Travelers Information Service
March 15, 2011
Did you ever wonder about those little radio stations along the parkway that offer you traffic tips, or the ones that tell you where to park as you approach an airport? How do they get authorized? Are they a problem for broadcasters? Could you get one and load it up with commercial messages?
For more than 30 years, travelers have received traffic hints over their AM radios through a service called the Travelers Information Service (TIS). Generally broadcast at 535 kHz, the TIS allows governmental entities, park districts and a few other authorities to operate these AM radio stations at low power to disseminate information to travelers. The TIS was created in 1977 and is defined at §90.242 of the Commission's Rules.
However, the TIS was created with significant restrictions, due in part to the concerns of commercial broadcasters about interference and about redirecting commercial advertisers. The TIS may operate on a primary basis only at 530 kHz, but may be authorized on a secondary basis throughout the AM band from 535 to 1705 kHz. TIS stations are limited to 50 watts for a station utilizing a cable antenna, which may have a maximum length of 3.0 km (1.9 miles), or 10 watts for a vertical mounted monopole at a maximum of 15 meters (49.2 feet). Field strength of the emission on the operating frequency cannot exceed 2 mV/m at 60 meters (197 feet).
TIS locations are restricted to the immediate vicinity of the following specified areas: air, train, and bus transportation terminals, public parks and historical sites, bridges, tunnels and any intersection of the federal interstate highway with any other interstate, federal, state or local highway. TIS stations are restricted to non-commercial, voice information pertaining to traffic and road conditions, traffic hazards, traffic advisories, directions, the availability of lodging, rest stops service stations and local points of interest. They may not identify the commercial name of a business or otherwise be used for commercial purposes.
It's noteworthy that under FCC rules, an LPFM may be used for TIS and that some government entities have converted regular full-power AM stations to TIS purposes, where they could also carry commercial sponsorships. For example, the Delaware Department of Transportation has converted 1380AM, WTMC-A to the Travelers Advisory Radio System (TARS), which updates travelers on roadway and transit conditions "so they may make informed decisions and avoid congested areas." http://1.usa.gov/WTMC-AM
In the last week of 2010, the FCC acted upon a several requests to significantly expand and enhance the types of services that may be offered through the travelers information stations. Together, the petitions, filed by Highway Information Systems, Inc. ("HIS"), the American Associations of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) and the Association of Information and Radio Operators (AIRO) sought to expand the scope of TIS operations to include more general alerts and public safety-related information, including information to non-motorists.
Included in the proposals are two significant expansions: (1) allowing the TIS to serve any non-commercial purpose at the discretion of the government entity licensed to operate the station, and (2) to eliminate the site restriction to nearby roads, highways and public transportation terminals. Specifically, the AAIRO sought a ruling that the TIS be permitted for any message involving the safety of life or protection of property that might affect a traveler or any person in transit or soon to be in transit. It cited a broad range of examples of such information, including NOAA weather radio retransmissions, AMBER alerts, alternate phone numbers for a failing 911 system and terror threat alerts. It would also enable TIS for all manner of civil defense announcements.
The Commission did not grant the relief requested by any of the petitioners at this time. It concluded that the method by which the requests were made, including a petition for declaratory ruling, were inappropriate for the type of rule changes required to grant the policy changes. Indeed, had the Commission acted on petitions, the result could have been suspect under the Administrative Procedures Act. Instead, the FCC concluded that a rulemaking proceeding would be required to grant the requests and that some of the proposed policy changes were so significant that, despite the comments already received , further opportunities for the public to comment would be required. It then issued a notice of proposed rulemaking under which it would consider the requests.
Not surprisingly, so far several communities and towns filed comments in support of the rule changes -- particularly, the concept of loosening the content restrictions. Other comments, however, filed both on the original petitions and so far in the new rulemaking, highlight several significant concerns. The NAB suggested that many of those seeking significant changes to the TIS services have not demonstrated that the broader changes are necessary to serve the public interest, and that new evidence to support the proposals has not been submitted. Consulting engineers Hatfield and Dawson expressed their concern that the proposed changes would result in a substantial number of new TIS stations that would create a significant increase in background or ambient radio frequency noise levels in the AM broadcasting band, further degrading an already suffering AM service. Another engineering firm, Cohen, Dippell and Everist, commented that in their experience frequently the TIS information is of little or no value to the traveling public, and to significantly expand the TIS programming content is unwarranted.
National Public Radio supported the approach taken by AASHTO to expand the categories of permissible TIS transmissions in specific, clearly articulated ways and in keeping with the spirit of the existing rules, but believes that the other proposals were ill-defined and inappropriate. It believes that maintaining the strict nexus between the TIS and travel and public safety nexus is essential. PBS noted that there are many other broadcast and non-broadcast modalities, both existing and emerging, available to provide information of general interest to the public which would be far more efficient than expansion of the TIS.
If you have views on the TIS petitions you may still submit comments in accordance with FCC procedures. Here are some links to view all the comments filed so far.
This column is provided for general information purposes only and should not be relied upon as legal advice pertaining to any specific factual situation. Legal decisions should be made only after proper consultation with a legal professional of your choosing.