Among the many things that broadcasters need to remember when they buy a broadcast station is making sure that the tower registration (the "Antenna Structure Registration" or "ASR") for that station is transferred along with the rest of the station assets.  Unlike most registrations and filings done at the time of the Closing

Three recent FCC cases demonstrate how seriously the FCC views tower site issues – imposing fines up to $14,000 for various violations of FCC rules.  One $14,000 fine was in a case where an AM station’s tower was enclosed by a fence that was falling down and did not enclose areas of high RF radiation as required by Section 73.49 of the rules.  The station also had a main studio that was unattended on two successive days, and had no one answering the phone on those days – no one to respond to the FCC’s calls.  The FCC broke the fine down as $7000 due to the lack of fencing, and $7000 to the unattended main studio.

In the second case, the FCC, the FCC fined a station $10,000 for areas of high RF radiation that were not fenced or marked by signs when the FCC conducted its inspection, and $4000 for operating overpower.  The Commission measured the overpower operation on one day, inferred that it had been in place the previous day, and thus deemed the violation repeated.  The Commission found that the station’s tower was fenced, but that there was high RF outside the fence, leading to the fine.  The third case was one where the Commission found that the top flashing beacon on a tower was out on two successive days, even though the required steady lit obstruction lights on the side of the tower were operational.  While the licensee notified the FAA of the outage three days later (with no noted prompting from the FCC), and had the situation corrected two days after notifying the FAA, the Commission also determined that the the violation was repeated and willful, leading to a $10,000 fine.

Continue Reading Tower Lights Out, High RF Radiation, Insufficient Transmitter Site Fences – FCC Fines Up to $14,000

The FCC has released the comment dates for its draft rules setting out when Environmental Assessments are needed to formally evaluate the environmental impact of the construction and major alteration of communications towers.  We wrote about these draft rules here, and described their history –  growing out of concerns by conservation groups about the effects of communications

The question of the environmental impact of the construction or significant alteration of a communications tower has been a matter of controversy for quite some time.  Three years ago, when conservation groups challenged the FCC’s procedures on the approval of towers and the consideration of the impact that such towers have on migratory birds, the US Court of Appeals ordered the FCC to include more public participation in the determination of whether those towers required detailed environmental studies ( an "environmental assessment" or an "EA") before they could be built.  This week, the FCC sought comments on their Draft Environmental Notice Requirements and Interim Procedures for its Antenna Registration Program.  These rules propose:

  • That, before an Antenna Structure Registration ("ASR") is issued by the FCC, any applicant must first give public notice of the construction in a local newspaper or other local media source.  The proposal will also be listed on the FCC’s website.  These notices are to allow the public to comment on the proposal.   
  •  If an EA is required, the FCC will process that assessment before the filing of the ASR
  • An EA will preliminarily be required for all requests for an ASR for towers of more than 450 feet to determine its impact on migratory birds, though the FCC may modify this requirement after further study.

This proposal is somewhat tracks the proposed requirements for an EA that were set out in a settlement agreement between many affected parties, including conservation groups, the NAB and CTIA – an agreement about which we wrote here.  That agreement, while conclusively requiring an EA for towers of over 450 feet, stated that towers between 351 and 450 feet would be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, and left open the question of whether an EA would be required for towers of 350 feet or less. 

Continue Reading FCC Requests Comments on Draft Requirements for Environmental Assessments of the Impact of Tower Construction – Including The Effect on Migratory Birds

FCC tower lighting and marking violations are among those treated most seriously by the FCC, given their potential for tragedy should there be an incident with an aircraft due to improper tower maintenance.  Today, in two Notices of Apparent liability, the FCC proposed fines against tower owners for such violations.  In one case, where the

Operating a communications tower can always lead to issues, but two recent FCC decisions give tower owners some degree of relief. In one decision, the Commission’s Audio Services Division rejected a petition filed against the construction of new facilities for an AM station in Wasilla, Alaska – rejecting claims that the FCC’s RF radiation standards were not strict enough to protect local residents. In another case, the FCC determined that towers using an automatic system to monitor tower lighting – the “RMS system" – did not need to physically inspect the lights on the tower every quarter, as now required, but instead could do so annually, and set up an expedited system for approving tower owners who want to take advantage of this flexibility. 

