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Friday will see the launch of the FCC’s new online public inspection file system, called, not surprisingly, the Online Public Inspection File (“OPIF”).  With stations moving to a “next gen” public inspection file, Pillsbury today released its next gen Public Inspection File Advisory.  Like earlier editions have done since the creation of the public inspection file requirement, this latest edition provides in-depth information on the content of the file for both commercial and noncommercial stations, whether they are already online, moving online this Friday, or not moving online until 2018.

As discussed here previously, the OPIF replaces the Broadcast Public Inspection File (“BPIF”) for full power and Class A TV stations, and becomes mandatory on June 24th for not just those stations, but for:

  • Commercial broadcast radio stations that are located in the Top 50 Nielsen Audio markets with five or more full time employees (“First Wave stations”)
  • DBS providers
  • SDARS licensees
  • Cable systems with 1,000 or more subscribers.

As it did with the predecessor BPIF, the FCC took some commonsense steps to simplify the transition to an online file and avoid unnecessary effort for stations going forward.  Specifically, the FCC will automatically upload to a station’s online public inspection file most applications and reports that are electronically filed with the FCC.

However, stations should not be complacent that the FCC is assuming responsibility for the public file being complete.  Stations must still be knowledgeable about which items actually belong in the public inspection file and for how long.  Not all items required to be filed with the FCC electronically have to be kept in the public file, and many items that are not filed electronically with the FCC do have to be kept in the public inspection file.  Stations must know the difference.  In addition, stations must know where in the file to upload required items.  For example, most commercial stations will have a Political File that covers candidate airtime purchases, and a Section 73.1212 Sponsorship Identification File addressing issue ads.  As the FCC itself has acknowledged, however, many stations have tended to combine those two categories, placing both in their Political File folder.

Knowing how and where these various documents should be uploaded is important for ensuring a rule-compliant file that can withstand worldwide scrutiny on the Internet.  Equally important, however, is knowing when a document should be removed from the public file.  The OPIF does not address this need, and documents that are past their retention period must be manually removed by the licensee.

Of course, the transition to any new online system requires users to become familiar with that system’s architecture and operation as well.  To that end, the FCC recently hosted a live demonstration of the OPIF.  That demonstration revealed that First Wave stations must log into their new online public inspection file on June 24th and actively take steps to switch the file “on” so that the public can access the content.

It turns out that accomplishing this involves several steps.  First, the licensee must sign into the system using its Federal Registration Number (“FRN”) and password, revealing the Owner Dashboard.  The Owner Dashboard displays the Passcode that the system has assigned to each of that owner’s stations.  This allows an owner of multiple stations to give the Passcode to employees responsible for maintaining one station’s public file without having to give up the overall FRN or the Passcodes to its other stations’ public files associated with that FRN.  After this has been accomplished, the licensee will need to log out of the Owner Dashboard and then log back into the system using the “Entity ID”, which in the case of a broadcast station is the Facility Identification Number for the station and the Passcode acquired in the first step.

At this point, a banner will be visible at the top of the public file screen that reads “[Call Sign] is now ready for keeping public inspection files online.  [Call Sign] profile is currently turned On/Off for public view.”  The last step that needs to be taken is switching the station’s public file view to “On”.  The licensee makes the file visible to the world by toggling the On/Off button to the On position.  This action cannot be undone.  Once it is toggled on, it remains on forever.

As part of this process, a pop up box will open requiring the station to certify (and yes, this is exactly how it reads according to the FCC’s demonstration) “I confirm that you are now uploading to your online public inspection file all new public and political file material on a going-forward basis.”  This appears to be intended to let the public know which radio stations are First Wave stations (whose online public files are being phased in from June 24th to December 24th), and explain why documents created before June 24th may not yet be in that station’s online public file.  Once the certification is checked, the station’s online public file will be visible to the public and a banner will appear stating “This entity has confirmed that it is uploading to the online public inspection file all new public and political file material on a going-forward basis.”

