In late July we reported on the FCC’s adoption of new rules governing Travelers’ Information Stations. Those new rules (contained in the “Report and Order” portion of the “Report and Order and Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking” (R&O/FNPRM)) have now been published in the Federal Register, which means that they are set to take effect on September 18, 2013. Meanwhile, in a separate item in the same issue of the Federal Register, the Commission has published the “Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking” component of the R&O/FNPRM. According to that item, comments on in response to the FCC’s proposals are due to be filed by September 18, 2013, and reply comments by October 3.
Minor expansion in content, “ribbon” networks are allowed.
“Tune to 1610 AM for parking information.” “When flashing tune to 530 AM.”
We all know these signs. The FCC calls the service behind them “Travelers’ Information Stations” (TIS). These are low-power AM stations permitted to broadcast only information on traffic and road conditions, travel advisories, and other information of interest to motorists. Each covers only a small geographic area, most commonly along major highways and near tourist destinations.
The FCC has made minor changes to the rules – the first since the TIS was created in 1977.
We blogged about the proposed rules in January 2011, but the proposals go back farther, to 2008, when Highway Information Systems, Inc., proposed sweeping changes. Later that year, the American Association of Information Radio Operators (AAIRO) filed its own, more moderate, proposal. Other groups followed with a variety of ideas that included renaming the service, changing the site and power limitations, and greatly expanding the system’s use.
The FCC, in the end, stuck to the middle of the road. (Sorry!) It clarified that permissible content for TIS includes weather alerts regarding difficult or hazardous conditions, plus information on a host of other emergency and non-emergency traffic and travel-related events and locations, along with any communications related directly to the imminent safety of life or property. Also permissible are certain non-travel related emergency information, including Amber Alerts and Silver Alerts, and information on the availability of 511 service (travel conditions by telephone).
The FCC rejected a call to allow any non-commercial content, and specifically disallowed non-emergency, non-travel information, such as routine weather information, emergency-preparedness messages, and terrorist threat levels. Reasoning that this information is widely available through other sources, the FCC concluded that broadcasting it over TIS would dilute the effectiveness of TIS in assisting travelers with geographically focused emergency information. (At the same time, however, the FCC acknowledged that some alternative sources for this kind of information, such as cell phones and mobile Internet access, should not be used while driving.) In keeping with the historical focus on serving the traveling public, the FCC turned down a requested name change to “Local Government Radio Service.”
In what should be a relief to TIS licensees, the FCC acceded to AAIRO and others who asked it, within the bounds of reason, to defer to the discretion of licensees when determining what information to broadcast. The alternative – rejected by the FCC – would have had the FCC set up strict, rule-based criteria. Licensees are equipped with better knowledge of local conditions, the FCC concurred, and are in the best position to determine what constitutes an imminent threat or emergency condition.
Perhaps the biggest change is one allowing licensees to create “ribbon” networks which broadcast the same information through multiple transmitters. This allows a licensee that operates a number of transmitters to produce some information only once. The FCC made clear, though, that all content broadcast from a given transmitter still must be relevant to travelers within the coverage area of that transmitter.
The FCC declined to make changes to the field strength limits or the site location requirements. Although it recognized some evidence of limited interference, it decided this can be resolved by cooperation between licensees and by individual license modifications where necessary.
The FCC’s decision also includes a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (FNPRM) on whether to drop the present requirement for filtering TIS audio frequencies above 3 kHz. The filtering gives TIS broadcasts a “low fidelity” quality, sounding more like a telephone than a radio broadcast. The rule is intended to limit interference, but some parties say it is ineffective and reduces intelligibility.
Check back here for comment deadlines relative to the FNPRM.
[FHH represents parties in this proceeding.]
A couple of weeks ago we reported on an Order and Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) which could lead to a re-shaping of the Travelers Information Service. The NPRM has now been published in the Federal Register, which in turn establishes the deadlines for comments and reply comments relative to the NPRM. Comments are due by February 18, 2011, and reply comments by March 7, 2011.
Longstanding limits on content, facilities under scrutiny in wide-ranging NPRM
If you (like most of your fellow citizens) spend much time on the highways and by-ways of our great country – or if you have an interest (commercial or otherwise) in reaching folks on those same highways and by-ways – listen up. The Commission has launched a rulemaking to explore possible changes in the Travelers Information Service (TIS), the AM-based low-power service that provides a constant diet of, um, travelers information along highways and near various travel-based locations. At the request of several associations of government officials and TIS operators, the FCC has issued an Order and Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) to consider whether TIS stations should be permitted to air a greater range of information at greater power in a greater variety of locations. The range of possible changes includes, at one extreme, a substantial redefinition of the service itself.