The first case, dealing with RF radiation, may be dismissed by some as just a decision stating the obvious – that a station that complies with the FCC’s RF radiation standards should be allowed to be constructed. But it is not always so simple. We have had clients face situations in many areas around the country where local residents complained about a new broadcast facility – blaming it for everything from the failures of electronic equipment to the health problems of nearby residents. Various organizations have espoused theories that the FCC’s RF standards are insufficient to protect the public, and their theories are often publicized through the Internet. And sometimes, these complaints can be brought to local elected officials who, not wanting to anger local voters, try to make an issue out of what should be a fairly straightforward analysis.

Continue Reading FCC Decisions Making the Life of a Tower Owner Easier – Easing Approval for Automatic Monitoring, and Making Clear that RF Radiation Standards Are Not Arbitrary

The FCC today announced that it will be holding a series of three hearings to assess the environmental impact of its Antenna Structure Registration (ASR) program.  The FCC is required by the National Environmental Policy Act ("NEPA") to determine if its programs have any adverse environmental impact.  In a Court decision in 2008, the US Court of Appeals determined that the FCC had not adequately assessed its obligations under NEPA with respect to the impact of communications towers on birds after there were claims that towers killed millions of birds each year.  The hearings are to review the Commission’s ASR process to gather evidence to determine whether a more extensive analysis of the potential environmental impact of tower construction is necessary when towers are constructed or modified.  In addition to the hearing, the FCC is soliciting written public comment on these proceedings. 

After the Court decision, American Bird Conservancy v. FCC, parties representing those involved in tower construction and conservation groups engaged in a series of discussions to attempt to resolve issues raised in the case.  The parties included the NAB, CTIA, PCIA, and the National Association of Tower Erectors.  Conservation groups included the American Bird Conservancy, Defenders of Wildlife, and The National Audubon Society.  These parties reached an agreement that was submitted to the FCC, setting out three levels of environmental review of tower construction, based on the height of the tower proposed.  As summarized below, the height of a proposed tower would determine if the proposal for construction had to be placed on a Public Notice by the FCC, soliciting public comment about the proposed construction, and whether the tower would need to have an Environmental Assessment ("EA") completed before it was constructed (an EA is a more extensive analysis of the environmental impact of planned construction than the Environmental Impact Statements that most broadcasters include with their current FCC applications).  The parties suggested the following:

  • For New Towers above 450 feet above ground, an Environmental Assessment would need to be conducted, and any proposal would be put on a public notice to solicit public comment
  • For New Towers between 351 and 450 feet, the proposal would be put on a public notice by the FCC and, after comments are filed, the FCC would decide on a case-by-case basis if an Environmental Assessment is necessary
  • For New Towers 350 or less, the parties could not agree as to whether Public Notice would be required.  Resolution of whether Public Notice was required was left to the FCC. 

This proposal has not been adopted by the FCC, so it will no doubt be addressed as part of these hearings. 

Continue Reading FCC Plans Hearings on Environmental Impact of Tower Registration Program – Follow Up to Court Case on Impact of Communications Towers on Birds

In yet another example of the importance that the FCC places on emergency communications and safety issues, an FCC Enforcement Bureau District Field Office issued a Notice of Apparent Liability, proposing to fine a radio station $25,000 for violations including an EAS system that was not operational, as well as a tower that needed repainting and with lights that were not functioning properly.  Together with various other issues – including missing quarterly issues programs lists – the FCC found that a $25,000 fine was appropriate.  This is another in a series of recent notices of apparent liability from FCC District Offices, demonstrating the high cost of noncompliance with technical and operational issues at broadcast stations.