For First Wave stations, public file documents that existed prior to June 24th must be uploaded to the online public file by December 24th.  When a station has completed that uploading process, it must go to the Certification tab in the public file and certify “Yes, I certify I have uploaded all existing public file material required to be included in the online public inspection file” and then enter the name of the person certifying.  A banner stating “This entity has confirmed that it has completed uploading of all existing public file material required to be included in the online public file” will then appear and be visible to the public.  Stations obviously will want to make sure this is an accurate statement before making the certification.

While this somewhat complicated process may make radio stations nostalgic for paper files, the transition on June 24th should be much smoother for full power and Class A television stations.  The FCC plans to move all materials in a TV station’s current online public file into the new system by June 24th.  According to the FCC, the links that stations have on their websites to their online public inspection files in BPIF should still work in an OPIF world, as the FCC intends to automatically redirect that link to the new online filing system.  However, stations are still encouraged to update the link on their website on June 24th to be certain visitors actually reach the new online public file location.  More immediately, the direct link that TV stations are required to have on their website to their most recent EEO public inspection file report (if the report itself is not posted on the station website) will not be redirected by the FCC.  As a result, such TV stations need to manually fix that link on their website as of June 24 or be in violation of the EEO report posting requirement.

One final note: in the new database, the FCC has hidden the various document folders under the “Manage” tab, so television stations that are used to seeing all their materials immediately upon logging in should click that tab before assuming the FCC failed to import their public file documents into the new system.

If “content is king” in programming, then content in the public file is king in a station’s next license renewal.  Successfully navigating the transition to an online public file and the worldwide scrutiny it can bring will determine how smoothly that license renewal will go.  More immediately, knowing what needs to be in the public file and ensuring it is there on time will avoid public file fines that start at $10,000 and go up from there.

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In a Public Notice released today, the FCC has taken the next steps towards implementing the expanded online public inspection file, which is set to go live on June 24th.  Specifically, the FCC announced that on June 13, 2016 at 1:00 p.m. Eastern Time, it will hold an online demonstration on using the new online public file.  In addition, the FCC publicized the Internet address for the new online public file, which licensees must use to create the required link from their websites to the online public file.

As we previously described in Neither Sleet Nor Snow Can Keep the Radio Public File from Going Online and All New Online Public File for TV, Radio, Cable and Satellite Coming June 24th, the FCC adopted a Report and Order in January 2016 extending the online public inspection file requirement to broadcast and satellite radio licensees and cable and satellite television operators.  That requirement is currently applicable only to full power and Class A television stations.  Pursuant to a phased-in schedule, commercial radio stations that have five or more employees and are located in the Top 50 Nielsen Audio markets, as well as satellite radio licensees, cable systems with 1000 or more subscribers, and DBS operators, must begin using the new system on June 24, 2016.  While commercial radio stations not included in this group as well as all noncommercial radio stations are exempt from the new online public file requirement until March 1, 2018, they are allowed to voluntarily commence use of the new system sooner.  Because these exempt stations are permitted to transition early, the demonstration should be of interest to all radio station licensees.  The demonstration will take place in the Commission Meeting Room, but can be viewed live at https://www.fcc.gov/news-events/events/2016/06/demonstration-expanded-online-public-inspection-file-interface.

Today’s Public Notice also notes that the website address where the new online public file will be hosted will be https://publicfiles.fcc.gov/.  Once a station has transitioned to the online public file, it must provide a link to the new online public inspection file from the home page of the station’s website, if it has one.  Full power and Class A television stations that already have such a link will need to update that link to reflect the new website address.

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Pillsbury’s communications lawyers have published FCC Enforcement Monitor monthly since 1999 to inform our clients of notable FCC enforcement actions against FCC license holders and others. This month’s issue includes:

  • FCC Enforcement Bureau and Long-Distance Provider Agree to $100,000 Settlement for Violations of FCC’s Rural Call Completion Rules
  • FCC Cancels $3,000 Fine Against TV Licensee for Untimely Kidvid Filings, Upholds $10,000 Fine for Missing Issues/Programs Lists
  • FM Construction Permit Auction Winner Fined $3,000 For Late Application

Dropped Call of the Wild: Investigation of Rural Call Problems Ends With $100,000 Consent Decree

The FCC’s Enforcement Bureau entered into a Consent Decree with a Utah-based long distance carrier to resolve an investigation into whether the carrier failed to sufficiently respond to a rural customer’s complaints of poor call quality and failed to cooperate with the FCC’s resulting investigation.

