After nearly a decade, the FAA advises that it is no longer pursuing a proposal that would have inserted it deeply into the regulation of FM stations.
For years, the Federal Aviation Administration has toyed with the idea of regulating use of some portions of the spectrum – including particularly the FM band (approximately 88 MHz–108 MHz) – even though conventional wisdom says that such matters are statutorily (not to mention logically) controlled by the Federal Communications Commission. The FAA backed down from these aspirations to some degree in 2010, but in doing so it sniffed, in effect, that we all hadn’t heard the last from it on this point.
Now, five years later, the FAA appears to have thrown in the towel. In a three-sentence letter to the FCC’s Office of Engineering and Technology, the FAA has advised that it is “no longer pursuing the proposed frequency notification requirements for FM radio stations” which it has long had its regulatory eye on.
Ideally, this means that the FAA has finally abandoned any hope of affirmatively regulating FM radio transmission facilities.
In fairness, the FAA’s interest in that particular chunk of the spectrum is not by any means crazy. Modern aviation systems – both on-board aircraft and on the ground, particularly in the vicinity of airports – use radio spectrum for a variety of important purposes, including communications and navigation. As it turns out, the FM band bumps up against aeronautical frequencies: it’s immediately adjacent to a band (108-137 MHz) used by the FAA. Since FM stations generally operate at power levels far greater than FAA equipment, the chances that FM stations might cause electromagnetic interference to nearby FAA facilities are not trivial. The result could be inaccurate navigational guidance to the pilot – showing the aircraft to be on course when it’s not – or interference to air-to-ground communications. We can all agree that such results are best avoided.
The FAA for decades sought to insert itself into the process of authorizing broadcast stations, primarily through its acknowledged control over towers near airports. This led to considerable tension with the FCC and many broadcasters (as well as other spectrum users). It’s one thing for the FAA to regulate the height of towers and other structures that might get in the way of aircraft landing and taking off. It’s another for the FAA to assert that it can or should dictate the geographical areas in which certain radio frequencies may be operated.
In 2006 the FAA opened its own proceeding looking to expand its regulatory control over spectrum use. It wanted to require, as part of its Determination of No Hazard process, notice of most any change to any station operating on a wide range of frequencies. New or modified structures that would hold RF generators using those frequencies, changes in channels, power increases of 3 dB or more, antenna modifications, etc., etc. – everything would have to go through the FAA first for its blessing. And without that blessing (in the form of a Determination of No Hazard), the change would not be permitted.
The potential for bureaucratic delays was huge, as was the potential for inter-agency confusion and inconsistency.
In 2010, the FAA decided that it wouldn’t pursue its proposed changes, so it withdrew the proposal for required pre-construction notice for all frequencies other than the FM band (88.0-107.9 MHz). The question of FM spectrum was left open, to be resolved amicably by the FAA and the FCC. The FAA indicated that it would deal with that question “when a formal and collaborative decision [between the FAA and the FCC] is announced.”
No such “formal and collaborative decision” has been announced in the intervening five years, which would suggest that the matter has since remained under discussion. Indeed, in a 2012 Notice of Proposed Rulemaking and Order, the Commission expressed “concern” that the issue remained unresolved. Partly in response to the FCC’s concern – albeit three years after that concern was expressed – the FAA has now tersely but explicitly stated, without elaboration, that “the FAA is no longer pursuing the proposed frequency notification requirements for FM radio stations operating in the 88.0-108 MHz frequency” associated with its 2006 rulemaking.
If true, that would mark the end of the protracted turf battle between the FAA and the FCC. We add the “if true” qualifier because we’re not aware of any “formal and collaborative decision” between the two agencies having been announced. The FAA’s letter provides no supporting citation to any particular order (or other document) in which the FAA might have unilaterally reached this decision. A search of the FAA’s website turned up no evidence of any such formal, unilateral decision on the FAA’s part.
Still, we do have the FAA’s recent letter, which says what it says. That’s at least something.