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Today the FCC publicly released a Report and Order eliminating TV stations’ annual obligation to report whether they have provided feeable ancillary or supplementary services on their spectrum during the past year unless they have actually provided such services.  The order was originally slated for discussion and a vote at next week’s FCC Open Meeting, but the Commission wound up adopting this widely supported change early, unanimously voting for it on circulation.

Previously, all digital television stations had to report by December 1 of each year whether they had provided feeable ancillary or supplementary services in the past year, what those services were, and then submit payment to the government of 5% of the gross revenue derived from such services.  Ancillary and supplementary services are any services provided on a TV station’s digital spectrum that is not needed to provide the single free over-the-air program stream required by the FCC.  The reason the word “feeable” is important is that broadcast video streams (i.e., multicast streams) do not trigger payment of the 5% fee.  Examples previously provided by the FCC of feeable ancillary and supplementary services include computer software distribution and data transmissions.

Observers had expected this rule change for a while.  In the spring of 2017, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai spearheaded the “Modernization of Media Regulation Initiative,” which aimed to institute a massive review of potentially outdated or irrelevant regulations affecting broadcasters, cable system operators, and satellite providers.  At Commissioner Michael O’Rielly’s urging, the Commission originally proposed today’s changes in a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) in October 2017.  The following month, the Media Bureau spontaneously waived the December 1, 2017 filing deadline for TV stations that had not provided feeable services over the prior twelve-month reporting period, signaling that the proposed rule change was likely coming.

Indeed, the FCC received broad support from commenters for the change.  In last year’s NPRM, the FCC noted that of 1,384 full-power commercial TV stations, fewer than 15 reported revenues from ancillary or supplementary services, netting the Commission around $13,000 in fees.

As a result, today’s Order amends Section 73.624(g) of the FCC’s Rules to require that only TV stations actually providing feeable ancillary or supplementary services need file the report in the future.  The FCC could find no justification for the immense expense incurred in having broadcasters submit, and the FCC collect and process, forms merely indicating the station hadn’t provided such services.  It wasn’t so much the FCC concluding that the expense outweighed the public interest benefit; it was the FCC being unable to point to a public interest benefit.

Which just makes you wonder just how this rule stayed in place for nearly 20 years, and no prior FCC bothered to ask that fundamental question.

 

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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 special issue takes a look at the government’s renewed efforts to scuttle Pirate Radio operations.

Since the government first began regulating the airwaves, it has struggled to eliminate unlicensed radio operators.  In its latest effort, the FCC is taking a hardline approach to this illegal behavior and is partnering with local and federal law enforcement, as well as Congress, to accomplish the task. While Chairman Pai has made clear that pirate radio prosecutions are once again a priority at the FCC, it is Commissioner O’Rielly who has been the most vocal on this front, calling for more aggressive action against unauthorized operators.  The continued prevalence of pirate radio operations has been chalked up to several factors, including insufficient enforcement mechanisms and resources, the procedural difficulties in tracking down unregulated parties, and lackadaisical enforcement until recently. Regulators and broadcast industry leaders have also expressed frustration with the whack-a-mole nature of pirate radio enforcement—shutting down one operation only to have another pop up nearby.

Real Consequences

Congress has also begun to take an interest in the issue, with the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology holding a hearing last week discussing the subject.  One of the witnesses was David Donovan, president of the New York State Broadcasters Association.  In his testimony, he listed numerous risks that unlicensed operations present to the public, including failure to adhere to Emergency Alert System rules and RF emissions limits (which can be critically important where a pirate’s antenna is mounted on a residential structure).  Pirate operators also create interference to other communications systems, including those used for public safety operations, while causing financial harm to legitimate broadcast stations by diverting advertising revenue and listeners from authorized stations.

Despite these harms, pirate operations continue to spread.  This past month, the FCC issued a Notice of Unlicensed Operation (“NOUO”) to a New Jersey individual after the FCC received complaints from the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) that an FM station’s broadcasts were causing harmful interference to aeronautical communications operating on air-to-ground frequencies.  FCC agents tracked the errant transmissions to the individual’s residence and confirmed that he was transmitting without authorization.

