But the FCC isn’t planning to give tower owners much slack as a result.

If you’re responsible for a tower subject to lighting requirements imposed by the Federal Aviation Administration, your life may be getting a bit easier early next year. According to an advisory issued by the FCC’s Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, the FAA is modifying its notification process to allow folks reporting lighting outages to specify, in their initial notices, the amount of time they expect to need to get the outage fixed.

We all know that the FAA imposes lighting requirements on certain tower structures, and the FCC adds extra muscle to those requirements when it comes to FCC regulatees responsible for such structures. Under the Commission’s rules, folks with a tower subject to FAA lighting requirements must monitor the tower lights at least once every day, either by directly eyeballing the tower or by observing “an automatic properly maintained indicator designed to register any failure of such lights”.

And when there’s an outage, things are supposed to happen.

The FCC requires that a record be made of the nature of the outage, the date and time the outage was noticed, the date and the outage is corrected (and the nature of the corrections) … and the date and time the FAA is notified.

Wait – notify the FAA?

Of course! If the outage involves a top steady burning light or any flashing obstruction light anywhere on the structure, and if the outage can’t be fixed within 30 minutes of the first observation, the FCC’s rules require that the FAA be notified “immediately”, through the FAA’s standard online system. (The Bureau’s Advisory provides a URL for that system, but it doesn’t appear to work. The FAA’s website does not mention an online system; rather, it instructs would-be outage reporters to call 877-487-6867, for Alaska 800-478-3576.) Once such a notification is received, the FAA automatically issues a “Notice to Airmen” (usually abbreviated “NOTAM”, perhaps to mask the politically incorrect nature of the title) with a shelf life of 15 days. The NOTAM alerts pilots and other aviation-interested folks of the outage, the obvious goal being to prevent crashes. Historically, it has been the tower owner’s obligation to notify the FAA if the outage has not been fixed within 15 days of the initial notification; further notices must be filed every 15 days thereafter until the light’s back on. (Technically, the tower company is expected to cancel and resubmit its NOTAM notice at 15-day intervals until the outage is fixed.)

But according to the Wireless Bureau, the FAA is planning to modify its online system to allow tower companies to “self-select the amount of time they will need to repair a faulty light”. The idea is that burdens on all concerned will be reduced: tower owners won’t have to file – and the FAA won’t have to process – as many reports.

The precise benefit that this change promises for tower companies isn’t clear. For sure it’s a pain to have to re-file NOTAM notices every couple of weeks, so avoiding at least one or two rounds of notices early on may be a help. But if the initially-specified time frame turns out to be inadequate, the tower owner will presumably still have to go through the cancel-and-resubmit routine, just like the old days.

Keep in mind, too, that the opportunity to set your own estimated repair time will not be handing you a perpetual “Get Out of FAA Jail for Free” card. The Wireless Bureau’s advisory emphasizes that both the FAA and the FCC “will respond aggressively if they discover tower owners are abusing [the] system”. In particular, the Bureau promises to keep an eye out for tower owners who select “an unusually long time period” in their initial NOTAM notice, or who file multiple NOTAM notices for a single tower “within a relatively short period of time”, or who fail to cancel NOTAMs after repairs are complete, or “where other circumstances suggest a need for closer scrutiny”.

In other words, the mere fact that the initial notice to the FAA may specify an anticipated fix-it time of more than 15 days won’t get the tower owner off the hook for long.

Still, to the extent that the anticipated change in the FAA’s notice processes relieves tower companies (and the FAA) of even a modest amount of hassle, that’s at least something.

Interestingly, while this change is being made by the FAA (not the FCC), and while the change will apparently benefit all tower owners (including the full range of FCC regulatees), the Wireless Bureau wants us all to know that the change “reflects the Commission’s commitment … to update and rationalize the processes that FCC licensees must follow, particularly in the area of wireless infrastructure.”

According to the Bureau’s Advisory, we can look for the changes to the FAA’s system to kick in in mid-January, 2015.