Passing Interference


In the waning years of Clinton, the Federal Communications Commission created a new class of radio stations dubbed LPFMs. Because these broadcast with less power than other outlets, more of them can be fit on the FM dial, thus allowing more variety on the air. Far from a radical change, the plan was much more conservative than it could have been, and it was rendered more restrictive still when Congress, responding to pressure from the established broadcast industry, imposed some severe modifications. Among other things, its legislation ensured that the new stations would only be established in very rural areas, leaving urban radio out of the equation altogether.

But there was a catch. The law didn't kill the original plan outright. It required the FCC to do field tests to see how much signal interference the more extensive proposal would cause, a task the commission assigned to a nonproft called the MITRE Corporation. The report is now out, and it won't make the big broadcasters happy. According to MITRE, the government's "third channel adjacency" requirement—in essence, a rule demanding enormous buffers between stations to prevent them from interfering with each other—is not necessary.

If the study is taken seriously, it should open the door to a lot of new low-power radio stations, not just in the countryside but in the cities. The political moment for such a change may be ripe, given how many people in Congress are professing their discontent with media consolidation—a stance that, if sincere, should lead those politicians to support new sources of competition on the dial. Their response to this report will be a test of that sincerity.

(To see the study, go here. MITRE's monster-sized report is currently the first item on the screen. It's broken into seven different .pdf files.)

NEXT: American Guards

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  1. The legislators’ interest in allowing alternative voices to be heard has already been tested. After all, their campaign finance reform bill was overtly discussed as a way of shutting down their critics.

    Why do you think that Big Media got such a favorable hearing last time the LPFM thing came up? More channels mean more opportunities for people who don’t like you to get on the air.

    I predict cheap anti-corporate posturing will continue, and LPFM will be sidelined. This outcome is, after all, in the self-interest of the incumbents.

  2. Funny, I’ve been saying the same thing for years, including postings in this forum. I haven’t been alone. But of course, nobody was paying us to speak the truth, so who cares what we said. The government, on the other hand, won’t even begin to listen unless it blows who knows how many thousands or millions of taxpayer on a “study” to show what any competent broadcast technician already knows or can readily confirm to be true.

    Hell, even the FCC’s own people never made any bones about the extreme (technical) conservatism of the “third channel adjacency” requirement. It was deliberate, above-the-board overkill, based on the inefficiencies and inaccuracies of older gear.

    The key question is not whether the FCC should authorize more stations, but whether we need it to act as gatekeeper in authorizing stations at all. It will be wonderful if the FCC makes a go of LPFM, bringing pirates and others in from the cold (though I’m not holding my breath), just as it would be wonderful for the income tax rate to be lowered to 5%. But in the end, in either case, you’d still have to jump through government hoops when you don’t need to and shouldn’t have to.

    The very nature of the FCC needs to be changed, if we retain it at all.

  3. Ha ha. In the post above, I meant to say “The government, on the other hand, won’t even begin to listen unless it blows who knows how many thousands or millions of taxpayer DOLLARS…”

    Cut-n-paste strikes again.

  4. Yes, James, everyone already knew that the rule was ridiculous. Still, this isn’t just any report. It’s a congressionally mandated study that’s automatically going to elicit public comments, and which is arriving just as there’s political pressure to do something about media consolidation. It offers an opportunity to change the shape of that debate.

    Which isn’t to say that T.’s pessimistic prediction isn’t just as possible. But those of us who care about this issue would be fools not to try to ride this development as far as we can.

  5. who cares? broadcast radio is a product of a bygone era. see radio free intel and XMS for examples of what’s to come.

  6. Man, James, you had me excited…I thought they were handing out blowies. haha.

    Anyway, the medium that definitely isn’t touched by the FCC is internet radio. The internet radio fight has been between the RIAA and broadcasters.

    I’m just hoping that one day wireless internet will be the transmission medium of choice and you can just tune in to your internet station of choice wherever you are.

    In the meantime, satellite offers a nice alternative, especially Sirius (XM is largely owned by Clear Channel).

    I guess my point is that the FCC will hopefully get their claws removed from “radio” because of technological innovations, whether it be a shift to LPFMs, satellite, internet, whatever. Hopefully their reign will die with FM.