The FCC has adopted several “Rural Call Completion Rules” in recent years to address poor call quality and call completion problems in rural and other high-cost areas. The Commission clarified in a 2012 declaratory ruling that a carrier violates Section 201 of the Communications Act of 1934 when it knows or should know that calls are not being completed to certain areas and fails to correct the problem or fails to ensure that its intermediate providers correct the problem.

The FCC has also determined that practices that allow lower quality service to rural or traditionally high-cost areas to persist constitute unjust or unreasonable discrimination (based on locality) in violation of Section 202 of the Communications Act. Further, the FCC has interpreted Section 208 of the Act and Section 1.717 of the Commission’s Rules to require that a carrier satisfy (or adequately explain why it cannot satisfy) any informal rural call completion complaints.

In December 2014, a consumer filed an informal complaint with the FCC detailing ongoing problems with receiving work calls. The calls were sent over the carrier’s long distance network to the consumer’s home office, which is served by an intermediate rural local exchange carrier. The carrier investigated the matter and explained in its response to the informal complaint that (1) the consumer had not responded to a follow-up email about the complaint, and (2) the consumer was not its customer.

The carrier took action in March 2015—after the FCC reminded the carrier of its obligations to address rural call quality problems—but the problem recurred. The consumer subsequently filed additional complaints alleging continued call problems in May and June of 2015. Finding that the carrier failed to sufficiently address and resolve the call quality problems with its intermediate provider until late July 2015, the FCC issued a Letter of Inquiry to the carrier and opened an investigation.

To settle the matter, the carrier entered into a Consent Decree with the FCC, wherein the carrier: (1) admitted that it failed to ensure call quality from its intermediate providers and that it did not cooperate with the FCC’s investigation; (2) agreed to pay a $100,000 civil penalty; and (3) agreed to implement a compliance plan going forward. As part of the plan, the carrier must establish operating procedures and training on the Rural Call Completion Rules, and file regular compliance reports with the FCC during the three-year compliance period.

Island Jam: Guam TV Station Successfully Appeals Proposed Fine for Late Kidvid Reports, But Remains on the Hook for Issues/Programs List Violations

The FCC’s Media Bureau cancelled a proposed $3,000 fine against a Guam TV licensee for failing to timely file five Children’s Television Programming Reports, but upheld a $10,000 fine against the licensee for failing to place fifteen Quarterly Issues/Programs Lists in the station’s public inspection file. The FCC also admonished the licensee for its failure to upload copies of its Quarterly Issues/Programs Lists that were in the station’s local file prior to August 2, 2012.

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The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit today issued a decision vacating the FCC rule effectively banning television Joint Sales Agreements (“JSAs”) and threatened to throw out all of the FCC’s remaining broadcast ownership rules if the FCC does not complete its required “quadrennial” review of those rules by the end of 2016.

The case returned broadcasters and advocacy groups to this court for its third major decision on the FCC’s broadcast ownership rules since 2004.  This time around, the case addressed three issues:  public interest groups’ request that the court require the FCC to adopt a new definition of “eligible entity” aimed at promoting female and minority broadcast ownership; broadcasters’ request that the court vacate all broadcast ownership rules due to the FCC’s failure to complete the statutorily mandated quadrennial reviews of those rules; and broadcasters’ request that the court vacate the FCC’s rule making television JSAs an attributable ownership interest.

