FM Broadcasting in The United States - FM Radio Channel Assignments in The U.S.

FM Radio Channel Assignments in The U.S.

In the United States, frequency-modulated broadcasting stations operate in a frequency band extending from 87.8 MHz to 108.0 MHz, for a total of 20.2 MHz. It is divided into 101 channels, each 0.2 MHz wide, designated "channel 200" through "channel 300." In actual practice, no one (except the FCC) uses these channel numbers; the frequencies are used instead.

To receive a station, an FM receiver is tuned to the center frequency of the station's channel. The lowest channel, channel 200, extends from 87.8 MHz to 88.0 MHz; thus its center frequency is 87.9 MHz. Channel 201 has a center frequency of 88.1 MHz, and so on, up to channel 300, which extends from 107.8 to 108.0 MHz and has a center frequency of 107.9 MHz.

Because each channel is 0.2 MHz wide, the center frequencies of adjacent channels differ by 0.2 MHz. Because the lowest channel is centered on 87.9 MHz, the tenths digit (in MHz) of the center frequency of any FM station in the United States is always an odd number. FM audio for television channel 6 is broadcast at a carrier frequency of 87.75 MHz, and many radios can tune down this low; a few low-power television stations licensed for channel 6 are operated solely for their right to use this frequency and broadcast only nominal video programming. For the same reason, assignment restrictions between TV stations on channel 6 and nearby FM stations are stringent: there are only two stations in the United States (KSFH and translator K200AA) licensed to operate on 87.9 MHz, both due to being forced off of another channel. Therefore, in effect, the FM broadcast band comprises only FM channels 201 (88.1 MHz) through 300 (107.9 MHz).

Originally, FM stations in a market were generally spaced four channels (800 kHz) apart. This spacing was developed in response to problems perceived on the original FM band, mostly due to deficiencies in receiver technology of the time. With modern equipment, this is widely understood to be unnecessary, and in many countries shorter spacings are used. Other spacing restrictions relate to mixing products with nearby television, air-traffic control, and two-way radio systems as well as other FM broadcast stations. The most significant such taboo restricts the allocation of stations 10.6 and 10.8 MHz apart, to protect against mixing products which will interfere with an FM receiver's standard 10.7 MHz intermediate frequency stage.

Commercial broadcasting is licensed only on channels 221 through 300 (the upper 80 channels, frequencies between 92 and 108 MHz), with 200 through 220 (the lower 21 channels, frequencies between 88 and 92 MHz) being reserved for non-commercial educational (NCE) broadcasting. In some "Twin city" markets close to the Canadian or Mexican border, such as Detroit, Michigan and Windsor, Ontario, or San Diego, California and Tijuana, Baja California, commercial stations operating from those countries target U.S. audiences on "reserved band" channels, as neither Canada nor Mexico has such a reservation. Because of this necessary sharing, the FCC reserves a few other channels for such NCE stations.

FM stations in the U.S. are now assigned based on a table of separation distance values from currently licensed stations, based on station "class" (power output, antenna height, and geographical location). These regulations (see Docket 80-90) have resulted in approximately double the number of possible stations, and increases in allowable power levels, over the original bandplan scheme described above. All powers are specified as effective radiated power (ERP), which takes into account the magnifying effect (gain) of multiple antenna elements.

The U.S. is divided into Zone I (roughly the northeastern quarter of the U.S. mainland, excluding the far northern areas), Zone I-A (California south of 40 degrees latitude, U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico), and Zone II (all other locations). The highest-power stations are class C in zone II, and class B in the others. There are no B stations in zone II, nor any C stations in the others. (See the list of broadcast station classes.) Canada is also divided in this manner, based on the most highly-populated regions.

High power is useful in penetrating buildings, diffracting around hills, and refracting for some distance beyond the horizon. 100,000 watt FM stations can regularly be heard up to 100 miles (160 km) away, and farther (e.g., 150 miles, 240 km) if there are no competing signals.

A few old "grandfathered" stations do not conform to these power rules. WBCT (93.7) in Grand Rapids, Michigan, runs 320,000 watts ERP, and can increase to 500,000 watts ERP by the terms of its original license. This huge power level does not usually help to increase range as much as one might expect, because VHF frequencies travel in nearly straight lines over the horizon and off into space. Nevertheless, when there were fewer FM stations competing, this station could be heard near Bloomington, Illinois, almost 300 miles (480 km) distant.

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