  7. Brady:
    “Xm is largely owned by clear-channel”

    Really? I though clear channel had only a 3% stake, and that other investors included Honda and GM

  8. clear channel runs those corporations too!

  9. Ooooo, ClearChannel is so evil. TicketMaster is so evil, etc. Whatever. They’re just doing what any other company should do in a free market. Maximize profits and lobby like hell to protect them. What do you expect? Jesse’s sense of entitlement (and/or willful ignorance) is what’s sickening. Your consumer advocacy sounds like a shit full of Nader.

  10. Ikram:

    Ownership Information:
    Apollo Group Holdings 9.1%
    Motient Corp. 5.8%
    Clear Channel 8.5%
    DIRECTV 6.6%
    GM 5.6%
    Madison Dearborn 5.2%
    Columbia Capital 3.8%
    Baron Capital 3.8%
    AEA Investors 2.8%
    Telcom Ventures 2.6%
    Honda Motor Corp. 2.3%
    Employees and Directors 4.5%
    Public Investors 40%

    The issue is that you can infer that if they hold investments with the carrier (XM radio), you can probably assume that XM is going to play Clear Channel radio stations. It is called a business partnership. Nature of business.

    Sirius is completely detached from CC, hence an alternative.

    “SIRIUS’ 60 streams of commercial-free music cover nearly every genre – from heavy metal and hip-hop to country, dance, jazz, Latin, classical, and beyond. Each is prepared and hosted by SIRIUS stream designers who are recognized experts in their music fields, in addition to contributing musicians and performers who lend their talent and expertise. This ensures that SIRIUS listeners receive unparalleled music selection, insights, and perspectives.”
    -From corporate overview

  11. anon @ 2:05

    Just because the consumer benefits from something and people back it doesn’t mean they are Nader, fool.

    Everyone should be interested in having as many voices on air, tv, and print. That doesn’t mean advocating government intervention, just means that you like alternatives.

    No shit CC has a good business model and that’s why they make tons of money, but you know what…that’s like saying Wal-Mart rocks so why the fuck would consumers want to buy clothes at Banana Republic? Cause not everyone is a beer drinking redneck asshole that likes wolves airbrushed on their shirts, that’s why.

    Jesse’s point is that there is a new technology not controlled by government that can provide this alternative. This alternative can give people not satisfied with current radio a place to listen to smaller companies playing for different niche markets.

    Get a grip.

  12. They’re just doing what any other company should do in a free market. Maximize profits and lobby like hell to protect them.

    If they “lobby like hell to protect” their profits, they’re competing in Washington, not “in a free market.” Speaking of willful ignorance.

    Still, I agree that it would be silly of me to say that Clear Channel is evil, that TicketMaster is evil, that TicketMaster has anything to do with this issue at all, that I’m surprised to see companies lobbying for protective legislation, and that I’m entitled to … um … well, whatever it is that I’m supposed to have a sense of entitlement about. If you can find those statements in my post, please point them out to me so I can take them back.

  13. So you’re advocating restrictions on political speech? Give it a rest young Walker, your idealism precedes you.

  14. Jesse says, “But those of us who care about this issue would be fools not to try to ride this development as far as we can.”

    Agreed. I only hope we can ride it as far as eliminating the FCC’s gatekeeper function. Perhaps we could use the notion of “Liberty” as advanced in Lawrence v. Texas (and emphasized by Randy Barnett) to argue successfully that pre-emptive control of the spectrum by the government/FCC unnecessarily and negatively impacts individual liberty.

    Brady says that the FCC doesn’t control internet radio, but at very least, it constrains the extent to which internet radio can proliferate via wireless. It also constrains cable tv and telco broadband to a degree. At least indirectly, the FCC has it’s hand well into the pie, but we’re lucky that it can’t play gatekeeper for individual content providers as it does for broadcast providers — yet. Let’s definitely keep things that way.

  15. James: not refrring to this post in particular but lately i’ve been noticing your thoughtful, interesting posts. thanks for contributing your opinion.

  16. Jesse,
    Here in G.R. MI we have an independent, listener supported, station; WYCE. They’re genera tagline is “folk, blues, jazz, rock, and worldbeat”. I’ve definitely been exposed to some great stuff not played anywhere else on the dial. As well as plenty of crap I didn’t care for. There is something about the small-shop independent broadcast style I find appealing (you can get a request played within minutes late night e.g.) Do you know about them? If not thought you might be interested.

