April 2013 Archives

FCC Enforcement Monitor

Scott R. Flick Paul A. Cicelski

Posted April 30, 2013


By Scott R. Flick and Paul A. Cicelski

April 2013

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:

  • Assignment of Paired AM Stations Denied by the FCC
  • Use of Illegal Cell Phone Jammers Leads to Fines in Excess of $125,000

FCC Denies Two Assignment Applications of Paired AM Stations

Early this month, the FCC issued two letters denying several assignment applications seeking to separately assign jointly-operated AM stations to different licensees, contrary to the FCC's rules.

In the 1990s, the FCC expanded the AM band frequencies and permitted AM licensees to operate both existing AM band stations and expanded band AM stations in order to improve the quality of the AM service. However, this dual operating authority was contingent upon the surrender of one of the two licenses within five years from the grant of the license for the expanded band station.

In September 1999, one of the licensees filed an assignment application to assign two paired AM band stations to a second licensee. The FCC granted this assignment application, but the receiving licensee only consummated the assignment of one of the two AM stations due to "environmental issues." Several years later, the two licensees filed several new assignment applications requesting FCC approval to separately assign the stations to new licensees, including one application in 2006 and two applications in 2012. In none of these applications did the licensees mention that the stations were part of a jointly-operated pair or that any additional special conditions might apply.

In its letters, the FCC denied all of the pending assignment applications and declined to grant a waiver of the FCC's rule requiring the surrender of one of the two licenses. In its decisions, the FCC stated that the grant of the applications would be contrary to the public interest and would "(1) constitute a further violation of a Commission-imposed processing policy; (2) bestow a further benefit on a party that knowingly engaged in such violation; (3) be unfair to those licensees that have returned one of the paired licenses; and (4) be inconsistent with the expanded band licensing principle that each licensee surrender one license at the expiration of the dual operating authority period." In other words, the FCC made clear that the only assignment application it would be willing to accept is one resulting in both AM stations being held by a single licensee.

Use of Cell Phone Jammers to Prevent Cell Phone Use during Working Hours Does Not Pay Off

The FCC has long kept a careful eye on the sale and use of illegal cell phone jamming devices that interfere with cellular communications. This month, the FCC continued to take action against the use of illegal cell phone jammers by issuing two hefty Notices of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture ("NAL") against two companies, one in Alabama and one in Louisiana, both of which used several cell phone jamming devices at their worksites.

As described in the two NALs, each company purchased four cell phone jammers from various Internet sources (and a fifth jammer as a backup) and installed them throughout their worksites to prevent their employees from using cell phones while working. In both instances, agents from the FCC's Enforcement Bureau responded to anonymous complaints and inspected the worksites.

Using direction finding techniques, the agents discovered strong wideband emissions on the cellular bands and determined that the source of these emissions was from signal jammers.

The Enforcement Bureau agents then inspected the worksites and interviewed the managers of the two companies, both of whom admitted that they had purchased the jammers online and operated them at their worksites--one company for a period of two years and the other for a period of a few months. Both managers showed the agents the locations of the jamming devices and voluntarily surrendered them.

Sections 301, 302(b), and 333 of the Communications Act generally prohibit the importation, use, marketing, and manufacture of cell phone jammers because jammers are designed to impede authorized communications and can disrupt safety communications, such as 911 calls. Moreover, since the primary purpose of a jammer is to interfere with authorized communications, jamming devices cannot be certified and cannot comply with the FCC's technical standards for operation.

In response to the use of illegal jamming devices, the FCC issued substantial forfeitures to both companies. The relevant base forfeiture amounts are $10,000 for operating without FCC authorization, $5,000 for using unauthorized or illegal equipment, and $7,000 for interference with authorized communications. The base forfeiture for violations of the prohibition on signal jamming is $16,000 per violation or per day, up to a maximum of $112,500 for a single violation. For the company in Alabama that operated four jamming devices for a period of two years, the FCC found that the company committed 12 total violations, representing three violations for each of the four jamming devices in use. Thus, the fine would normally be $16,000 per violation, for a total fine of $192,000. However, since the company immediately surrendered the jamming devices and was cooperative with the Enforcement Bureau agents, the FCC reduced the penalty by 25% to $144,000. The FCC applied the same type of calculation to the company in Louisiana that operated four jamming devices for a period of a few months, resulting in a fine of $126,000 after a 25% reduction in the total fine amount. The FCC also ordered both companies to submit sworn written statements providing contact information for the sellers of the jamming devices and all information regarding the sources from which the jamming devices were purchased.

