Changes to FCC rules ease requirements for tower owners, tenants

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Broadcasters can now seek exemption from the FCC for quarterly inspections of their towers. (Photo: Scott Fybush)

Pubcasters who own broadcast towers are about to get regulatory relief thanks to a FCC decision that closes the books on a lengthy effort to revise rules governing tower safety and maintenance.

At an open meeting Friday, FCC commissioners approved the changes while decrying the long road their predecessors took to get there.

“This issue was first raised in 2005 during the Commission’s 2004 biennial rule review,” said commissioner Michael O’Rielly. The question that has to be asked is, why did it take the commission nine years?”

Though the Part 17 rules apply to all owners of “antenna structures” (FCC-speak for towers), the Commission’s Wireless Telecommunications Bureau promoted the changes as a boon to cellular and data services, which depend on hundreds of thousands of smaller towers across the country to meet ever-growing demand from consumers.

By eliminating a requirement that tower owners conduct quarterly physical checks of the monitoring systems at all of their towers, the FCC “will save antenna structure owners millions of dollars annually,” said WTB representative Michael Smith.

The changes that are designed to assist wireless providers will also benefit broadcasters. They, too, will be eligible for exemption from those quarterly inspections if they maintain (or contract with an outside firm to provide) a modern monitoring system that can keep tabs on tower lighting and other systems from a network operating center.

The rulemaking proceeding also cleans up several other elements of Part 17 that have long caused headaches for stations that own their own towers. Because many of the rules that govern tower safety are set not by the FCC but by the Federal Aviation Administration, the FCC now plans to formally adopt the FAA’s standards for tower painting instead of trying to harmonize its rulebook with the FAA’s, a process that has sometimes led to conflicting rules between the two agencies.

For engineers who have sometimes been vexed by confusing rules governing when tower-light outages must be reported, the FCC’s rule changes promise to clarify the circumstances under which tower owners must file a NOTAM (Notice to Airmen) to alert pilots of darkened towers that might pose a hazard. (As one commissioner noted, the current rules have been in place so long that they tell tower owners that outages must be reported by “telephone or telegraph.”)

The rule changes will also clarify who bears responsibility for filing an Antenna Structure Registration (ASR) for a tower. Conflicting sections of the rules have suggested, in some cases, that a tenant who leases space from a tower owner to mount an antenna might be held liable if that tower isn’t lit or marked properly.

That’s a common source of violation notices when an FCC inspector comes calling. But the revised rules will make more explicit that the tower’s owner is responsible for lighting, marking and registration — not its tenants, which often include pubcasters who lease space from local commercial broadcasters or national tower companies.

“This common-sense proposal has been languishing for almost a decade,” said Chairman Tom Wheeler before the commission’s unanimous vote.

The new rules must now be published in the Federal Register before taking effect.

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