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FCC Revises Part 17 Tower Rules

Report and Order harmonizes FCC rules with FAA recommendations on antenna

This article originally appeared in TV Technology.

In 2010, the FCC initiated a proceeding to update and modernize its Part 17 rules regarding antenna structures. That effort resulted in a Report and Order 14-117, released Aug. 8, 2014. Tower structures over 200 feet (less in some circumstances) require FAA notification and a determination of “no hazard” before FCC antenna structure registration (ASR). The Report and Order harmonizes FCC rules with FAA recommendations on antenna structure lighting and marking, construction notification requirements, and the accuracy of the data provided by antenna structure owners. The Report and Order also delegates rulemaking authority to the FCC’s Wireless Telecommunications Bureau (WTB) to “make nonsubstantive, editorial revisions to the Commission’s Part 17 rules to reflect future FAA rule changes and recommendations after providing an opportunity for notice and comment.”

The most significant change for many stations is a requirement for prior approval for any change or correction of one foot or greater in height, or one second or greater in location, as compared to the height or location data provided on the antenna structure’s ASR form. While stricter than current FCC requirements, the change brings FCC ASR requirements in line with FAA requirements for a new aeronautical study and determination of “no hazard” for changes in height or location.

The old Part 17 rules referenced outdated FAA Advisory Circulars; the Report and Order changes these rules to require structure owners to comply with the FAA’s “no hazard” determination and associated study in establishing painting and lighting specifications. Unless mandated by the FAA, the FCC will not require existing antenna structures to comply with any new lighting and marking requirements.

Some tower owners voluntarily register towers that do not require FAA notification or FCC antenna structure registration. The FCC will not require owners of existing registered towers to designate whether the registration is voluntary and will continue to allow voluntary registration of towers. All future registrations will have to designate whether their registration is voluntary and the FCC will not impose Part 17 rules to voluntarily registered structures.

The new rules will “require that owners display the ASR number so that it is visible to a member of the general public who reaches the closest publicly accessible location near the antenna structure base.” For structures within an enclosed perimeter, the closest publicly available access point may be on the perimeter fence or access gate. If there are multiple public access points, the ASR number(s) must be posted at each access point. If there is only a single structure at the site, this posting is sufficient. If there are multiple antenna structures, then the ASR number must also be posted at the base of each structure.

The original Part 17 rules required antenna structure owners to immediately provide copies of the ASR form to each tenant licensee and permittee. Part 17 was modified to allow owners to provide tenants the ASR number and link to the FCC’s online system via mail, email or other electronic means.

The FCC decided to exempt antenna structure owners using qualifying NOC-based monitoring systems from the Part 17 quarterly tower inspection obligation. Previously the FCC had granted some owners a waiver allowing NOC-based monitoring in lieu of the quarterly inspections. This option is now available to any owner. The Report and Order explains, “These systems employ self-diagnostic functions (such as alarm notification, 24-hour polling, and manual contact), an operations center staffed with trained personnel capable of responding to alarms 24 hours per day, 365 days per year, and a backup operations center that can monitor systems in the event of catastrophic failure.”

The rules regarding notification to the FAA in the event of extinguishment or improper functioning of lights were also modified. When notified of a tower light problem, the FAA issues a NOTAM (Notice to Airmen), alerting pilots to the problem. These expire within 15 days, so the FCC now requires antenna structure owners to provide the FAA with regular updates on the status of repairs. Updates must be provided every NOTAM period until the lights are repaired. A current estimate of the return-to-service date is required in each notification. Previous rules required notification “by telephone or telegraph.” The new Section 17.48(a) requires “notification by means acceptable to the FAA.” This is currently via nationwide toll-free telephone number.

Requirements regarding the allowable time for repair of malfunctioning lighting changed: “Specifically, we revise our rules to provide that all of the repairs addressed in Sections 17.48(b) and 17.56(a) (i.e., antenna structure lighting repairs, as well as repairs to automatic indicators or automatic control or alarm systems) be made ‘as soon as practicable.’”

Antenna structure owners are required to maintain records of tower lighting problems. The old rules didn’t specify how long these records had to be maintained. The new rules “require antenna structure owners to maintain a record of observed or otherwise known extinguishments or improper functioning of structure lights for two years, and to provide such records to the Commission upon request.”

Tower painting rules are revised to adopt the FAA’s “In-Service Aviation Orange Tolerance Chart” as the benchmark for determining whether a structure needs to be cleaned or repainted. Antenna structure owners must use the chart in a manner consistent with FAA guidelines, which currently provide that the color be sampled on the upper half of the structure. The FCC declined to require painting of tower structures every 10 years.