In addition, the FCC cautioned the companies that while the FCC chose not to impose separate forfeitures for the illegal importation of the jamming devices, the FCC has the power to impose "substantial monetary penalties" on individuals or businesses who illegally import jammers. The FCC further warned the companies and other individuals and businesses that the FCC "may pursue alternative or more aggressive sanctions, should the approach set forth [here] prove ineffective in deterring the unlawful operation of jamming devices."

FCC Modernizes Its Experimental Licensing Rules

Tony Lin

Posted April 29, 2013

By Tony Lin

The FCC's revised rules for its Experimental Radio Services ("ERS") were published in today's Federal Register, and become effective on May 29, 2013 (except for several rules that contain new or modified information collection requirements, which require further approval by the Office of Management and Budget). These revised rules allow parties, including manufacturers, entrepreneurs, and students, to engage in a wide variety of experiments involving radio spectrum, including, for example, technical demonstrations, equipment testing, limited market studies, and development of radio techniques. The FCC's revisions streamline and modernize the ERS rules, allowing parties to more quickly develop new technologies and products for the marketplace.

One of the primary changes to the rules is the creation of three types of ERS licenses: (1) Program Licenses; (2) Compliance Testing Licenses; and (3) Medical Testing Licenses. An applicant for a license must demonstrate in its application that it meets the eligibility requirements, must provide a certification of radio frequency (RF) expertise or partner with another entity with such expertise, and must explain the purpose of its experiment. Each license has a term of five years and is renewable.

Under a Program License, the license holder is permitted to conduct an ongoing program of research and experimentation under a single authorization without having to obtain prior FCC consent for each distinct experiment or series of unrelated experiments, as would have been required under the FCC's prior rules. Eligibility is limited to colleges, universities, research laboratories, manufacturers of radio frequency equipment or end-user products with integrated radio frequency equipment, and medical research institutions. Authorized entities must provide a "stop buzzer" point of contact, identify the specifics of each proposed experiment in advance of the testing on a public web database established by the FCC, and post a report detailing the results of each experiment upon completion of the experiment (A "stop buzzer" point of contact is a person who can address interference concerns and cease all transmissions immediately if interference occurs).

A Compliance Testing License allows a test lab to conduct testing for FCC equipment authorizations. Such licenses are available to labs that are currently recognized for RF product testing as well as any other lab that the FCC finds has sufficient expertise to undertake such testing. Unlike a Program Licensee, a compliance testing licensee does not have to identify a "stop buzzer" point of contact, provide any notification period prior to testing, or file any narrative statement regarding test results. Testing is limited to those activities necessary for product certification.

The third type of experimental license is a Medical Testing License. This license allows an eligible entity to conduct clinical trials of medical devices (i.e., a device that uses RF wireless technology or communications functions for diagnosis, treatment, or patient monitoring). Only health care facilities (defined as hospitals and other establishments that offer services, facilities and beds for beyond a 24-hour period in rendering medical treatment, as well as institutions and organizations regularly engaged in providing medical services through clinics, public health facilities, and similar establishments, including government entities and agencies) are eligible for this type of experimental license. Medical devices tested under a Medical Testing License must comply with the FCC's Part 15, 18 and 95 rules. Authorized health care entities must provide a "stop buzzer" point of contact and also follow the same notice and reporting requirements as Program Licensees. A Medical Testing Licensee is required to file a yearly report with the FCC on the activity that has been performed under the license.

The FCC's other changes to its ERS rules include:

  • consolidating all of the experimental licensing rules into Part 5 of the FCC's Rules;
  • consolidating its rules regarding marketing of unauthorized devices;
  • allowing demonstrations in residential areas of devices not yet authorized, so long as the relevant spectrum licensee is working with the device manufacturer;
  • permitting, without an experimental license, the operation of devices not yet authorized, so long as the devices are operated as part of a trade show demonstration and at or below the maximum power level permitted for unlicensed devices under the FCC's Part 15 rules;
  • allowing more flexible product development and market trials;
  • standardizing and increasing the importation limit for devices that have not yet been authorized to 4,000 units; and
  • codifying the existing practice of allowing RF tests and experiments conducted within an anechoic chamber or Faraday cage without the need for obtaining an experimental license.
Parties interested in learning more about the FCC's revised ERS rules should contact their communications counsel for advice.

