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.