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.]