The first two of these issues date back to the FCC’s 2002 biennial review of its ownership rules.  Congress mandated that the Commission conduct periodic reviews of its broadcast ownership rules, originally every two years, but later extended to every four years, in the 1996 Telecom Act.  The Commission undertook reviews in 2002 and 2006 that resulted in orders that were appealed to the Third Circuit.  Thereafter, the Commission consolidated each still-pending quadrennial review with the succeeding one, with the result that the FCC has not concluded a review or updated its ownership rules since 2006.

In its 2002 biennial review, the FCC modified certain of its broadcast ownership rules, including changing its definition of a radio market, with the result that its ownership rules for radio stations were actually more restrictive.  The FCC grandfathered existing radio station combinations that would have exceeded the new limits, but required those combinations be broken up and brought into compliance with the new standards if sold.  To encourage female and minority ownership, the Commission excluded “eligible entities” from the new rules, allowing those meeting the definition to acquire a combination that would otherwise have to be split up under the revised radio ownership rules.

Other similar FCC rules also rely on the definition of an “eligible entity”, making that definition central to the FCC’s efforts to increase female and minority ownership.  The FCC has been using a definition of “eligible entity” based on revenue that was developed by the Small Business Administration, arguing that the test will survive judicial scrutiny because it is not based on race or gender.  However, advocacy groups have countered that there is no evidence that the definition actually enhances female and minority ownership, as opposed to small business entity ownership.  The Third Circuit agreed in 2011, finding the Commission’s use of the definition to be arbitrary and capricious.  However, since the Commission has not completed its required quadrennial reviews, the definition has remained in place, contrary to the Third Circuit’s order that the FCC adopt another definition.

Five other ownership rules, the local television ownership rule, the local radio ownership rule, the newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership rule, the radio/television cross-ownership rule, and the dual network rule have similarly gone without an update since 2006.  The court lamented that this lack of review has left broadcasters subject to rules that are decades old, preventing parties from taking advantage of deregulatory options the FCC has considered, but not acted on.  It specifically highlighted the continued existence of the newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership rule, which was created in the 1970s.  The FCC determined more than a decade ago that the rule is no longer necessary, but it remains on the books because the FCC has not successfully concluded the required quadrennial reviews to eliminate it.

The court dissected the rationales the Commission espoused to justify rolling each quadrennial review into the next one and found that they did not justify the years-long delay.  It stopped short, however, of granting the requested invalidation of all broadcast ownership rules, finding that the delays do not yet justify doing so.  Instead, the court mandated that the Commission go to mediation with the public interest groups to set a timetable for defining “eligible entity”, and based on a promise by the FCC that the Chairman would circulate a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for revised ownership rules by June 30, gave the agency until the end of the year to take comments, reach a decision completing the 2010 and 2014 quadrennial reviews, and issue new broadcast ownership rules.

Against this backdrop, the court considered the third issue before it—broadcasters’ challenge to the Commission’s decision to attribute television JSA arrangements that had been routinely treated as non-attributable before.  The FCC adopted this rule of its own accord in 2014, arguing that JSAs involving more than 15% of another in-market station’s airtime gave one station influence approximating ownership over the other station, thereby enabling it to evade the limitations of the Commission’s local television ownership rule.  Broadcasters argued, however, and the court agreed, that the Commission could not “expand the reach” of the local television ownership rule without justifying the rule’s continued existence in the first instance in a quadrennial review.

The court’s decision sets in motion activity on a number of fronts.  First, the Commission, while in the midst of its first-ever broadcast incentive auction, will have to participate in mediation with public interest groups.  Second, the Commission will have to quickly finalize a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that it represents has been in the works for some time.  Third, it will have to collect comments and reply comments, perhaps complete new ownership studies, analyze the record these actions create, and in the next six months, conclude proceedings that have been underway for more than 10 years.

If this timeline is to be accommodated, comment periods will have to be short, extensions of comment deadlines may not be available, and resources the Commission might put toward other activities may need to be reallocated.  Despite having ten years since the 2006 quadrennial review, reasoned decision making may have to give way to rushed decision making.