On the tower issues, the FCC found that the tower lights, which were required to be flashing, were in either not operational at all or not flashing, and that the licensee admitted that no visual inspection of the lights had occurred in at least a week.  Citing Section 17.47 of the FCC rules, which require a visual inspection of tower lights every 24 hours unless there is an automatic inspection system (which was not present at this tower), the FCC found that there was a violation here.  In addition, the inspection revealed that the tower paint was faded and, in some places, had peeled to reveal bare steel, as the tower had not been painted since 1996.  Towers must be cleaned and painted "as often as necessary to maintain good visibility" under Section 17.50 of the FCC Rules.  The failure of the tower owner to monitor the tower lights resulted in a $2000 fine, and a $10,000 fine was imposed for the failure to repaint the tower.

Continue Reading $25,000 FCC Fine for Safety Related Issues – No EAS, Tower With Painting and Lighting Issues

Earlier this week, I posted a Top Ten list of legal issues that should keep a broadcast station operator up at night.  In two orders released today, the FCC found stations where these issues apparently had not been keeping their operators awake, as the FCC issued fines for numerous violations.  At one station, the FCC found that the EAS monitor was not working, the fence around the AM tower site was unlocked, and the station had no public inspection file, resulting in a $5500 fine (see the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau order here).  At another station, the FCC inspectors were told that the station had no public file, and they also found the AM tower site fence unlocked, resulting in a $3500 fine (see the order here).  These cases are one more example that, while broadcasters have plenty of big-picture legal and policy issues that they need to be concerned about, they also need to worry about the nuts and bolts, as the failure to observe basic regulatory requirements like tower fencing, EAS, and public file requirements can bring immediate financial penalties to a station. 

The tower fencing issue is one that we have written about before.  FCC rules require that public access be restricted to areas of high RF radiation, which are likely to occur at ground levels near AM stations.  The FCC has many times issued fines for fences with unlocked gates, holes, or areas where there are gullies where a child could climb under the fence into the tower area.  The FCC has been  unwilling to accept excuses that the fence was locked "yesterday" or "last week" or at some other less defined time in the absence of proof, as they’ve heard that excuse many time.  If the fence is open when they arrive, expect a fine.

Continue Reading Non-Functioning EAS, An Unavailable Public File and Open Tower Site Gates Result in FCC Fines of $5500 and $3500

In 2006, the FAA proposed requiring that many communications users seek FAA No Hazard Determinations not only before they make changes in the height of a tower, but also prior to frequency or power changes.  The FAA sought to review applications to determine if proposals would create any interference to frequencies used by the by aircraft and by the FAA for air navigation purposes. This review would be in addition to any review that the FCC made of interference considerations.  Many communications companies and engineering firms argued that this second layer of frequency review was unnecessary; and certain engineering groups contended that the FAA’s interference programs were not accurate – finding interference where none existed.  After over 4 years of consideration,the FAA has now decided that most of the frequency blocks that it was considering did not really pose a threat to air navigation, with one exception.  The FAA determined that interference problems do arise from FM operations, and thus the FAA did not dismiss their proposal to require its approval of FM changes – even where no tower height changes are planned.

The FAA, however, apparently will not be making this decision alone.  Instead, that FAA is coordinating with the FCC and NTIA (an Administration in the Commerce Department that coordinates between various government agencies that use spectrum) to adopt policies that will govern the potential for interference from FM stations to FAA operations.   The FAA’s Notice says that more information about what is to be proposed for FM stations should be forthcoming soon.  This can be a real issue for FM stations, especially ones proposing significant power increases or frequency changes in congested metropolitan areas with numerous public, private and military airfields in the vicinity. 

Continue Reading FAA Working On Proposals to Require FAA Coordination For FM Changes Even Where There is No Change in Tower Height – Rejects That Requirement for Other Services