Antenna farm

A rule dating to World War II when the Federal Communications Commission was doing its part to conserve resources to the war effort has become the 17th proceeding as part of FCC Chair Ajit Pai’s ongoing push to modernize the agency’s media regulations. The Commission advanced a proposal Friday that, if passed, would abolish a rule that for the past seven decades has prohibited the FCC from granting an FM or TV station antenna grant or renewal application, unless the broadcaster makes a suitable site available to other stations.

John Cobb, an attorney in the Media Bureau, explained the war-era rule was created in part to conserve steel and other materials for the overseas effort. It was also at a time when broadcast infrastructure was sparse and the federal government had imposed a freeze on the construction to conserve materials for the war effort. The rules don’t include AM stations but that’s only due to the fact that at the time those sites were generally incompatible with use by FM radio or television antennas.

“The broadcast marketplace has evolved substantially,” Cobb said, noting the “dramatic increase” in the number of FM and TV antenna sites suitable for broadcasting—most of which today are not owned by stations but tower companies like American Tower and Vertical Bridge. He told the commissioners that the Bureau doesn’t know of any situation in the past 74 years when any new tower grant or a license renewal was denied because an antenna owner refused to share a site with other broadcasters. Instead, the FCC acknowledges the rule has been invoked in some situations unjustifiably, only serving to cost tower owners more time and money to resolve the complaints. It says the growth of wireless towers and a move toward co-location of towers to antenna farms has also made it easier to build new transmission facilities.

In a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (MB Docket Nos. 19-282) approved unanimously by the five commissioners, the FCC not only asks how stations would be impacted if the rules were eliminated. It also looks to determine whether the television industry’s new ATSC 3.0 standards could increase demand for antenna sites.

Pai said the FCC’s antenna siting rules appear primed for some “housekeeping,” citing a “flourishing” tower site market and the fact that agency staff hasn’t been able to find a single instance where the rules were successfully invoked to ensure a station was able to gain access to a site. “What they have found are parties citing these rules without a factual basis for doing so, resulting in unnecessary delay of Commission proceedings,” said Pai. “All this raises the question: Are these rules still necessary? With this Notice, we aim to find out.”

Commissioner Michael O’Rielly said the little-used regulation, dating back to when the Greatest Generation came home from Europe, demonstrates the “arcane regime” that the broadcast industry lives with. He pushed the FCC to keep going with its modernization efforts. “We must keep up the effort to free traditional, regulated industries from regulatory burdens where appropriate,” said O’Rielly. “Otherwise, they will continue to fight with one, or both, of their proverbial hands tied behind their backs.”