As a result, broadcasters should start prepping now to participate in the proceeding.  By necessity, it will be fast-moving, and strange things can happen in fast-moving proceedings.  Getting the right result in this quadrennial review will require a lot of effort, and summer vacation just got a lot shorter.

 

 

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On a day when a major broadcast ownership decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit garnered most of the attention, the FCC worked on more prosaic matters, issuing a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to eliminate the requirement that commercial broadcast stations maintain letters and e-mails from the public in their public file.  This requirement is one of the only vestiges of the physical public file that remained after the FCC’s decisions to move television and radio public files online.

The FCC based its proposal to eliminate the requirement in part upon the increase in communication between the public and broadcast stations on social media platforms, and the corresponding decrease in communication by letter and e-mail.  The NPRM also proposes to eliminate a requirement that cable television operators maintain the location of their cable system’s principal headend in their public file.

Initial comments on the FCC’s proposals will be due 30 days after the NPRM is published in the Federal Register, with reply comments due 60 days after Federal Register publication.

As we wrote recently, eliminating the requirement to maintain correspondence from the public in a physical file would free stations from the need to provide free and unfettered access to their offices, and to maintain staff at all times during business hours ready to handle public file requests.

The NPRM enjoyed support from all five Commissioners, each of whom issued a separate statement in support of the proposal—a somewhat rare display of unanimity by the current Commission.  Of particular interest was Chairman Wheeler’s statement that today’s proposal, if adopted, would enable broadcasters to “lock their doors and redeploy resources once used to help the public access the file at the studio.”  Many in the TV and radio community may find themselves quietly nodding in agreement.

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Television broadcasters have had to comply with an online Public Inspection File requirement since 2012.  This past January, the FCC announced that it would expand the online Public File requirement to certain broadcast radio, satellite radio, cable system, and DBS operators.  Today, the FCC released a Public Notice announcing the effective date of that new obligation.  It also announced that it has established a new filing system, the Online Public Inspection File (“OPIF”), for use by these newly-covered entities, as well as by television broadcasters who until now have been using the existing online Broadcast Public Inspection File (“BPIF”).

The entities that are newly covered by the online Public File requirement will begin use of the new system in two “waves,” with larger entities going first and having a phase-in period, and smaller entities going later, but having no phase-in period.  There are lots of dates to keep track of, which include:

  • To Be Announced:  FCC Webinar Demonstrating Use of OPIF
  • June 24, 2016:  Public Inspection File documents (including Political File documents) created on or after this date must be uploaded to OPIF by the “first wave” of newly-covered entities:
    • Commercial radio stations that have five or more full-time employees and are located in the Top 50 Nielsen Audio markets
    • DBS providers
    • SDARS licensees
    • Cable systems with 1,000 or more subscribers (except with respect to the Political File, for systems with fewer than 5,000 subscribers)
  • June 24, 2016:  OPIF use by full-power and Class A television stations becomes mandatory and BPIF use is disabled
    • The FCC says it will transition television stations’ existing documents from the BPIF to the OPIF automatically by this date
  • December 24, 2016:  Public Inspection (but not Political) File documents created prior to June 24, 2016 must be uploaded to the OPIF by the “first wave” entities listed above
  • March 1, 2018:  A “second wave” of newly-covered entities must begin use of OPIF for all newly created Public Inspection and Political File documents and upload all existing Public Inspection (but not Political) File documents.  The “second wave” consists of:
    • All NCE radio stations
    • Commercial radio stations that have fewer than five full-time employees and are located in the Top 50 Nielsen Audio markets
    • Commercial radio stations located outside of the Top 50 Nielsen Audio markets, regardless of staff size
    • Cable systems with between 1,000 and 5,000 subscribers, with respect to newly-created Political File documents only

Commercial broadcast licensees must continue to retain letters and emails from the public at their main studios; the FCC will not let them be posted in the online public file.  However, as we noted last week, the FCC is circulating a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that proposes eliminating such letters and emails from the public file entirely.