  17. Well, since we are talking about the FCC…,1282,59590,00.html

    WASHINGTON — Half of all digital mobile telephones offered in the United States will have to be compatible with hearing aids by early 2008, the Federal Communications Commission unanimously ruled on Thursday.

    “Today’s FCC mandates will unnecessarily complicate this cooperation and constrain innovative solutions to meet this challenge,” said Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association President and Chief Executive Officer Tom Wheeler.

  18. …the FCC doesn’t control internet radio, but at very least, it constrains the extent to which internet radio can proliferate via wireless.

    Not for long. Looking forward to WiMax, IEEE 802.16, wireless broadband with city sized range.

  19. Whatever.

    Ah, the attitude of youth. You will learn my son. You will learn.

  20. Jesse,

    Junyo has a good point. Left to the market, newer technologies will make the problem of FCC regulation go away, as there will soon be plenty of cheap bandwidth in the air for everything. Since you’ve made a career out of writing about this stuff, it’d behoove you to find out about it. If you’re interested in accomplishing anything your best option is to watchdog the government’s influence on wireless broadband, and let the dinosaur die.

    Think of what the web has done for the printed word in the last 10 years. It now costs almost nothing to publish whatever you want where everyone can see it. The same process is beginning now for 2-way broadcast content.

  21. I agree that wireless broadband is important, JDM, and I’ve been behooved enough to write about it in the past. Unfortunately, the FCC is still a bottleneck when it comes to spectrum allocation; and in the meantime, as Brady notes, the Copyright Office has become a problem for Internet broadcasters. Much as I’d like to see technological change overthrow the regulators all by itself, new political fights keep brewing.

    And I don’t think the coming era of ubiquitous computing means that issues like LPFM are unimportant. At the moment, a lot more people have FM receivers than have wireless modems. Until that changes, the commission’s restrictions on old-fashioned radio are going to be important.

  22. Here’s a good read if you are interested in creating broadband wireless community networks.,24330,3306273,00.html

    Junyo, very cool, thanks for the link.

    I agree with you JDM, technology will bring new voices over new communication mediums.

  23. I agree that LPFM could be included as one of the technologies that may open the airwaves.

    I do think that the wireless idea is jumping ahead, though. Internet radio is being listened to daily by a great number of people. I stream kexp ( all day while I work, which runs through my stereo. But, of course, being contrained to a wire is a constraint.

    What will become popular is what is cost effective, for both the consumer and stations. I don’t believe that there will be only 1 (or even just 2 or 3) different ways to listen to audio streams in the coming years. Satellite + FM + AM already could be considered 3. I think you made a good point in saying that FM radios are the norm now. Obviously, if an alternative was compatible with what most listeners currently have, that’s a huge advantage.

  24. JDM says, “Left to the market, newer technologies will make the problem of FCC regulation go away, as there will soon be plenty of cheap bandwidth in the air for everything.”

    How much is enough?, I wonder Some would argue that there is already more than enough cheap bandwidth available, and it would seem that the MITRE reports provides some support for that position, relative to the FM broadcast band. Technology has opened up vast spreads of spectrum space in the past seventy years, and made usage of previously available space much more efficient. I personally believe that most anyone who wants a chunk of spectrum for private use or public broadcasting can technically find a niche NOW. The hurdle to spectrum usage seems primarily bureaucratic in nature. To wit: if you go on the air with sufficient power and without a license, whether you actually interfere with anyone else, the FCC can, and at its sole discretion does, come down hard on you. Or, if they should later grant a license to someone to use your spot of the spectrum, in one fell swoop you are faced with having to move elsewhere, put up with the government-sanctioned interference, or “hold your ground” and be a criminal, by interfering with the other guy.

    The latter scenario from the above paragraph is playing out with my own hometown’s pirate radio station: FSRC, Santa Cruz. The FCC recently let a religious broadcaster onto 96.3FM, where FRSC has been broadcasting for years. Now, interference to the licensed broadcaster justifies increased FCC enforcement against locals who were first on the air in that channel, and who have been providing interesting and worthwhile programming on it for the several years that I have been able to listen. Even without increased enforcement, FRSC’s range has been greatly diminished, and they have no recourse, except to find another frequency.

