More low-power FM stations seen coming to N.H.

The Low Power Community Radio Act of 2009 has been 10 years in the making


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More nonprofits, colleges, churches and other community organizaztions in New Hampshire may soon reclaim their spot on the FM dial, thanks to the congressional passage of a new federal law that expands access to the airwaves for noncommercial users.

The Low Power Community Radio Act of 2009, which was passed by the Senate on Dec. 18, has been 10 years in the making. Co-sponsored by U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, the bipartisan measure will increase the number of low-power FM, or LPFM, stations available in the United States.

These low-power stations operate at 100 watts or less, serve about a three-to-seven-mile radius and are often run by volunteers from local communities, religious organizations and musicians.

According to the Federal Communications Commission website, there are eight LPFM stations in New Hampshire, from 94.7 FM, a classical music station in Concord, to Londonderry’s 102.9 FM, which is run by the town school district. Nationally, there are about 800 LPFM stations.

The FCC created the LPFM designation in January 2000, but that was quickly blocked by the April 2000 passage of the Radio Broadcasting Preservation Act.

The act was backed by the National Association of Broadcasters and National Public Radio, which claimed that LPFM stations caused interference to full-power stations. To avoid interference, the act determined that LPFM stations had to be separated by at least 0.6 MHz, or three clicks of the radio dial, from a full-power station, greatly limiting the number of available frequencies.

"They didn’t want competition on the airwaves," said Tim Stone, one of the founders of Portsmouth Community Radio, 106.1 FM. "They wiped out 80 percent of the potential frequencies."

When Portsmouth Community Radio first applied for a LPFM license in early 2000, there were 10 available radio frequencies, said Stone. After the broadcasting law was passed, the would-be radio station spent three years "in limbo" and then had only two frequencies to choose from before finally making it to air in 2004, he said.

In 2003, the nonprofit MITRE Corp. was contracted to study whether interference was truly a problem. Its findings? LPFM stations "do not pose a significant risk of causing interference to existing full-service FM stations."

"There appears to be no public interest reason to retain third-adjacent minimum distance separation requirement for LPFM stations," stated the report. "Congress should re-address this issue and modify the statute to eliminate the third-adjacent channel distant separation requirements for LPFM stations."

Following the findings of the MITRE report, nearly identical bills to repeal the third-adjacent stipulation were sponsored in 2004 and 2007. Neither bill made it to the floor of the House or Senate.

The current bill is expected to be signed into law by President Obama, who supported the 2007 bill. It will allow the FCC to issue licenses for LPFM radio stations without the third-adjacent stipulation.

"I suspect we’ll see a few more stations (in New Hampshire)," said Stone. "I think the biggest objective of all of us who are advocating for opening up more frequencies, is to serve the more populated areas."

In rural areas, there are more frequencies available because fewer full-power stations serve them, whereas in some populated areas, there were previously no frequencies available, said Stone.

"The benefit to the community that stations like ours provide is enormous," said Stone. "We become part of the fabric of the community." 

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