NPR, stations object to proposed FCC rules on reporting outages

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Mike Janssen/Current

NPR and 24 public broadcasters have asked the FCC not to implement a proposed rule that would require radio and TV stations to file paperwork during disasters and when they experience service outages.

In two separate comments filed May 13 with the commission, the broadcasters argued that mandatory participation in the Disaster Information Reporting System and Network Outage Reporting System would strain resources, particularly at public stations.

The proposal, released Jan. 26, would require stations to “report [daily] on their infrastructure status during emergencies and crises” when DIRS is activated and report again within 24 hours of its deactivation.

Stations would also have to report in NORS every time they experience a service outage — except when DIRS is activated — under the proposed rules.

Broadcasters participate in the Emergency Alert System to provide information on “evacuation orders, real-time guidance from public safety organizations, and the availability of other public services,” the commission wrote in the proposal. The FCC said it wants more information on “the operational readiness of this system at a moment’s notice.”

The commission estimated that the reporting would cost broadcasters more than $33 million per year, assuming that each report takes 10 minutes to file. The proposed regulations are unfunded.

The 24 broadcasters, who collectively operate more than 350 stations and translators, said in a joint comment that they “support maintaining the status quo for broadcasters” — that is, voluntary reporting in DIRS and no reporting in NORS.

They said that additional filing in emergencies would burden small broadcasters, “distracting them from the important work of restoring or maintaining broadcast service and transmitting important, time-critical information to the public.”

The broadcasters said that the new requirements “would, in practice, force a choice between filing a report and focusing on restoring service.”

NPR opposed the rules as they are written, arguing that it is “unclear” how they “would advance public interest concerns, particularly for public broadcasters—and, in fact, could harm the public interest by complicating responses to emergency situations.”

The 24 broadcasters noted that the FCC “frequently exempts noncommercial broadcasters from obligations it may impose on others.”

Instead of a requirement, the broadcasters said the FCC should encourage more voluntary participation in DIRS reporting through more outreach about the program.

“The benefit of a NORS filing requirement is less clear,” they said, “particularly when the Commission already has access to broadcaster downtime reports” in the FCC’s Licensing and Management System.

NPR suggested that if the commission implements the mandate, it should exclude public broadcasters from filing, accept stations’ “best efforts” at meeting the filing requirements or allow stations to designate an affiliate to file on their behalf.

NPR also noted that in comments on an earlier version of the FCC’s proposal, “broadcasters suggested ways that station outage information could be used to promote the public interest, yet none of those suggestions are reflected in the [proposal].”

The FCC said wildfires in Maui, Hawaii, in 2023 “make us particularly mindful of the Commission’s responsibility to support restoration of communications services” during emergencies.

“The Hawaii Public Television Foundation has only two staff members to maintain station operations at its remote tower sites, most of which require four-wheel drive to access and one of which is only accessible by helicopter,” the joint comment from the 24 broadcasters said.

The foundation was among the licensees that filed the comment arguing that the new requirements “would further strain limited staff, particularly engineering and technical staff, who often are responsible for multiple transmission sites in difficult to reach areas.”

“If the FCC wants to help small, local stations there are other ways we could recommend besides creating another regulatory reporting trap,” said an unnamed licensee in the broadcasters’ joint comments.

Reply comments in the proceeding are due June 12.

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