Maryland, DC, Delaware Broadcasters Association 2013 Annual Meeting and Dinner, April 22, 2013, Turf Valley, Ellicott City, MD

April 22, 2013

For more information, please visit www.mdcd.com/aws/MDCD/pt/sd/calendar/24559/_PARENT/layout_details/false.

Oklahoma Association of Broadcasters Annual Convention, April 18-19, 2013, Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, Tulsa, OK

April 18, 2013

For more information, please visit www.oabok.org/Conventions.

Free TV Doesn't Mean Free Lunch

John K. Hane

Posted April 16, 2013

By John Hane

Recently, TVNewsCheck.com ran a short item noting that a large broadcast group (not a network owned and operated group) and a large multichannel video distributor (MVPD) successfully concluded carriage negotiations. There was no interruption of service. Given the successful outcome, I was surprised to see that someone posted a comment regarding the piece saying the deal illustrates why the FCC should tighten its broadcast ownership rules. No matter how many times I read comments of this sort, I am perplexed that people actually believe it's a good thing for the government to mandate that broadcasters be the underdogs in all major negotiations that impact the quality and availability of broadcasters' programming. If anything, government policy should encourage broadcasters to grow to a scale that is meaningful in today's complex television marketplace. Not one of the other major distributors makes its programming available for free.

If independent (non-O&O) broadcasters aren't permitted to achieve a scale large enough to negotiate effectively with upstream programmers and downstream distributors, you won't have to wait long see high cost, high quality, high value programming available for free to those who choose to opt out of the pay TV ecosystem. It's much better to have two, three or four strong competitors in each market, owned by companies that can compete for rational economics in the upstream and downstream markets, than to have eight or more weak competitors, few of which can afford to invest in truly local service or negotiate at arms-length with program suppliers and distributors.

For those who have not been paying attention, the television market has changed profoundly in the past 20 years. The big programmers and the big MVPDs have gotten a whole lot bigger. The largest non-O&O broadcast groups have grown too, but not nearly as much. Fox, Disney/ABC, NBCU and the other programmers are vastly bigger companies with incomparable market power vis-a-vis even the largest broadcast groups. The same is true of the large MVPDs, which together serve the great majority of television households.

There's nothing inherently bad about big content aggregators and big MVPD distributors. And anyway, they are a fact of life. Despite their size, each is trying to deliver a competitive service and deliver good returns for shareholders. That's what they are supposed to do, and in general (with a few exceptions) they serve the country well. But again, they are much, much larger than even the largest broadcast groups. If you believe that having a viable and competitive free television option is a good thing, that's a problem.

So in response to the suggestion that the FCC further limit the scale of broadcasters, I reply: why does the government make it so damn hard for the only television service that is available for free to bargain and compete with vastly larger enterprises that are comparatively unregulated?

Continue reading "Free TV Doesn't Mean Free Lunch"

FCC Issues Lessons Learned From First Ever Nationwide EAS Test

Paul A. Cicelski

Posted April 14, 2013

By Paul A. Cicelski

As our readers are aware, we did a great deal of reporting before and after the first-ever Nationwide Emergency Alert System (EAS) Test conducted on November 9, 2011. The purpose of that test was to assess the readiness and effectiveness of the system in the event of an actual national emergency. Broadcasters, as well as cable, satellite, and wireline providers across the country (EAS Participants), all took part in the test. For a quick refresher, see my previous posts on the test here, here, here, here, and here. Late this past Friday, the FCC's Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau released a report summarizing the outcome of the national test entitled: "Strengthening the Emergency Alert System (EAS): Lessons Learned from the Nationwide EAS Test".

As the FCC and FEMA have made clear on numerous ocassions, the national EAS test was not intended to be a pass or fail event, but was to be used to identify and address the limitations of the current EAS. The Report concludes that the national EAS alert distribution architecture is sound and that the national test was received by a large majority of EAS Participants and could be seen and heard by most Americans. The results of the test show that more than 80 percent of EAS Participants across the country successfully received and relayed the FEMA test message.

The Report also indicates, however, that there are a number of technical areas where the system can be improved. According to the Report, among the problems that impeded the ability of EAS Participants to receive and/or retransmit the emergency Action Notification (EAN) issued by FEMA, and of the public to receive it, were:

  • Widespread poor audio quality;
  • Lack of a Primary Entry Point (PEP) in an area to provide a direct connection to FEMA;
  • Use of alternatives to PEP-based EAN distribution;
  • The inability of some EAS Participants either to receive or retransmit the EAN;
  • Short test length; and
  • Anomalies in EAS equipment programming and operation.

