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FAA Proposal Raises Industry Ire

A move by the Federal Aviation Administration to require broadcasters to notify it of construction of every new tower and modification of existing towers has the communications industry in an uproar.

WASHINGTON A move by the Federal Aviation Administration to require broadcasters to notify it of construction of every new tower and modification of existing towers has the communications industry in an uproar.

The FAA Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, if it becomes a regulation, would add to the amount of paperwork and the cost for tower projects, both sides agree. Just how much additional cost is a matter of debate between the FAA and those filing comments against the proposed measure.

The regulatory agency says it is requesting the changes to get a better handle on electromagnetic interference from radio broadcasters that can garble ground-to-air transmissions near airports. EMI is of concern to the FAA in part because the FM band, 87.8–107.9 MHz, is adjacent to the FAA’s communications and navigation band of 108–118 MHz.

According to the NPRM: “The revised rules would protect the flying public from signal interference from broadcast sources disrupting vital communications or altering the performance of vital avionics.”

The rulemaking request, which amends 14 CFR Part 77 of the FAA’s rules, also raises the issue of spectrum management and exactly who has regulatory control over it. Broadcast spectrum is considered the domain of the FCC; some observers believe the NPRM demonstrates the uncooperative nature of the relationship between the regulators of air and airwaves.

The NPRM’s initial public comment period ended in early September.

Under existing rules, communications service providers must notify the FAA of new tower construction or modifications to structures of 200 feet or higher or that lie within five miles of an airport and would interfere with Glideslope, part of the instrument landing system that guides pilots during landing.

Structural changes

The federal agency then conducts an obstruction evaluation, which typically involves computer modeling, to determine if the proposed tower or modification poses any affect on aeronautical operations.

However, the rule changes would require FM radio broadcasters, VHF TV broadcasters and other spectrum users to notify the FAA of all structure changes, regardless of height or location.

The proposed rules have drawn the scorn of the NAB, the Society of Broadcast Engineers and others in the communications industry, who fear the new regulations would duplicate the work of the commission and could delay projects with red tape.

The FAA says it will cost broadcasters $10 and take approximately 20 minutes to file the necessary paperwork; the cost for a broadcast engineering consulting firm to file a notice would be $445. The FAA expects the rulemaking will cost private industry approximately $13.7 million over the next ten years.

“We think the FAA is vastly underestimating the cost associated with the measure. We believe it will likely cost six times as much for the industry to fully comply,” said SBE General Counsel Chris Imlay. “Further, this proposal calls for no coordination with the FCC, who is on the point when it comes to spectrum management.”

Not only would the measure add to the cost of tower and antenna projects, it could make it more difficult for broadcasters to gain FAA approval, Imlay said.

“This is a very loosely worded document. It doesn’t call for any level of coordination between the FAA and FCC. We believe there are too many cooks spoiling the broth,” said Imlay. “There should be a coordinated effort so that standards apply to broadcasters equally across the board of both agencies.”

NAB stated in a comment filing: “If adopted, broadcasters would be required to file a notice with the FAA virtually every time a change is made to one of its structures or antennas, including changes in frequencies, increases in power and changes in antenna mounting location. The modifications would impose significant burdens upon the broadcasting industry.”

Cost burden

The trade association expects most broadcasters would be forced to enlist the help of outside consultants to complete the FAA notification paperwork, thus adding significantly to the cost burden.

At least one telecommunications consultant believes the current course of FAA actions would slow down the level of facility improvements.

“In some cases it might even prevent stations from making improvements, even when no interference exists,” said Larry Fuss, a technical consultant and president of Contemporary Communications LLC.

As for any perceived power grab by the FAA, Fuss said, “Spectrum should be the domain of the FCC. It appears that the FAA is playing the public safety card to justify this request.”

The FCC itself filed comments illustrating what it feels is the FAA’s underestimation of the number of expected notification filings. The FAA estimates that an additional 26,794 forms would be filed on an annual basis. However, the FCC believes the number of filings would be “much larger” than expected.

The FAA rule revisions would also affect other types of FCC-authorized service, such as cellular, PCS, WiFi and WiMax systems.

While electromagnetic interference is a legitimate concern for the FAA, communications experts say its jurisdiction is in regulating tower height, placement and warning lights, not spectrum.

“The FCC has historical precedent toward regulating spectrum. This proposal is certainly a move in the other direction. It would be a duplication of work that appears unnecessary,” said Dr. Ken Nagelberg, associate professor of Media Studies at University of Charleston .

In fact, most of the information the FAA seeks in the rules request is already available in FCC databases, Nagelberg added.

“This is an example of a lack of communication between federal agencies that will just add another layer of bureaucracy for broadcasters to deal with,” Nagelberg said.

He said the rules modifications are unnecessary because the FAA and FCC participate in the Interdepartment Radio Advisory Committee, or IRAC, along with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which regulates radio spectrum use for federal agencies. The groups meet several times a month to discuss technical criteria pertaining to the allocation, management and use of spectrum.

FAA officials said it would be inappropriate to discuss specifics of ongoing proposed rulemaking. “We are currently evaluating the comments, and depending on the concerns expressed, will either amend the proposal, drop it or issue an official rulemaking,” said Les Door, FAA spokesman. “We will work to gain a consensus in the industry before we issue official rules.”

Door declined to say what happens should the FAA fail to gain a consensus among broadcasters and would not speculate how long the rulemaking process may take.