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Battle for the FM Band?

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While to some it may seem much ado about nothing, there’s a battle starting to brew in the world of low power FM (“LPFM”) radio, with one man seeming to game the system in a fashion that could leave him in control of over 100 radio stations nationwide… or just as easily leave him broke and in federal prison. Either way, how you listen to FM radio could be impacted.

The man in question is Antonio Cesar Guel, who heads the Hispanic Christian Community Network (“HCCN”). HCCN, a for profit corporation based in Texas, is the owner and operator of a number of low power television stations throughout the nation. In October 2013 and for only the second time in history, the Federal Communications Commission permitted non-profit groups the opportunity to apply and build LPFM stations.

Each organization was, with certain exceptions, permitted to submit a single application, for a single available frequency. Over 2,800 applications were submitted nationwide, by a wide array of organizations, many of whom hired outside engineers to assist them with their filings. But in the case of 245 of these applications – nearly 1 in 12 – there’s a similarity: the name of Antonio Cesar Guel on the application as a “consultant.”

Coincidence? Perhaps. But the coincidences far from end there, and they point toward a conspiracy by Guel and HCCN. Take for example the coincidence that none of these groups applied for frequencies that would conflict with one another. Or that all 245 of these allegedly independently operated non-profit groups submitted identical mission statements, word for word, to the FCC. Or that the majority of these entities were incorporated in Texas, with a “Maria Cristina Guel” as their chief point of contact. Or the coincidence that in many cases, the filing organization misspelled its own name, each in precisely the same manner. Or finally the coincidence that in yet other cases, such as one filed for “Raleigh Community Radio,” the address given to the FCC as the organization’s headquarters doesn’t exist.

While thus far none of what those following the LPFM process closely simply call the “Guel applications” have been approved by the FCC, just their filing has already impacted a number of non-profit groups nationwide. Some by delaying the FCC’s processing of legitimate competing applications for the same frequency. In other cases, groups are forced to spend money on legal fees and related costs, seeking dismissal of the competing Guel applications. Some LPFM advocacy groups have jumped into the fray as well, filing documents with the FCC in an effort to have the applications dismissed.

When this is all said and done, many expect civil actions to be filed against Guel and HCCN in an effort to recoup those expenses. There’s also a possible criminal angle: should Guel be proven as the driving force behind the filings – a charge he and his attorney deny – Guel could be fined and imprisoned. “There’s a federal prosecutor looking into this should even one construction permit be granted,” said the head of one organization still competing with a Guel application, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

For now though, the chief question for many is whether the FCC is going to permit subversion of a process that was intended to permit local, community-based broadcasters to get on the air.

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