FCC Unanimously Approves ‘ZoneCasting’ NPRM

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In a major victory for GeoBroadcast Solutions, overcoming widespread opposition from the NAB, large radio broadcasting companies and even a key voice of African American broadcasters, the FCC has adopted changes to its rules that will allow FM booster stations to originate programming — “subject to future adoption of processing, licensing, and service rules” as proposed in a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking Commissioners have up for consideration — and public input.


GeoBroadcast Solutions commended the Democratic leadership of the FCC, as BIA Capital Strategies founder/CEO Tom Buono called the Commission’s ruling “a milestone achievement.”

To be clear, the FCC decision allows radio stations to begin offering “ZoneCasting,” GBS’s hyperlocal service that requires program origination on an FM booster for it to work, on a voluntary basis. That it is voluntary is likely why the FCC approved the proposal in an unanimous 5-0 decision.

A 76-page document outlining the 40-page Report and Order and FNPRM plus appendices was released Tuesday, while the Commission actually adopted the R&O and Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on March 27.

WHAT ‘ZONECASTING’ BRINGS

As demonstrated in live testing at KSJO-FM in San Jose, Calif., and at WRBJ-FM in the Jackson, Miss., suburb of Brandon, “ZoneCasting” — as GBS sees it — can “split” a signal for certain parts of an hour by offering localized content including news, sports, traffic and weather.

Some also see it as a solution to addressable advertising desires expressed from marketers and media planners.

For a part of each broadcaster hour, GeoBroadcast Solutions “ZoneCasting” clients “will be able to deliver hyper-local content for the first time in the 100-hundred-year history of the industry,” GeoBroadcast Solutions cheered in a press release issued late Tuesday.

That’s not entirely true: Low-power FM broadcasters across the U.S. provide hyperlocal programming content, ranging from markets such as Portland, Ore., and Washington, D.C., to tiny Mariposa, Calif.

What makes “ZoneCasting” unique from a LPFM service is that, for the first time, a commercially licensed FM signal can be localized.

“This approval signifies a pivotal advancement for the broadcasting industry, introducing a new chapter of targeted and community-centric radio broadcasting,” GBS shares. “This breakthrough paves the way for broadcasters to engage with their listeners on a more personal level, offering content that is relevant to their immediate communities and surroundings.”

Buono, who is widely known for his role at BIA, commented, “By embracing this technology, the radio industry strides confidently into the 21st Century, equipped to compete with social media and other platforms in delivering targeted content. This is a transformative moment that acknowledges radio’s enduring value and its potential for innovation and connection in today’s digital age.”  

A GBS spokesperson said, “We commend the leadership of Commissioners Geoffrey Starks, Brendan Carr, Chairwoman Rosenworcel, and the broad community of industry leaders, civil rights groups, and broadcasters who championed this issue and saw its potential to empower broadcasters to better serve their communities.” 

IMPLEMENTATION ‘ISSUES’ TO BE ADDRESSED

Importantly, a FNPRM will address some implementation issues identified by the Commission.

And, this will create a comment period to begin 30 days from the R&O and FNPRM’s publication in the Federal Register. A reply comment date will be established for 60 days from that publication date.

“GeoBroadcast Solutions looks forward to working with the agency to resolve these related issues in an expedited manner,” it said.   

These include program origination notification, synchronization, and the request by the FCC for comment on whether it should modify section 74.1204(f) of its rules to include a mechanism to address predicted interference while booster construction permit applications remain pending.

There’s also a call for a maximum, as the FCC further proposes to amend section 74.1232(g) of the rules to limit full-service FM stations to 25 program originating booster stations. “This cap on the number of program originating FM booster stations would represent a change from the current rule, which imposes no numerical limit on FM
booster stations,” the FCC said.

The Commission created the FM booster service in 1970, as a “fill-in” for signal contours where obstacles — either man-made or geological in nature — prevented full reception.

WHAT’S NEXT FOR THE NAB?

With the FCC’s unanimous approval of ZoneCasting, GBS extended its gratitude “to all supporters of this groundbreaking advancement, particularly highlighting the smaller and independent broadcasters.” It also singled out KLOVE and Air1 parent organization Educational Media Foundation — one of the largest licensees of FM radio stations in the U.S.

For nearly two years, GBS and the National Association of Broadcasters have been at odds over “ZoneCasting.” The National Association of Black-Owned Broadcasters (NABOB), an early supporter of the GBS technology, reversed course in October 2022. Thirteen Members of the House of Representatives spoke out against “ZoneCasting,” too. Concerns of what “ZoneCasting” would do with respect to interference and reception issues, nevermind its potentially adverse effects on radio advertising rates, increased.

Today, the industry must now move past those worries.

What does the NAB have to say? A spokerson offered the following statement to RBR+TVBR:

“[The] NAB is pleased that the Commission is only authorizing the use of GeoBroadcast Solutions’ troubling technology on an experimental basis at this time. The record clearly did not support full authorization, and we appreciate the Commission taking a measured step here. We look forward to working with the Commission to ensure that it upholds its commitment to the American people that it will not put in play technologies that negatively impact them or put them in harm’s way.”

As the FCC sees it, “Based on our review of the comments, we conclude the introduction of program originating boosters has benefits that outweigh the theoretical competitive effects that commenters raise.” The commenters are, chiefly, the NAB.

Other “speculative” situations were also dismissed by the Commission, largely fueled by the voluntary application of “ZoneCasting.”


For details on what Commissioners Brendan Carr and Geoffrey Starks had to say about the R&O and FNPRM, please click here for additional coverage.

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