Pai Won't Loosen Licensed Broadcast Protections for 'Unlicensed' Worship

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FCC chairman Ajit Pai said the FCC won't waive its (part 15) FM signal protections to help churches conduct remote services using unlicensed devices, citing the need to protect licensed broadcasters and their important service and suggesting other ways for churches to worship remotely.

That came in a response this month to Republican Rep. Mark Green of Tennessee, who had sought the waiver back in June.

"It was out of a desire to practice religion without government interference that America was founded," Green wrote. "These fundamental freedoms are the cornerstone of the liberties that we enjoy in the United States and any action that threatens to curb their expression threatens all others. The pandemic has forced houses of worship to find alternative ways to exercise these freedoms. The least the federal government can do is to get out of their way, so they can serve our communities without fear of violating a government rule."

Green argued that churches conducting “drive-in” services using FM transmitters needed to operate "without the fear of heavy penalties threatening their services," which he suggested meant the FCC should grant them a temporary waiver from FM device signal protections so they could boost the power to reach large congregations.

But Pai responded that the FCC "must stay within the strict confines of our rules in order to protect licensed stations from harmful interference." He said a waiver would "undermine the Commission's goal of ensuring the integrity of already-crowded FM radio spectrum, and would deny existing licensees the opportunities to defend their costly investments."

He cited the importance of protecting licensed broadcasters and the work they have done during the pandemic. "They have been providing vital information to listeners, while facing an unprecedented challenge from loss of advertising revenue," he told the Congressman. "Moreover, as the recent tropical storms in the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic have demonstrated, licensed broadcasters provide up-to-the-minute information on natural disasters and are required to participate in the Emergency Alert System. These services and many more could be adversely impacted by providing waivers to allow churches to operate Part 15 devices above the current power limits."

Pai offered churches some alternatives to spreading the word, including contacting stations to see if they would air weekly services, call-to-listen services by phone, and free streaming services that could be used if church members have broadband.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.