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TUCoPS :: Radio :: q_and_a.txt

Questions and Answers about Micropower Radio


When asked about micro radio and the “pirate radio problem” the FCC and the
NAB often give answers citing interference and other unspecified technical
concerns. We believe their statements to be an attempt to confuse the
public and the press, and create the impression that these matters are best
left to “experts”.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

It is important to understand that despite all the knobs and dials and
meters, the major obstacles to creating a low power FM  (LPFM) community
radio service are not technical— they are political and economic.   Radio
is a very well understood technology that has been around for a hundred
years.  Other countries (like Japan, Canada, Italy) allocate their radio
spectrum in a very different manner from ours. They consider community
radio an essential element of a robust democracy, and encourage it with
favorable regulations, and support it with public money.  In the US, radio
is regulated in the interest of large commercial broadcast corporations,
with a sop to NPR.  There is no law of physics that says that there is room
for six computer programmed “adult contemporary” music stations in the same
city (or “market” as the broadcast industry refers to us) but none to
broadcast the local high school football game.

These questions and answers should help sort out the disinformation from
the FCC and the NAB.

      Can “pirate” radio signals really make airplanes fall from the sky?

Malfunctioning equipment in the broadcast band, CB radios, cable TV lines,
and even garage door openers can cause interference problems. None of these
services is denied to the American public because of the possibility that
something might go haywire. LPFM is technically no different from any of
these other services, and no more likely to cause harmful interference. If
you ask them, the FCC’s engineers will have to admit that the overwhelming
majority of pirate radio operators operate within the specs for licensed
radio stations.  If the FCC really cared about public safety, they would
take a pragmatic approach, enforcing the law when interference occurs.
Instead, they have focussed their resources on a hysterical “war on pirate
radio”, using the emotional issue of air safety as bogey–man to scare off
rational consideration of the issue.  Interference would be better
prevented through legalization and education than heavy-handed enforcement.

According to Dharma Bilotta-Dailey and Tracy Jake Siska, two jounalists who
have researched the matter extensively,  the Federal Aviation
Administration (FAA) has records of a single case of micropower
interference since 1990.  There were, however, several cases of FM
interference by large licensed  stations.  The most notable are from three
separate antenna farms in Oregon, New Mexico, and Florida.  These were
cases of high powered stations transmitting very closely to the  FAA's own
towers.  The FAA's engineering study from New Mexico said there'd been
interference problems since 1965.  In Oregon, the FAA engineers had to
haggle with the station owners to get them to correct their problem— and
gave them four months to do the work.  Two reports on North Perry Airport
in Florida indicate that they have changed their frequencies several times
since1976 to accomodate interference from commercial stations.  In 1990,
there was a fatal mid-air collision at this airport.  One FAA report
indicates that, just prior to the crash, one of the pilots may have been
flying in a so–called a "radio blackout" area said to be  caused by an
antenna farm two miles away from the airport.

        Do “pirate” broadcasters interfere with licensed broadcasters?

Not nearly as often as licensed broadcasters interfere with each other. No
responsible community radio station operator wants to cause interference.
We’ve found ourselves some small openings in the regular FM broadcast
band.  This band was set up when receivers were much less sensitive and
selective, so the FCC left lots of room between channels. When one station
interferes with another they both suffer. We like to follow the same
technical standards as the big guys;  a clean, stable signal is the way to
go, and recent developments in circuit design put reliable low powered
transmitters within the budget of almost any group. Maybe that’s what
they’re worried about.

  What about the waivers that Judge Wilken cited?  Why don’t you just apply
                               for licenses?

LPFM community radio activists, forced to operate without licenses because
such licenses are practicially never issued, have been trying to challenge
the FCC’s licensing procedures.  These challenges have all been deflected
on narrow procedural grounds; no federal court has yet taken up the
substantive first amendment issues.  In the case of FCC vs. Dunifer, Judge
Claudia Wilken of the Federal Court’s Ninth District held up the FCC’s
motion for injuction and summary judgment for almost five years while she
considered The National Lawyers’ Guild and Dunifer’s constitutional
arguments.  She finally ruled for the FCC, once again on narrow proceedural
grounds, stating that since Dunifer had never applied for a license or
waiver of the 100 watt minimum requirement for a license, he had no
standing to challenge the FCC’s regulations.  The FCC has in fact issued
two waivers in the 20 years since the Class D license was abolished, one
for a remote Indian reservation in New Mexico and the other for a small
community in the interior of Alaska.  Rather than supporting Wilken’s
contention that Dunifer had failed to exhaust his administrative remedies,
these examples seem to support his claim that practically speaking, these
waivers are never issued.  Even so, several LPFM stations are going forward
with waiver applications, if only to prove that such applications are
indeed futile.

