Civil disobedience

The Federal Communication Commission proposed rules to provide bandwidth for thousands of low-powered radio stations more than a year and a half ago. Now, the first batch of applications has rolled in, and conservatives who backed the National Association of Broadcasters are finding themselves at odds with fellow GOP members, many who support the multitude of religious groups applying for radio licenses.
Spokespeople for major broadcasters said the addition of thousands of small radio stations to the already congested radio band would cause critical interference. Government officials, however, said extensive studies show most low-power stations would cause no interference. Both parties claim they have conducted accurate tests, but the evidence is clearly contradictory. The debate can only be resolved through reliable and objective third-party critiques.
So far, the supposed interference evidence collected by broadcasters appears questionable. A compact disc manufactured by the broadcaster’s association — one of Washington’s most powerful lobbying groups — has been circulating through Congress. Major broadcasters say the recording demonstrates how low-power stations cause interference to the FM signal. But a news release co-authored by Dale Hatfield, chief of the FCC Office of Engineering and Technology, said the evidence was false. The statement warned the disc was produced by artificially mixing two previously recorded radio signals. “This CD demonstration is misleading and simply wrong,” stated Hatfield.
The disc purports to be an accurate model of interference under the FCC’s plan, but it actually exaggerates the allowable level of signal distortion. If the National Association of Broadcasters wants to convince the government that low-power radio is harmful, they must conduct tests that adhere to the proposed guidelines.
A bill that recently passed in the House necessitates that the FCC re-examine possible interference. Some independent radio proponents fear the bill will undermine the low-power movement, but, if implemented correctly, it should provide a fair assessment. The test would rely on public opinion to judge if there is any perceptible interference and whether it constitutes an intolerable level of distortion.
In contrast to many uncompromising lobbyists working on behalf of major broadcasters, the FCC proposed a far more conservative plan after ongoing criticism. Currently, only noncommercial stations can seek licensure, and they may only transmit within an 18-mile radius.
Nevertheless, the recent turmoil among Republicans in the GOP has fueled more news reports, and broadcasters still echo the same anti-FCC sentiments: Low-power stations will interfere.
Amidst the ongoing clatter of the debate, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., voiced a more reasonable, but less clear-cut, plan: Grant the licenses to independent radio operators but allow existing broadcasters the ability to file interference complaints with the federal court.
Radio bandwidth and interference must be judged on a local level. One cannot effectively compare a 1,000-watt station in downtown San Diego and a church group broadcasting hymnals in the surrounding two miles of a small Georgia town.
Congress would be wise to consider McCain’s advice, though the senator’s idea is not as simple as the clashing all-or-nothing proposals of the powerful broadcasters and independent entrepreneurs. Allowing small broadcasters a tiny slice of bandwidth is the only way to prove the effects of the FCC’s proposal.