The Public Notice announces that the OPIF will include a number of technical improvements not found in the BPIF system currently used by television licensees.  According to the FCC, these improvements are meant to allow stations to better manage their online files, including implementing APIs to enable the upload of multiple documents from a third-party website and permitting a document to be placed into multiple folders.  OPIF will also feature improved .pdf conversion software to speed uploads, and allow more flexibility to delete empty folders.

While radio stations have been nervously gearing up to face the new frontier of online public files, TV stations may be a bit surprised that the online file is changing for them as well.  Particularly surprised will be those TV stations who haven’t been following these developments and who try to log into the old public file system on July 10 to file their quarterly reports.  Whether you are a TV or radio broadcaster, or a cable, DBS, or SDARS provider, now is the time to start learning how OPIF will work; it’s not a BPIF world anymore.

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The FCC released the tentative agenda for its May 25 Open Meeting today, and topping the agenda is an item that could lift a burden that has been on the shoulders of commercial broadcasters for half a century.  The FCC will vote on adopting a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to eliminate the requirement that commercial broadcast stations retain copies of letters and emails from the public in their public inspection files.

That simple description understates, however, the actual impact the proposed change could have.  Letters and emails from the public may have at one time simply been one category of documents among many that broadcasters were required to keep in the public file, but when the FCC started requiring that public files be moved online, it recognized that “including these documents in the online file could risk exposing personally identifiable information and . . . requiring stations to redact such information prior to uploading these documents would be overly burdensome.”  As a result, the FCC decided that while it would require broadcasters to upload all other public file documents to the online file, broadcasters would not be permitted to upload letters or emails from the public and instead would have to continue to maintain those documents in the local public file at the station’s main studio.

In the rulemaking proceeding that resulted in the online public file requirement being expanded to radio, we filed comments on behalf of all 50 State Broadcasters Associations questioning the utility of maintaining a physical public file at the station solely to hold letters from the public:

If every part of the file is moved online except Letters from the Public, it’s hard to imagine anyone ever visiting a station solely for the thrill of reading its mail.  Still, station personnel must remain eternally vigilant for that one person who might show up to look at what will be the last vestige of a station’s local public file.

Those comments encouraged the FCC to take steps to eliminate the requirement, explaining that “as long as this single requirement effectively forces stations to maintain a local public file regardless of whether they also have an online public file, the burden of maintaining both files will for many small stations be a bridge too far.”  Commissioner O’Rielly added his support in a blog post this past September.

The biggest benefit of this change, if adopted, would be to allow stations to cease having to maintain a local “paper” public file and ensure that it is continuously available to the public during regular business hours (including lunchtime).  This would not only benefit stations struggling to ensure that there is always a staffer standing by to provide immediate access to the file, but increasingly important, eliminate a major security risk for broadcast stations seeking to prevent dangerous individuals from entering the building, as happened last week in Baltimore.

If the FCC ultimately eliminates the requirement to maintain letters and emails from the public in a local public file, access to the other content in the file will still be available to the public (online), and stations will no longer have to grant access to an individual just because he knows the “open sesame” phrase of American broadcasting: “I’m here to see the public file.”

In a blog post today (All That’s Old is New Again), Chairman Wheeler hinted that this rulemaking is unlikely to see much resistance, stating that elimination of this “outdated public file requirement[]” would be consistent with the agency’s “process reform initiative to review all Commission regulations and update or repeal outdated and unnecessary rules.” Broadcasters couldn’t agree more.

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Pillsbury’s communications lawyers have published FCC Enforcement Monitor monthly since 1999 to inform our clients of notable FCC enforcement actions against FCC license holders and others. This month’s issue includes:

  • Class A TV Licensee Hit With $89,200 Fine for Dodging FCC Inspectors
  • Student-Run FM Station Faces $12,000 Fine and Shortened License Term for Public Inspection File Violations
  • Wireless Synchronized Clock Company Agrees to Pay $12,000 for Violating License Terms

FCC Throws the ($89,200) Book at Class A Licensee for Evading Main Studio Inspections

The FCC’s Enforcement Bureau imposed a fine of $89,200 against a Philadelphia Class A TV licensee for failing to (1) make its station available for inspection by FCC agents on multiple occasions, (2) maintain a fully staffed main studio, and (3) operate the station’s transmitter from its authorized location.

