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). 
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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.
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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.
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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.
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There were several recent FCC decisions on application processing matters worthy of note. One deals with the processing of commercial applications for FM stations or FM translators that are involved in an auction to resolve disputes, the others with the processing of noncommercial applications (in this case for LPFM stations). None break new ground – but instead they reinforce earlier decisions that some who have been around the broadcast industry had found surprising, so these decisions are worth noting. The commercial case involved the question of whether an applicant needs to receive “reasonable assurance of transmitter site availability” before specifying a transmitter site after a broadcast auction. The noncommercial cases deals with the dismissal of an application because of a change in the control of its board of directors while the application was pending.

The commercial case involved the application for a new FM translator in New Jersey, where a local broadcaster filed a petition asking that the translator application be denied as the applicant had never received permission to specify the tower site, owned by the petitioner, in the “long-form” application filed by the applicant after the applicant prevailed in an auction. After the petition was filed, the applicant amended his application to specify another transmitter site. But, under an old line of cases, the failure to have “reasonable assurance” of a transmitter site was fatal to an application and could not be corrected by a later amendment to an available site. In this week’s decision, the FCC reiterated a decision that it made a few years ago (see, for instance, our article here) concluding that, where an application is granted as a result of an auction, the applicant need not have “reasonable assurance” of its transmitter site at the time it files its “long-form” application (the application that specifies the technical details of the facilities that the applicant intends to use to operate its station).
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At the NAB Convention last week, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler discussed the timing of the incentive auction and how some of the remaining issues may soon be resolved. One subject of talk in a number of NAB sessions, as well as in the trade publications, has been how the repacking of broadcast television spectrum will proceed after the auction. Even FM broadcasters noted the potential for disruption of their operations as the repacking may affect shared users of broadcast towers, and given that hundreds of TV stations potentially face changing out antennas to operate on new channels in the smaller post-auction television band.

The Chairman made clear that the FCC will be announcing soon, perhaps as early as this week, the “spectrum clearing target” for the auction. In other words, the FCC will be announcing how much of the TV band it intends to try to clear for wireless broadband uses, based on how many TV stations expressed interest in potentially taking a buyout of their spectrum in their commitments filed at the end of last month. After the targets are announced, the FCC will quickly begin the reverse auction, a process where, round by round, the FCC will lower the prices offered to TV stations to abandon their spectrum until the FCC has committed to buy just the right amount of spectrum to meet its clearing targets. Then, it will turn around and repackage and resell that spectrum to wireless companies in the “forward auction.” The Chairman indicated that the clearing target may also signal the answers to many other issues.
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