              Isn't the fcc going to legalize this soon anyway?

There are three petitions for Rule Making, along with several alternative
schemes contained in public comments on these petitions currently before
the FCC.  Some of these proposals will do nothing for non–commercial LPFM,
others would permit stations of up to 3,000 watts under loosened
regulations.  We want to make sure that there is a portion of the current
FM band reserved for locally controlled, non-commercial radio stations, and
that they can be set up and licensed simply and cheaply.  LPFM advocates
and community broadcasters can be forgiven their skepticism of the FCC’s
intentions; until six months ago the FCC was absolutely unbending in its
opposition to micro–radio.  What it took to get them to consider legalizing
LPFM was thousands of people committing electronic civil disobedience, by
defying their unreasonable rules and demonstrating that low power FM works,
is an asset to communities, and doesn’t cause undue interfence with
anything.  As long as the campaign of harrassment and disinformation
against microbroadcasters continues, the proposals for legalization would
seem to be no more than a public relation ploy.

                     Will there be chaos on the airwaves?

Up until 20 years ago the FCC issued “class D” licenses for noncommercial
stations operating at a minimum of 10 watts, but abolished them under
pressure from NPR and the CPB, who sought to consolidate control of
non–commercial broadcasting, and what public money was available to support
it. The FCC already licenses “repeaters” at power levels of less than 100
watts.  These stations are not permitted to originate programming, but only
to rebroadcast the signal of another station.

There is no technical reason why the class D license, or something even
less restrictive, couldn’t be re–instated. What looked like chaos to a
bureaucrat, who would prefer to have fewer, larger stations to regulate,
would look like greater opportunity for expression and communications for
local writers, musicians, teachers and activists.

Micro–radio stations would have a self–interest in keeping their part of
the band reasonably “tidy”— without some agreements about power levels and
frequency assignments, the band would be useable to noone. In its comments
on the LPFM proposals now before the FCC, the National Lawyers’ Guild
Committee on Democratic Communications proposes the creation of local
micro–radio associations to resolve disputes between stations, with the FCC
getting involved only as a last resort. The FCC has already handed off
certain routine regulatory tasks to regional commercial broadcasters
associations, and permits neighboring stations to settle interference
problems among themselves.  Ham radio is another example of effective
spectrum management by voluntary radio operators at no expense to the

In a recent press release concerning enforcement operations against a
microradio station, the FCC said the station was operating at 1400 times
the legal maximum. What does that mean practical terms?  Is any kind of low
power FM broadcasting allowed?

Part 15 of the FCC’c regulations permit stations to operate at about 1/40
watt without a license, which would give you a range of about half a block,
if the wind were right. You’d be better off with a megaphone.  The
effective range of a radio transmitter varies with the square root of its
power; increasing power 1400 times would increase range by a factor of 38.
The effective range of the station cited would be a mile or so, at best.
The use of these kinds of astronomical numbers is a good example of the
FCC’s attempts to spin the issue with ominous sounding technical

                  Why don’t you guys just use the internet?

The bare minimum computer with the capability to download and play real
time audio now costs about $1000. A portable radio can be purchased new for
$20, and for a couple of bucks at a swap meet. There’s hardly anyone who
can’t afford an FM radio.  While there are many things that are encouraging
about Internet Radio, the price of the equipment makes the medium
inherently undemocratic.

     Aren't fewer, bigger stations a more efficient use of the spectrum?

That would all depend on what you meant by efficiency. If keeping expenses
down for multi-station owners, and having the same programming available
from coast to coast is your aim, then sure. But if what you’re after is
more voices and viewpoints on the air, and greater community participation
in public life, then more lower powered stations are the way to go.  NPR
and the Pacifica stations do a good job at national and regional coverage,
but the 100 watt minimum, coupled with the tendency of these operations to
become slicker and more professional (read: more expensive) makes it
impossible for them to do justice to local issues.  Both are necessary.
Why shouldn’t people be able to hear their city council, or school board
meetings on the radio?

More Info: Pete triDish, (215) 474-6459;
Amanda Huron, (202) 518-5644;

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