Towers and other antenna structures form the backbone of today’s microwave based telecommunication systems. Recently the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) made some dramatic changes to streamline and eliminate outdated provisions in the Part 17 rules governing the construction, marking, lighting and maintenance of these structures. The FCC started this effort to modernize Part 17 back in 2004 and that effort recently resulted in the release of Report and Order 14-117.
Definitions of an Antenna Structure:
The FCC clarified some definitions and term used in Part 17. Antenna Structure Owner is the owner of the underlying structure that supports antennas and the Part 17 rules apply to the actual owner and not a tenant that is leasing tower space. Additionally, a structure is considered an antenna structure from the start of construction through complete dismantlement. The tower owner’s obligations do not cease until the structure is dismantled. The FCC declined to exempt Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS) and small cells from the Part 17 rules. They noted that in certain situations DAS and small cells deployed on utility poles, street lights, water towers and rooftops could be required to notify the FAA and register with the FCC.
Tower Records and Registration:
The FCC cleaned up a number of rules that focused on record updates related to antenna structures. Under previous rules, alteration of an existing tower structure required the owner to obtain a new registration prior to the alteration. The FCC, however, never defined what types of alterations require a new registration leaving many of the tower owners guessing. The rules were amended to “defer to the FAA’s expertise…”, where an alteration of one foot or more in tower height or one second in latitude or longitude triggers the filing of a new notice and obtaining a Determination of No Hazard. Additionally, the rules were modified to allow a tower owner a five (5) day period to notify when the height of a tower is changed or dismantled. Previously, the FCC’s rules required either a 24 hour period or immediate notification depending on the change.
One change that will likely ease some spending is a modification of the rules that allows a tower owner to provide tenants an electronic copy and link of the antenna structure registration form. The Commission found that it is important for tenants to have timely and complete notifications and utilizing modern communication means makes sense.
Tower Markings and Lighting:
The rules were revised to eliminate reference to older Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Advisory Circulars from the ‘90s which require tower owners to comply with the FAA’s “no hazard” determination. This change harmonizes the FCC’s requirements to maintain markings and painting with the FAA standards. The FCC, however, did modify a section of the rules to clarify that the Commission still retains the right to create their own rules at a future date. Additionally, the FCC will not require existing antenna structures to meet new lighting or marking standards unless the FAA recommends a change.
Rule changes were adopted for those organizations that have network operations center (NOC) based monitoring systems to be exempted from the current quarterly inspection requirement of all automatic or mechanical control devices, indicators, and alarms systems. If these centers employ systems with self-diagnostics (i.e. alarms, 24-hour polling, etc.), have a capable operations center staffed 24x7x365 and a back-up center that can monitor in situations of disaster, they may be eligible for exemption. Those owners that choose to not employ a NOC will still be subject to the quarterly inspection requirement.
When a tower light goes out, it is time for an immediate notice to the FAA, which will then issue a Notice to Airman (NOTAM) of the potential hazard. In the past, the FCC has been inconsistent with how long owners have to fix a light outage; they are now slightly more defined…”as soon as practical”. Just make sure you keep the FAA notified as NOTAMs do expire on a regular basis.
The lights aren’t the only item that fade (or extinguish) over time…those towers that need to be painted must comply with the FAA “In-Service Aviation Orange Tolerance Chart.” This chart shows degrees of color fading and must be compared to the aviation orange color on the top half of the tower, which typically fades faster. The FCC concedes that the FAA rules are in the best interest of the aviation industry.
When the FCC knocks at your door, having a solid strategy and purposely built operational processes will pay off in the long run. FCC rules are complex and it is good to see that the Commission is taking active steps to simplify and harmonize the rules. As Commissioner Ajit Pai noted, “When the Commission eliminates a rule specifying that tower owners must notify the FAA about lighting outages “by telephone or telegraph,” you know our modernization effort is long overdue”.