Section 73.1225(a) of the FCC’s Rules requires broadcast licensees to make a station “available for inspection by representatives of the FCC during the station’s business hours, or at any time it is in operation.” In addition, Section 73.1125(a) of the Rules has been interpreted by the FCC to require broadcast licensees to maintain a main studio with a “meaningful management and staff presence” during normal business hours. Finally, Section 73.1350(a) of the Rules requires a broadcast licensee to “maintain[] and operat[e] its broadcast station in a manner which complies with the technical rules . . . and in accordance with the terms of the station authorization.”

In August 2011, FCC agents attempted to inspect the station’s main studio. After observing that the main studio was inaccessible due to a locked gate, the agents called the station manager and requested access to inspect the main studio. Ten minutes later, the station manager emerged and informed the agents that he could not facilitate the inspection because he was leaving for a medical appointment, and requested that the agents return the next day. When asked about staffing, the station manager said that no one else was available to facilitate the inspection. One of the agents called the sole principal of the station and advised him that the station manager had failed to make the station available for inspection, and asked the principal to call the agent back. The principal did not return the phone call.

Over one month later, in September 2011, the agents returned to the station to inspect the main studio. The station manager appeared at the locked gate, and asked the agents to wait as he returned to the building. After waiting for ten minutes, the agents left. The agents returned that afternoon and found that the gate was still locked. An agent called the station manager, who said the gate was locked for security purposes and that the public must contact the station to obtain access. However, the agents noted that there was no contact information on the gate. An agent called the sole principal about the second failed attempt to inspect the studio, and again did not receive a return phone call.

In addition to the two failed inspection attempts, FCC agents found in March 2012 that the station’s antenna was actually 0.2 miles from the site listed in the station’s license. The agents determined that the station had operated from the unauthorized location for approximately eight years.

The FCC subsequently issued a Notice of Apparent Liability (“NAL”), proposing an $89,200 fine against the station. The base fine for failing to make a station available for inspection is $7,000. However, due to the “unacceptable” conduct of the station, the FCC used its discretion under Section 503(b)(2)(A) of the Communications Act to adjust the proposed fine upward to the maximum amount allowed under the Act: $37,500 for each of the two failed inspections. The FCC also proposed an upward adjustment of the base fine for operating the station from an unauthorized location, from $4,000 to $7,200. In addition, the FCC proposed a $7,000 fine (the base fine amount) for the violation of the main studio rule, for a total fine of $89,200.

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In a long-anticipated move towards commencement of the spectrum auction, the FCC today released a Public Notice and related Appendix providing an initial clearing target of 126 Megahertz of spectrum in what is currently the broadcast television band. The 126 MHz figure represents the targeted amount of spectrum to be repurposed from broadcast television to mobile wireless uses.  The FCC also announced that bidding in the reverse auction will commence on May 31, 2016.

The 126 MHz target is the highest the FCC was contemplating, and indicates that a large number of television stations have chosen to participate in the auction.  By setting a high clearing target, the FCC is maximizing the amount of broadcast spectrum purchased, but increasing the risk that if there is insufficient interest in the forward auction for this amount of spectrum (at the prices the FCC needs to pay selling broadcasters and cover other costs), the auction may have to be redone with a lower clearing target.

In the forward auction, the FCC will offer 10 paired blocks of spectrum, each block comprised of 10 MHz, to mobile wireless bidders.  The remaining 26 MHz of spectrum to be cleared will be used for guard band and duplex gap purposes; i.e., to protect adjacent users from interference.  If the auction is completed with the 126 MHz clearing target, the post-auction television broadcast band will consist of VHF channels 2-13 and UHF channels 14-29.  The process of repacking stations into channels 2-29 would commence following completion of the auction, and is estimated by the FCC to take approximately three years, although many have questioned whether that is sufficient time for the repack.

