At Long Last, FCC Updates Its Tower Rules
The Federal Communications Commission recently adopted a Report and Order to streamline and eliminate outdated provisions of its Part 17 Rules governing the construction, marking, and lighting of antenna structures. According to the Commission, the goal was to “remove barriers to wireless deployment, reduce unnecessary costs, and encourage providers to continue to deploy advanced systems that facilitate safety while preserving the safeguards to protect historic, environmental and local interests.” The question, as Commissioner O’Rielly put it, is “why did it take nine years to get this item before the Commission for a vote?” While it was a long time in coming, the changes the FCC made will be mostly welcomed by tower owners across the country.
The need for changes to the rules was first raised in the FCC’s 2004 Biennial Ownership Review, and the FCC initiated a formal review of the antenna structure rules in 2010 in a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. The FCC’s goal in streamlining Part 17 of its rules was to improve compliance and enforcement while eliminating unnecessary and burdensome requirements for tower owners. The revised rules impact a number of regulations, and the hope is that the changes will also harmonize the FCC’s rules with the safety recommendations and rules of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). That said, in its update, the FCC made a point of removing from its rules references to FAA Circulars that the FCC has determined are out of date.
The primary changes to the rules that tower owners should be aware of are:
Antenna Structure Marking and Lighting Specifications. The Order updated the FCC’s rules to require that tower owners comply with the marking and lighting specifications included in the FAA’s “no hazard” determination for that particular tower, thereby making FCC and FAA regulations consistent in this area. The Order also emphasized that changes to marking and lighting specifications on an Antenna Structure Registration (ASR) require prior approval from both the FAA and the FCC. Importantly, the FCC specifically declined to require existing antenna structures to comply with any new lighting or marking requirements unless mandated to do so by the FAA.
Accuracy of Height and Location Data. The FCC noted in the Order that its prior rules did not define what kinds of “alterations” to an existing tower required a new registration and FCC approval prior to making those changes. The new rules are clear that FCC approval is required for any change or correction to a structure of one foot or greater in height, or one second or greater in location, relative to the existing information in the structure’s ASR form. The new criteria is the same as that used by the FAA for requiring a new aeronautical study and determination of “no hazard”.
Notification of Construction or Dismantlement. Tower owners are now required to notify the FCC within five days of “when a construction or alteration of a structure reaches its greatest height, when a construction or alteration is dismantled or destroyed, and when there are changes in structure height or ownership.” Under the prior rules, structure owners were given only 24 hours to provide notification to the FCC.
Voluntary Antenna Structure Registration. Under the FCC’s prior rules, tower owners were given the option to voluntarily register structures even when the FCC’s rules did not require registration. The new rules will still allow voluntary registration, but parties will be allowed to indicate that the registration is indeed voluntary, and they will not be subject to the Part 17 rules that apply to towers that are required to be registered (i.e., towers that exceed 200 feet or, for those located in close proximity to an airport, lower heights).
Posting of Antenna Structure Registrations. The new ASR posting requirement gives tower owners greater latitude regarding where they must post their Antenna Structure Registration numbers. The old rule required that the ASR number be displayed “in a conspicuous place so that it is readily visible near the base of the antenna structure.” As a result of the rule change, registration numbers can now be posted at the “closest publicly accessible” location near the tower base.
Providing Antenna Structure Registration to Tower Tenants. Tenant copies of ASRs will no longer need to be given to tenants in paper. Under the new rules, a link to the FCC’s website can be provided by mail or email.
Inspection of Structure Lights and Associated Control Equipment. The Order established a process allowing qualifying network operations center-based monitoring systems to be exempted from the existing quarterly inspection requirements that apply to automatic or mechanical control devices, indicators, and alarm systems used to ensure tower lighting systems are functioning properly. Specifically, systems with advanced self-diagnostic functions, an operations center staffed with “trained personnel capable of responding to alarms 24 hours per day, 365 days per year”, and a backup network operations center that can monitor systems in the event of failure, may be eligible for the exemption.
Notification of Extinguishment or Improper Functioning of Lights. The FCC’s rules require that when tower lights do go out, tower owners immediately notify the FAA so that the FAA can issue a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) to make aircraft aware of the outage. Parties are also required to notify the FAA when repairs have been completed so that the FAA can cancel the NOTAM. Under the new rules, tower owners are required to keep the FAA up to date and let the FAA know when repairs are expected to be complete at the expiration of each NOTAM (which last 15 days each). The good news is that the FCC clarified its rules somewhat, stating that lighting repairs must be completed “as soon as practicable”. Instead of adopting a fixed deadline for repairs to be made, the FCC will consider whether the tower owner has exercised due diligence and made good faith efforts to complete repairs in a timely manner.
Recordkeeping Requirements. Under the FCC’s prior rules, there was no specification regarding how long records of improper functioning needed to be kept. Under the newly adopted rules, the FCC requires antenna structure owners to maintain records of observed or otherwise known outages or improper functioning of structure lights for two years, and the records must be provided to inspectors upon request.
Maintenance of Painting. With regard to painting, the FCC adopted the FAA’s “In-Service Aviation Orange Tolerance Chart” as the standard for determining whether an antenna structure needs to be cleaned or repainted. The FCC did not say how often towers should be repainted or how close someone has to be to compare the colors on the chart with those on the tower. The FCC did say that placing the chart over a portion of the top half of the tower would give the best results, as that is where most of the wear and tear typically occurs.
The new rules will take effect thirty days after notice of the Order is published in the Federal Register (except for those provisions requiring Office of Management and Budget approval), which has not yet occurred. Despite the time it took to adopt new rules, the rule changes themselves are relatively straightforward, and tower owners should be sure to take advantage of the new rules when they take effect. It’s not every day we see less regulation from the FCC.