As a result of its findings, the Report recommends that another nationwide test be conducted after the FCC commences a number of formal rulemaking proceedings seeking public comment on steps to improve EAS related to these and other shortcomings.

In its Report, the Bureau also recommends that, in connection with any future EAS testing, the FCC develop a new Nationwide EAS Test Reporting System to improve the electronic filing of test result data. The Report also encourages the Executive Office of the President to reconvene the Federal EAS Test Working Group to work with Federal partners and other stakeholders to use the results of the test to find ways to improve EAS and plan for future nationwide tests.

Despite the audio problems and other issues identified in the Report with respect to the nationwide EAS test, the first ever test appears to have achieved its goal of helping the FCC, FEMA, and EAS Participants identify areas where EAS can be improved in the event of an actual emergency. If the recommendations outlined in the Report are implemented by the FCC, the public will likely have a number of opportunities during upcoming rulemaking proceedings to provide their input to the FCC on ways to further improve the reliability of the nation's EAS.

NAB Show, April 6-11, 2013, Las Vegas Convention Center, Las Vegas, NV

April 6, 2013

For more information, please visit http://www.nab.org/events/slc/2013.

FCC Announces Immediate Freeze on TV Modification Applications

Scott R. Flick

Posted April 5, 2013

By Scott R. Flick

This morning, the FCC released a Public Notice announcing that, commencing immediately and until further notice, it will no longer accept modification applications (or amendments to modification applications) from full power and Class A television stations if the modification would increase the station's coverage in any direction beyond its current authorization.

The Public Notice also indicates that the FCC will cease processing modification applications that are already on file if the modification will increase the station's coverage in any direction. Applicants with a pending modification application subject to the freeze are being given 60 days to amend their application to prevent an increase in coverage (or seek a waiver), thereby allowing those applications to be processed by the FCC. Modification applications that are not amended within that period will not be processed until after the FCC releases its order in the Spectrum Auction proceeding, and at that point will be subject to any new rules or policies adopted in that rulemaking that would limit station modifications.

With regard to Class A stations specifically, the FCC will also not accept Class A displacement applications that increase a station's coverage in any direction. Class A applications to implement the digital transition (flash cut and digital companion channels) will continue to be processed as long as they comply with the existing restrictions on such applications.

The FCC states that the reason for putting modification applications in the deep freeze is that:

We find that the imposition of limits on the filing and processing of modification applications is now appropriate to facilitate analysis of repacking methodologies and to assure that the objectives of the broadcast television incentive auction are not frustrated. The repacking methodology the Commission ultimately adopts will be a critical tool in reorganizing the broadcast TV spectrum pursuant to the statutory mandate. Additional development and analysis of potential repacking methodologies is required in light of the technical, policy, and auction design issues raised in the rulemaking proceeding. This work requires a stable database of full power and Class A broadcast facilities. In addition, to avoid frustrating the central goal of "repurpos[ing] the maximum amount of UHF band spectrum for flexible licensed and unlicensed use," we believe it is now necessary to limit the filing and processing of modification applications that would expand broadcast television stations' use of spectrum.

So once again, television broadcasters are tossed into a digital ice age, unable to adapt their facilities to shifting population areas, which seems to be the polar opposite of what Congress intended in requiring that spectrum incentive auctions not reduce broadcast service to the public. Aggravating the situation is that, unlike some of the DTV transition application freezes, the FCC is not limiting this freeze to large urban markets where it hopes to free up broadcast spectrum for wireless broadband. Indeed, modification applications were already less likely in those heavily populated urban areas because of the existing spectrum congestion that makes modifying a TV station's signal difficult.

As a result, the broadcasters most likely to be hurt by the freeze are those in more rural areas--areas that have ample available spectrum for broadcasting and broadband, and which the FCC has said are not really the target of its spectrum incentive auction. Those broadcasters will have to hope that the FCC is serious about considering freeze waiver requests. Otherwise, rural Americans will once again see improvements in their communications services delayed while the FCC focuses all its attention on securing more spectrum for broadband in urban population centers.