With the release of the clearing target information, the FCC has locked in all of the following dates for auction-related events:

May 4, 2016, noon:  Date by which each television broadcast licensee that made an initial commitment in the reverse auction must receive a third confidential status letter from the FCC.  That letter will inform the applicant whether its station(s) will be qualified to participate in the reverse auction.  Applicants who have not received this letter by noon (Eastern Time) on May 4 should contact the FCC Auctions Hotline at (717)338-2868.

May 5, 2016: FCC Incentive Auction Reverse Auction Bidding System User Guide available on Auctions webpage.

May 18, 2016:  Online Bidding Tutorial available on Auctions webpage.

May 23, 2016, 10 a.m.:  Bidding Preview Period begins.

May 24, 2016, 10 a.m.:  Clock Phase Workshop.

May 24, 2016, 6 p.m.:  Bidding Review Period ends.

May 25, 2016, 10 a.m.:  Mock Auction Bidding Round 1.  Additional Mock Auction Rounds occur throughout May 25 and May 26.

May 31, 2016:  Bidding in the reverse auction commences for qualified applicants, with a single round of bidding on May 31 and June 1, and two rounds per day starting on June 2.

While it is unclear how many rounds of bidding will be required before the auction closes, or whether the 126 MHz target might lead to a repeat of the reverse auction, today’s news brings a palpable sense that the auction has really begun.  How successful the auction will be for broadcasters, mobile wireless companies, and the FCC will be a developing story.  Stay tuned for more updates.

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Fulfilling Chairman Wheeler’s promise at the NAB Show to launch a proceeding before the end of the month commencing the process of authorizing use of ATSC 3.0 by TV broadcasters, the FCC today released a Public Notice on the subject.  The Public Notice seeks comments on an April 13, 2016 Petition filed by a consortium that includes America’s Public Television Stations, the AWARN Alliance, the Consumer Technology Association, and the National Association of Broadcasters.

Quoting heavily from the Petition, the Public Notice summarizes the Petition as requesting the FCC to:

“amend its rules to allow broadcasters to use the signaling portion of the physical layer of the new ATSC 3.0 (‘Next Generation TV’) broadcast standard, while they continue to deliver current-generation DTV broadcast service to their communities.”  More specifically, the Petition asks the Commission to (1) “approve the Next Generation TV transmission standard as a new, optional standard for television broadcasting;” (2) “approve certain rule changes to permit local simulcasting to enable Next Generation TV to be deployed while ensuring that broadcasts in the current DTV standard remain available to viewers;” and (3) “specify that Next Generation TV transmission is ‘television broadcasting’ in parity with the current DTV standard, and otherwise to conform Sections 73, 74 and 76 of [the] rules to permit the deployment of this innovative new standard.”

Moving from the filing of the Petition to releasing the Public Notice in less than two weeks is an impressive feat for the FCC.  Readers may recall that the Chairman, speaking at the 2015 NAB Show, announced to broadcasters that the Commission would be voting on an AM Revitalization order “in the coming weeks”.  For reasons described in part here on CommLawCenter, a few weeks ultimately stretched out to more than six months, finally leading to the release of an AM Revitalization order in late October of last year.

It is therefore a positive sign that the Chairman was able to fulfill this year’s “NAB speech promise” much faster than last year’s (while acknowledging that releasing a two-page public notice is a lot easier than releasing a final order establishing new rules).  Whether the Chairman views the enhanced capabilities of ATSC 3.0 as promoting his oft-stated mantra of “competition, competition, competition”, or as a back-up legacy for his Chairmanship should the spectrum auction disappoint, it launches the FCC down the path to a more flexible future for broadcasters and the services they provide.

Those interested in having their say on that future should be aware that the deadline for filing comments is May 26, 2016, with reply comments due June 27, 2016.  As a variety of parties make their views known to the FCC in this proceeding, we’ll soon know whether the path to ATSC 3.0 leads to a steep climb, or a walk in the digital park.