The FCC’s proposal to expand the use of Distributed Transmission Systems by television stations operating with the new ATSC 3.0 transmission system was published in the Federal Register today (here). That publication announces that the comment deadlines on the FCC’s DTS Notice of Proposed Rulemaking are due by Friday, June 12, 2020, and reply comments will be due by Monday, July 13, 2020.  While we mentioned this proposal in passing when discussing a proposal to allow FM stations to use boosters to provide an FM version of a distributed transmission system, we have not written in detail about this proposal.  With the comment deadline now set, let’s look at some of the questions asked in the rulemaking proposal.

First, it is worth explaining the concept of a distributed transmission system (sometimes referred to as a “single frequency network” as it uses multiple stations on the same frequency to reach its audience).  Traditionally, television stations have operated with a single high-power transmitter from a location central to their coverage area.  Thus, viewers close to the transmitter get the strongest signal, and that signal dissipates the further that a viewer gets from that central transmitter site.  Station signals are protected from interference to a certain contour where it is assumed that the majority of viewers will be able to receive over-the-air an acceptable signal most of the time.  But even at the edge of these protected contours, the FCC’s projections assume that many viewers will not be able to receive an acceptable signal at all times.  Distributed transmission systems are already in use by television stations in certain markets to fill in holes in station coverage – and have been particularly useful in markets with irregular terrain where mountains or other obstructions preclude one centrally located transmitter from reaching audiences far from the transmitter site.  Locating a second transmitter on the same frequency behind the terrain obstruction allows better reception for viewers who might otherwise not receive an acceptable over-the-air signal. However, currently, the DTS transmitters cannot extend the noise-limited protected contour of a station “more than a minimal amount” beyond that which the TV station would be predicted to have from a single centrally-located transmitter site.  The NPRM in this proceeding, based on a petition filed by the NAB and America’s Public Television Stations (see our article here on the Petition for Rulemaking filed by these groups), looks to allow for wider use of DTS.
Continue Reading Comments Due June 12 on Proposal to Expand the Use of Distributed Transmission Systems by TV Stations Operating with ATSC 3.0 Transmission Systems – What is Being Asked?

Taking a station off the air is often the last resort of a broadcast company in desperate financial times.  While Payroll Protection Act loans have helped many small broadcasters avoid that action even in light of the dramatic decrease in broadcast advertising revenue in the last two months, and some relief may come in areas of the country looking at some reopening of business in the coming weeks, we have still heard of some stations that just can’t manage continued operations in this period of turmoil – either for financial or operational reasons caused by the current health crisis.  If this action is in the cards for your station because of the pandemic or for any other reason including technical failures, do not forget about the FCC requirements for taking a station silent.

When a broadcast station goes silent, it must notify the FCC of that status within 10 days of going off the air.  If the situation will continue for a longer period, a request for Special Temporary Authority providing the reasons for going off the air must be filed within 30 days of going silent.  These STAs are granted for no more than 6 months at a time, so that date should be noted for the filing of any extension that may be needed.  But be careful, as if a station is silent for a full year, Section 312(g) of the Communications Act provides that the license will be cancelled unless the FCC makes an affirmative finding that there are special public interest reasons for not taking that action (a finding made in very rare cases).  When stations resume operations, they must notify the FCC that they are back on the air.  But to be considered back on the air, there must be programming – running a test pattern is insufficient (see the case we wrote about here).  Even with authority to remain silent, there are risks.
Continue Reading Broadcast Stations Going Silent – What You Need to Do

Earlier this week, the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau released an Order approving a consent decree with Scripps Broadcasting where Scripps agreed to pay a penalty of $1,130,000 for perceived violations of the FCC’s rules requiring tower light monitoring for towers used by a number of TV stations that it had recently purchased.  The company also agreed to adopt numerous procedures to insure continuing compliance, including notification to the FCC of future issues.  The FCC began the investigation when a plane crashed into one station’s tower.  While the FCC specifically states that it did not find any evidence that any of the “irregularities” in the tower monitoring process contributed to the plane crash, the crash opened the door to the FCC’s investigation of the company’s tower light monitoring process at all of its stations, leading to this fine.  Are you ready for such an investigation?

In the consent decree, the Commission cites various tower-related FCC rules that must be observed by tower owners.  The rules include Section 17.47(a), which requires antenna structure owners to monitor the status of a structure’s lighting system by either (1) making “an observation of the antenna structure’s lights at least once each 24 hours either visually or by observing an automatic properly maintained indicator designed to register any failure of such lights” or (2) by “provid[ing] and properly maintain[ing] an automatic alarm system designed to detect any failure of such lights and to provide indication of such failure to the owner.”  That rule also requires that the tower owner inspect any automatic monitoring system at least once every 3 months to make sure that it is working correctly, unless the owner is using a system certified as reliable and not requiring such inspection by the Wireless Bureau of the FCC (see our articles here and here where FCC fines were issued when monitoring systems did not alert the tower owner of tower lighting issues). 
Continue Reading FCC Consent Decree Requires $1,130,000 Payment to Settle Issues About Monitoring Tower Lights – Are You Doing What’s Required?