    I have no connection with FRSC except as an occasional listener. Even so, I am not very happy with what the FCC has done, in this and so many other cases. I hope FRSC has a chance to go legit some day, but more than that, I hope it is a legitimization that does not force them to compromise and kowtow to an obsolete federal authority.

  25. >>Their response to this report wil be a test of that sincerity.

    productive responses usually don’t score as much political capital as does ranting about corporate ‘censorship.’

    i do hope however that these low-power radio stations do come into existance.

  26. Unfixing fixed wireless

    Article on ?wireless local loop? (WLL).

    “WLL systems require their own dedicated radio frequencies, but regulators have been fairly generous with these?selling enough licences to competing WLL operators at a fraction of the prices paid by mobile-phone operators. Some can even use the same free, unlicensed frequencies in the 2.4 and 5 gigahertz bands as Wi-Fi, opening up the market to anyone.”

  27. If ANON @ 9:56 would read Reason instead of just bitching about it anonymously, he would know that the magazine has covered open source software rather positively and has run articles from several different perspectives on intellectual property. He would also find it difficult to cite a single article “bemoaning how no one’s following mises, hayek and friedman no more.”

    In other words, he would know that it’s done a lot of what he claims it never does, and hasn’t done any of what he claims it is doing. Why does Hit & Run attract such stupid comments?

  28. what’s funny and ironic is that reason has not articulated a position on intellectual property and open source software development, arguably the most dynamic of processes in political-social-economy since the advent of the limited liability corporation. it’s like there’s no libertarian response (except for perhaps, and notably, ESR’s position papers) to community-owned means of production. yes, that’s right, communism. and it’s all happening without, and in spite of, the government (the GNU “copyleft” license has yet to be legally upheld, while things like the DMCA are used to crack down on hackers and p2p file-traders are being persecuted by authorities).

    reason editors sit around bitching about abstract concepts like statism and bemonaing how no one’s following mises, hayek and friedman no more, when the reality is that their ideas were superceded and supplanted by a currency/good/service they have no basis of experience in. just like the industrial revolution dwarfed agriculture, so too information economics are changing the rules of the game. there’s no product liability on software. ideas don’t conform to declining marginal utility. in short the virtual world is remaking the world of the physical — just like industry made nature its bitch. if you want to be relevant, if you want to be vital, you might want to think about how IT and IP connect to libertarians (and librarians), because ayn rand never DL’ed thity gigs of kiddie pr0n to her ipod.

  29. as stated above, open source software is VERY different from communism because government plays no role (as the anon poster recognized). instead of being driven by the government, open source is driven by people and industries around the world. quite different than communism.

    adding to this, not all OSS are grassroots movements driven only by the community. very common, these days, is for an OSS to be sponsored by a company that wishes for industry experts and hobbyists to contribute to software development. is sponsored by Sun, Zope is sponsored by the Zope corporation, MySQL is sponsored by MySQL AB, Mozilla is sponsored by Netscape, etc.

    The idea is that the software should be developed to support and create industry standards instead of proprietary methods. So, in essence, it is an extension of associations like IEEE, W3C, etc. The point is not always for software to be created and put out on the net for free, but for companies and product lines to be created around these standards based solutions that can provide support for the software, include the software in other applications, provide consulting for custom implementations, etc.

  30. Um, yeah. That’s why their coverage of SCO and X-box modding has been oh so superb. That’s Reason. Fighting the good fight.

  31. Plutark,

    Families are communes and they do work. Mostly. That is because the genetic and social bonds of family can make “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” work reasonably well because in a working family “need” and “ability” can be fairly judged.

    No third party or third party twice removed will judge needs and ability in any accurate or even remotely fair way.

    in other words the government ain’t yo mama.

  32. Cool! I tried to get a LPFM license and the third adjacent crud killed me. If they slack that up I can definitely get one.

    The libertarian/open source post threw me. I’m a dyed in the wool Jacksonian, and I run Linux and have even participated in its development. Linux is a labor of love. It can also get you mucho status if you’re good. Status ain’t money, but it’s one of the signposts on the road there.

    My family isn’t a communism. It’s a benevolent dictatorship. Things get done when daddy yells and waves his big hairy fist.

    GTC (runs Slackware)

  33. EMAIL:
    DATE: 12/20/2003 09:01:11
    In this grand B movie we call life, there is always a girl.

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