Pillsbury Attorneys Heading to NAB Show in Vegas

Paul A. Cicelski

Posted April 4, 2013

By Paul A. Cicelski

Marking the end of a winter that has been way too long is an annual rite of Spring for the media industry--the National Association of Broadcasters' Show in Las Vegas. This year's Show is taking place from April 6th to the 11th at the Las Vegas Convention Center. The NAB touts the Show as "the world's largest media and entertainment event covering the development, management and delivery of content across all mediums." The growing technological and business diversity of the Show is reflected in the NAB's additional description of the Show as being "home to the solutions that transcend traditional broadcasting and embrace content delivery to new screens in new ways." That is certainly true, with the diversity of exhibitors covering every sector even tangentially related to media and content production.

Of course, for all that the Show itself is, one of the most compelling reasons to spend a few pleasant April days in Las Vegas is to reconnect with friends and colleagues in the industry, as well as meeting in person a lot of the people that you have previously known only by phone or email.

This year's Pillsbury contingent includes six of our communications attorneys, including myself, Dick Zaragoza, Lew Paper, Scott Flick, Miles Mason, and Andrew Kersting.

If you see us at the Show, please stop and say hello. You can also reach out to us via email at the Show by clicking on the links above. They take you to our respective bios at Pillsbury, including email addresses.

If you are headed to the Show, we look forward to seeing you there. For those who won't be there, I'll be writing a post after the Show summarizing some of the highlights.

FCC Hits Reset Button on Indecency

Scott R. Flick

Posted April 1, 2013

By Scott R. Flick

After nine months of rumors and uncertainty as to where the FCC is headed after last summer's indecency decision by the Supreme Court in FCC v. Fox Television Stations, Inc. (which we discussed in this post), the FCC today released a very brief public notice that:

  1. Announces the FCC staff has disposed of over one million indecency complaints (which it states is over 70% of those that were pending at the FCC), "principally by closing pending complaints that were beyond the statute of limitations or too stale to pursue, that involved cases outside FCC jurisdiction, that contained insufficient information, or that were foreclosed by settled precedent."
  2. Announces that the FCC will continue to actively investigate "egregious indecency cases."

  3. Announces that it is opening up a new docket (GN Docket No. 13-86), and is seeking comments from the public in that docket as to whether the FCC should change its broadcast indecency policies, and if so, how. While not limiting the breadth of potential changes, the FCC specifically asks whether it is time to go back to the old policy of prosecuting on-air expletives only where there is "deliberate and repetitive use in a patently offensive manner," or stick with the more recent policy of pouncing on a single fleeting expletive, the policy that led to the Supreme Court's 2012 decision. The Public Notice also asks if the FCC should treat "isolated (non-sexual) nudity the same or different than isolated expletives?"

  4. Finally, emphasizing again the broad nature of the FCC's proposed review, the Public Notice asks commenters "to address these issues as well as any other aspect of the Commission's substantive indecency policies."
The Public Notice indicates that comments will be due 30 days after the request for comments is published in the Federal Register, with reply comments being due 30 days after that.

While the timing of the Public Notice, just ahead of Chairman Genachowski's (and Commissioner McDowell's) announced departure from the FCC, is interesting, more interesting is the "spontaneous" look of the document. In an agency that can readily produce requests for comments that are hundreds of pages long, and on a subject that has produced reams of pleadings and precedent over several decades, the substantive portion of the Public Notice is but a few paragraphs long--a few paragraphs that open the door to a fundamental rethinking of the FCC's approach to indecency.

The Public Notice therefore has the look of a document that was not long in the making, and which may have emerged as result of a departing Chairman beginning to move the ball forward for his successor. The process forward will likely be complex and arduous, and the ultimate result is anyone's guess, but by at least launching the proceeding before his departure, Chairman Genachowski will absorb some of the political heat that could have otherwise fallen on his successor, while also challenging that successor to address an issue that has become a significant distraction and consumer of increasingly scarce FCC resources.

While also a result of its brevity, the lack of any "initial" or "tentative" conclusions by the FCC in the document gives the impression that the FCC may indeed be ready to commence a fundamental reexamination of indecency policy, and is not just going through the motions of collecting comments before proceeding on a largely predetermined route. It is not asking so much how it should proceed in light of the Supreme Court's decision, but how it should proceed in general. For those who loudly proclaim that the FCC has failed in its duties as a "content cop", as well as broadcasters struggling to figure out on a minute by minute basis what program content might cross the FCC's invisible indecency line, a fresh look at the issue will be welcome. Whether this "reset" can resolve the many tough questions surrounding indecency enforcement is, however, another question entirely.