Last week, the FCC adopted an order making numerous changes to its processes for selecting winning applicants among mutually-exclusive applicants for new noncommercial broadcast stations, including noncommercial, reserved band full power FM stations and LPFMs. Applicants are “mutually exclusive” when their technical proposals are in conflict – meaning that if one is granted it would create interference to the other so that the other cannot also be allowed to operate. The changes adopted by the FCC, which we wrote about when first proposed here, affect not only the process of applying for new noncommercial stations and the system for resolving conflicts, but also address the holding period for new stations once construction permits are granted, and the length of permits for LPFM stations.

In cases involving mutually exclusive applications for new noncommercial stations, the FCC uses a “points system” to determine which of the mutually-exclusive applicants should have its application granted. The point system relies on paper hearings to determine which applicant has the most points, awarding preferences on factors such as whether they have fewer interests in other broadcast facilities, whether they are local organizations, and whether they are part of state-wide networks.
Continue Reading FCC Adopts Changes to Rules for New Noncommercial FM and LPFM Stations – Changing Application Processing Procedures and Holding Periods

At its October open meeting, the FCC adopted a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking looking to abolish its rule that bars a broadcast licensee from prohibiting a competitor from using a “unique” transmitter site that it controls. The rule was adopted decades ago and never used. It provides that a license renewal would not be granted

On Friday, the FCC issued a reminder to all operators “of fixed-satellite service (FSS) earth stations in the 3.7-4.2 GHz band that were constructed and operational as of April 19, 2018 that the filing window to license or register such earth stations closes on October 17, 2018.” This frequency band is commonly referred to as

Last week, just before Thanksgiving, the FCC released the tentative agenda for its December meeting. From that agenda, it appears that the meeting will be an important one for broadcasters and other media companies. Already, the press has spent incredible amounts of time focusing on one item, referred to as “Restoring Internet Freedom” by the FCC, and “net neutrality” by many other observers. The FCC’s draft of the Order that they will be considering at their December meeting is available here.

The one pure broadcast item on the agenda is the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, looking to determine if the FCC should amend the cap limiting one TV station owner to stations reaching no more than 39% of the national audience. The FCC asks a series of questions in its draft notice of proposed rulemaking, available here, including whether it has the power to change the cap, or if the power is exclusively that of Congress. The FCC promised to initiate this proceeding when it reinstated the UHF discount (see our articles here and here). In that proceeding, the FCC determined that the UHF discount should not have been abolished without a thorough examination of the national ownership cap – an examination that will be undertaken in this new proceeding if the NPRM is adopted at the December meeting.
Continue Reading December FCC Meeting to be an Important One for Broadcasters and Other Media Companies

Last year, we wrote about legislation adopted by Congress telling the FAA to adopt rules to require the lighting of towers less than 200 feet tall located in rural areas.  That legislation was designed to protect aircraft used for agricultural purposes like crop-dusting from collisions with such towers.  The law surprised most of the

My law firm has long provided legal advice to companies that operate communications towers, and the lawyers involved in that practice area have alerted me to the following development which will require the marking and lighting of many towers not currently covered by such rules.

Broadcasters and tower companies have long relied on FAA rules that generally don’t require the lighting of towers under 200 feet in height except when these shorter towers may interfere with the flight path of an airport. So the vast majority of these short towers used by broadcasters (sometimes simply for mounting auxiliary antennas) and by other wireless users have not been lit. That apparently will change under the FAA Extension, Safety, and Security Act of 2016, passed by Congress earlier this summer and signed into law on July 15. Under provisions of this act, the FAA is required to adopt rules to require the marking and lighting of freestanding structures with heights of between 50 and 200 feet which are located in rural, undeveloped areas. The act refers to towers that will need to be marked and lit as “covered towers.” The new marking and lighting requirements will apply not just to new towers, but also to existing towers (after a one-year phase in period after the FAA’s new rules become effective).

So what is a “covered tower”? Essentially, the Act sets out the following definitions:

  • Size.  The Act defines “covered towers” as self-standing or guy wire-supported structures:
    • 10 feet or less in diameter;
    • More than 50 and less than 200 feet tall; and
    • With “accessory facilities” mounted with antennas, sensors, cameras, meteorological instruments, or other equipment.
  • Location.
    • To be a “covered tower,” the structure must be located:  (i) outside the boundaries of an incorporated city or town; (ii) on undeveloped land; or (iii) on land used for agricultural purposes.
    • “Undeveloped land” means “a defined geographic area where the [FAA] Administrator determines low-flying aircraft are operated on a routine basis.”
  • Exceptions.  The following are not “covered towers”:
    • Structurers adjacent to a house, barn, electric utility station, or other building;
    • Structures within the curtilage of a farmstead (for those not familiar with land-use terminology, a “curtilage” is the developed area of a farm immediately surrounding a house or other dwelling where residents have an expectation of privacy – it does not include surrounding fields) ;
    • Structures that support electric utility transmission or distribution lines;
    • Wind-powered electrical generators with rotor blade radius exceeding 6 feet; or
    • Street lights erected by government entities.

The new law was apparently adopted at the urging of rural flying groups, including those involved in crop dusting, members of which apparently have high rates of accidents. That is why there is the emphasis on rural towers – and the exclusions for those in developed areas where such planes are unlikely to be flying.
Continue Reading Rural Towers Under 200 Feet May Need to Have Lights Under New FAA Authorization Law