FCC’s O’Rielly Proposes Eased Tower Marking Rules with FAA

An FAA provision regarding tower marking for structures 200 to 500 feet AGL in a recently enacted statute is too broad, and needs a carve out to exempt certain telecom towers, believes FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly. If implemented literally, Section 2110 of the FAA Extension, Safety and Security Act of 2016 which requires improved physical markings and/or lighting on various small to medium sized towers “will force expensive retrofits to potentially 50,000 existing towers, such as wireless communications and certain broadcast towers, all new towers that meet the broad definition, and raise tower prices for the next generation of wireless services,” he says in a blog. Without relief, communications companies will be forced to spend thousands of dollars per tower – potentially hundreds of millions nationwide – to come into compliance or face significant FAA penalties, and potentially FCC enforcement action, since the FCC follows the FAA’s lead, according to the commissioner.

The new law was meant to improve air safety, especially for crop dusting pilots, from temporary meteorological testing towers (METs). These temporary towers measure wind speed and direction during development of wind energy conversion facilities and many times the locations are not disclosed for competitive reasons. The statute mainly applies to towers outside of incorporated cities and towns, on undeveloped land or land used for agricultural purposes. Towers that are near a structure or support electric utility transmission are excluded; so too, are towers that serve as street lights or consist of certain wind-powered generators. 

“By raising the siting costs with new marking mandates, it is harder for companies to justify the investments and any current or future deployments,” says O’Rielly. “If a wireless company has limited dollars to invest, this provision could lead them to direct those funds to areas that are not affected by this provision. This also may make the business case for bringing future 5G wireless services, which are likely to require even more poles to support a small cell network, to rural America even more challenging than it already is.” O’Rielly suggests the provision could also hinder the incentive auction television station repack and the implementation of ATSC 3.0, which is next-gen TV, a marriage of broadcast and broadband.

Rather than reworking the entire provision, O’Rielly, a congressional staffer before he came to the Commission, suggests an exemption for permanent communications towers that have little overall impact on agricultural air safety would do the trick. He stresses his comments are not a criticism of the law passed by Congress, but rather are an attempt to highlight a potential unintended consequence.       

March 13, 2017   

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