short spaced to WWKX, Woonsocket, RI and WFNQ Nashua, NH. The station is also second-adjacent channel short spaced to WROR-FM, which will talk about in just a bit. Therefore, under the current rules, this station could not happen.
My entity, REC Networks is working on looking at ways to improve the availability of LPFM stations. I have been looking at using a contour overlap model that bases interference on the actual operating parameters of the full power station vs. the actual operating parameters of the proposed LPFM station. However, due to a provision in the Local Community Radio Act (Section 3(b)(1)), spacing between stations can not be less than those minimums in effect at the implementation of the Act. At the time the LCRA was enacted, §73.807 had two sets of tables, one for LP-100 and one for LP-10. The FCC would subsequently remove the LP-10 table from the rules. The LCRA does not specify that the LP-100 table must be used. This interpretation was solidified by the FCC when they proposed a 250-watt LPFM service using the minimum distances for LP-100 and reducing the "buffer zones". So, with that in mind...
What if the rules were changed to allow for contour overlap but keeping the "LP-10" distances as required by the LCRA?:
Because of Section 3(b)(1) of the LCRA, the station would be blocked because of an arbitrary minimum separation where the stations would otherwise not interfere with each other.
Second adjacent channel station WROR:
Touch-FM is only 4.32 km from WROR. WROR places a nice 104dBu field strength contour over Touch-FM. At 100 watts,the interference would be 4 meters from the radiation center of the antenna. The interference would just barely penetrate the roof if at all.
What if we used the FM translator guidelines instead of the LPFM guidelines?
As we have already determined, there would be no contour overlap between Touch-FM and WCOD, WFNQ and WWKX. Interference to WROR-FM would not reach any population. In addition, there would be interference to third-adjacent channel station WMJX. However, since WMJX is at the same location as WROR. It is also places a 104 dBu service contour at the Touch-FM tower. Therefore under translator rules, this facility would be allowed. Using a non-directional antenna, the station could have increased to 133 watts and still protected WCOD.
Do I approve of what Touch-FM did? No.
Did Touch-FM cause any actual interference to any other broadcast station? From what I can see, no.. they didn't. As long as their equipment was clean and followed all other technical rules, the facility that Touch-FM operated as could have been legally licensed using the translator rules. Now, Touch-FM could not be licensed as a translator because translators can't originate programming.
What this all boils down to is that even with the window we just recently had for new LPFM stations, some places on the dial where LPFM stations could have been placed were denied because of an arcane rule that was codified in statute as a result of overall unfounded fear by the NAB, NPR and the state broadcast associations that LPFM would cause interference. This is why we need to repeal that portion of the LCRA and leave LPFM engineering to the engineers and don't try to dumb down the service. The last window only proved that this service is more complex than it was in 2000 and that we need to give stations more flexibility but in order to do that, it must be designed in a way that is consistent with other similar broadcast services (translators). Therefore, we need to strike Section 3(b)(1) from the Local Community Radio Act. Because of the law the way it is now, it is very possible that 106.1 FM in this part of Boston will go to Clear Channel or another corporate conglomerate (for an AM or HD2 translator) that does not have the black community in Boston in mind.
Finally, I do want to point out that despite my support of Touch-FM from a facility engineering standpoint, the principals of this organization would not be eligible for a license in accordance with §73.854 of the FCC rules. I do hope that someone else, using legal means, picks up the torch and gives a voice back to Boston's black community.
Touch-FM is still streaming.