NPR Paints Grim Picture of Repack’s Impact on FMs

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NPR agrees with the NAB’s assessment that a sliding scale to reimburse FMs forced off the air due to the TV repack is arbitrary and won’t work. It urged the agency to drop the plan. The public radio network also said the repack work has been disruptive, forcing at least one station off the air when a tower crew showed up unexpectedly, causing the station thousands of dollars in lost donations.

The Commission should make sure the reimbursement process for FMs co-located on TV towers affected by the TV channel repack is flexible. “There is no easy way to measure the significance of the service disruption caused when stations are forced off-air or required to broadcast at reduced power,” NPR told the FCC in filed comments. Without naming the towerco that showed up at one station with no notice, NPR said that “gave the station no chance to rig a temporary antenna, and forced the station off air for 11 days during a funding drive. This situation could have been avoided if the station had been able to secure alternative facilities in advance.” 

Though the FCC is not authorized to compensate radio stations for lost revenues it “is authorized to to fully reimburse FM stations for the costs to establish temporary auxiliary facilities needed to avoid such drastic outcomes,” states NPR. The public radio network supports the FCC’s proposal to reimburse “up to 100 percent of the reasonable costs incurred by FM stations forced to vacate their towers, relocate their antennas to a different level of their current towers, temporarily dismantle their equipment to accommodate work on a television antenna or tower, and/or make other temporary or permanent facility modifications.”    

“The difference between expected reimbursement of 50 percent, 75 percent or 100 percent of costs could determine their ability to remediate the harm caused by repack projects,” says NPR. An informal survey of its affiliates show that for three out of four public radio stations, the reimbursement amount could make a difference in their plans to build or modify Aux facilities. NPR says “dozens” of independent, locally owned and operated public radio stations “are caught in the repack shuffle,” a process they have no control over and nothing to gain from.

NPR urged the Commission to widen the cost categories eligible for reimbursement, to allow stations to secure the equipment, labor, and professional services (such as engineering consultants and outside project management) they need to replace or restore their facilities and replicate their coverage area. About half of the affected public radio stations, told NPR they’d need to rely on outside help to manage their response to the repack. It believes the Commission should reimburse FMs forced to transmit a low-power signal for the costs of their Aux facilities to maintain their coverage area, rather than just reimbursing stations that go off the air completely.

Reimbursement should cover tower leases for interim facilities beyond actual downtime, according to NPR, which calls the current proposal “impractical.” The repack process “is fraught with uncertainty and delays,” and FMs do not know in advance, exactly when TV tower construction work will prevent FM transmission or reduce power,” according to the network.

“Tower companies may not provide notice to public radio stations before they show up to deactivate and reorganize broadcast facilities. Even if they do, inclement weather and the availability of tower crews can foul the best laid plans,” says the network. “Some public radio stations are subject to multiple phases of TV repack and tower work, and it is reasonable and potentially less costly to lease Auxiliary tower space to cover the entire period, beyond active construction periods.”  

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By Leslie Stimson, Inside Towers Washington Bureau Chief

October 8, 2018     

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