responsibility for tower maintenance

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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Fines for broadcast station tower owners who fail to maintain the required lighting on their tower are not unusual. But in a decision last week, the FCC made clear that, even if the licensee of a broadcast station is not the tower owner, it still has the responsibility for dealing with tower lights that are out, even if the tower owner does not. The failure of the licensee to maintain the tower lights, and other related issues, resulted in an $11,000 fine issued by the FCC.

The case was unusual in that the broadcast licensee, and the company from which it bought the station, were arguing over who owned the tower – not contending that the each owned the tower, but instead each pointing to the other as the one with the responsibility for the maintenance of the tower. The former owner of the station maintained ownership of the underlying land, but claimed that the tower was conveyed to the new station owner. The licensee claimed that the tower was still owned by the former owner, and that former owner should be responsible for the tower lights. The FCC reviewed the contract between the two parties, seemed to conclude that the licensee had in fact acquired the tower, but said that the final determination on that issue was one for local courts, not the FCC.  But even if the licensee did not own the tower, it still had the responsibility for the tower as licensees have the responsibility to insure that the tower lighting requirements in their licenses are met. This obligation is set out in Section 17.6 of the Commission’s rules and in various policy statements.  Thus, no matter who owned the tower, the licensee was still subject to the fine for the lights not being operational.


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