The TIS has been around since 1977. TIS stations operate in the AM band, as a primary service on 530 kHz and on a secondary basis on 535-1705 kHz. With maximum power of 50 watts, they are low-power operations designed to reach a narrow audience of travelers passing in the immediate vicinity of each station. The content of their transmissions is limited to “noncommercial voice information” about traffic (including road conditions, hazards, advisories, directions), nearby options for lodging, rest stops and service stations, and descriptions of local points of interest. The strict limitations on the service were imposed out of concern about possible interference and competition with commercial broadcasters.
Citing broad changes that have occurred in the country in the three decades since TIS began, the petitioning associations of government officials and TIS operators suggest that the Commission:
- re-name the TIS as the “Local Government Radio Service”;
- eliminate certain site and power limitations; and
- expand the permissible content of TIS messages to include, among other things, alerts concerning the safety of life or protection of property, such as NOAA weather radio transmissions, AMBER alerts and other civil defense announcements.
The key question posed by the NPRM is: “Should the Commission significantly expand the scope of permitted communications by local governments on TIS stations, or should it adopt more limited changes that are consistent with the traditional traveler-related focus of TIS?” In other words, does TIS get a comprehensive, possibly mission-changing overhaul, or should it just be tweaked here and there to preserve its “traditional” focus?
The proceeding started back in 2008, with a petition by Highway Information Systems, Inc., proposing sweeping changes to the TIS. Two months later, the American Association of Information Radio Operators (AAIRO, represented by Fletcher Heald) took a more measured approach: it asked the Commission simply to confirm that the permissible content of TIS stations includes “any message concerning the safety of life or protection of property that may affect any traveler or any individual in transit or soon to be in transit” – a reasonable interpretation of the notion of “travelers information”.
But other groups followed up with their own separate, and broader, suggestions. Declining to simply provide the confirmation that AAIRO had asked for in the first place, the Commission now asks whether the permissible content of TIS stations should be expanded to include such matters as NOAA Weather Radio retransmissions, AMBER Alerts, terror threat alert levels, civil defense announcements and the like. (How limited is the FCC’s view of existing content limitations? In 2007, the Enforcement Bureau issued a Notice of Violation to the City of Santa Monica for retransmitting NOAA weather broadcasts.)
Other questions up for discussion: If such expansion is permitted, what limits should be imposed? For example, should only non-routine NOAA reports be permitted, or could routine reports be included as well? Would the proposed changes adversely affect commercial broadcasting, as NAB maintains? One proponent goes so far as to suggest that TIS stations be permitted to “any information of a noncommercial nature”. Another emphasizes the possible use of TIS for general emergency-readiness information along with announcements about local history, environment and parks.
With respect to the technical aspects of TIS, the Commission is considering a variety of proposals advanced by the petitioners. Should TIS stations be untethered from their current geographical anchors (i.e., roads, highways, public transportation terminals, etc.) and allowed to be located pretty much anywhere? One prominent engineering firm has objected to that proposal, citing its potential adverse effect on nighttime interference in the medium wave AM band. With that in mind, the Commission seeks comments on whether and to what extent interference problems could arise and, if so, how they should be addressed.
Along the same lines, should TIS stations be given greater potential power to expand their service areas? One possible rationale for a power increase: because of higher speed limits since 1977, vehicles are within TIS service areas for shorter durations, thus allowing only 90 seconds for transmission including station ID.
The Commission also addresses a proposal to allow networks or “ribbons” of TIS stations along a highway. It asks about the nature of the system proposed and how it would operate. On the one hand, such systems could be useful in, for instance, directing evacuation efforts along certain routes; on the other, they might attract travelers away from commercial stations with superfluous or redundant information.
The potentially far-reaching nature of the changes under consideration is revealed in the seemingly simple proposal to change the name of the service from the “Travelers Information Service” to the “Local Government Radio Service” (or some variant along those lines). While some might invoke Shakespeare to suggest that a mere name change would have little effect, the proposed change here reflects the fundamentally different view of the service envisioned by some of the petitioners. After all, a “travelers information service” by definition provides information to travelers. A “local government radio service”, on the other hand, would appear to re-focus the goal of the service away from its intended beneficiaries (i.e., travelers) and toward its operators (i.e., local governments). While local governments might still be inclined to provide travelers information, they might also be inclined to expand the content far beyond that traditional limitation.
The Commission does not appear to have developed strong preferences on any of these issues yet, so if you’re inclined to drive into the TIS debate, now’s your chance. Comments will be due 30 days after (and reply comments 45 days after) the NPRM is published in the Federal Register. Check back here for updates on that front.
Meantime, be safe out there.