Days later, the FCC issued an NOUO to another New Jersey resident who was transmitting unlicensed broadcasts from a neighborhood near Newark Airport.  Once again, FCC agents were able to determine the source of the signal and found that the property owner was not licensed to broadcast on the frequency in question.

Continue reading →

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Yesterday’s enactment of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2018 (feel free to read it, it’s only 2,232 pages) was welcomed by broadcasters. If you’ve been following the trade press, you’ll know that’s largely because it not only added a billion dollars to the FCC’s fund for reimbursing broadcasters displaced by the spectrum repack, but for the first time made FM, LPTV and TV Translator stations eligible for repack reimbursement funds.

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This past Friday, the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit released its long-awaited decision in ACA International et al. v. FCC, a case involving the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) that has significant implications for any business contacting consumers by telephone or text. The decision arises out of challenges to an omnibus Declaratory Ruling and Order released by the FCC in July of 2015, which itself was responding to requests for exemption from, or clarification of, the FCC’s TCPA rules, especially the more stringent FCC rules that took effect on October 16, 2013. In the Declaratory Ruling and Order, the FCC adopted a very expansive interpretation of the TCPA, exacerbating, rather than alleviating, long-standing litigation risks that many companies face under the TCPA.

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People often conflate the term “FCC lawyer” with “Communications Lawyer,” thinking of an FCC Lawyer as someone who represents clients solely with regard to interactions with the FCC and its rules. A Communications Lawyer, however, represents communications clients in a variety of venues and on a variety of issues whose common thread is that they affect media or telecom companies in a unique or disproportionate way.  Communications Lawyers therefore find themselves not just before the FCC, but handling complex transactions, litigation, and legislative matters where the harm or benefit has little to do with the FCC, and much to do with how the action impacts a media or telecom client.

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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 Proposes Forfeitures Against South Carolina Stations for Failure to Maintain Public Inspection File
  • Noncommercial Station and FCC Settle Dispute Over Promotional Announcements
  • Brooklyn-based Bitcoin Miner Warned Over Harmful Interference
  • FCC Issues Notice to Security Camera Manufacturer for Device ID Violations

FCC Proposes Fine Against Licensee of South Carolina Stations for Failure to Maintain Complete Public Files

In two separate Notices of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture (“NALs”) released on the same day, the FCC found two commonly owned radio stations apparently liable for repeated violations of its public inspection file rule.

Section 73.3526 of the FCC’s Rules requires stations to maintain a public inspection file that includes various documents and items related to the broadcaster’s operations.  For example, subsection 73.3526(e)(11) requires TV stations to place in their public inspection file Quarterly Issues/Programs Lists describing the “programs that have provided the station’s most significant treatment of community issues during the preceding three month period.”

In their respective license renewal applications, the stations disclosed that they had failed to locate numerous Quarterly Issues/Programs Lists from the 2003 to 2010 time period.  According to the licensee, the gaps in its reporting were due to several personnel changes at all levels of the stations as well as computer and software changes made over the past ten years.

Between the two NALs, the FCC found a total of 38 missing Lists (21 for one station, and 17 for the other station), which it considered a “pattern of abuse.” Pursuant to the FCC’s forfeiture policies and Section 1.80(b)(4) of its Rules, the base forfeiture for a violation of Section 73.3526 is $10,000.  The FCC can adjust the forfeiture upwards or downwards depending on the circumstances of the violation.  Here, the FCC proposed a $12,000 forfeiture in response to the station with 21 missing Lists and a $10,000 forfeiture for the station with 17 missing Lists.  Visit here to learn more about the FCC’s Quarterly Issues/Programs List requirements.  For information on maintaining a public inspection file, check out Pillsbury’s advisory on the topic.

“Ad” Nauseam: FCC Resolves Investigation Into Underwriting Rules Violation

The FCC entered into a Consent Decree with the licensee of two noncommercial educational (“NCE”) radio stations in Arizona and California after receiving complaints that the stations aired commercial advertising in violation of the Communications Act and the FCC’s Rules (together, the “Underwriting Laws”).

Section 399B of the Communications Act of 1934 prohibits noncommercial stations from making their facilities “available to any person for the broadcasting of any advertisement.” Section 73.503(d) of the FCC’s Rules prohibits an NCE station from making promotional announcements “on behalf of for profit entities” in exchange for any benefit or payment.  Such stations may, however, broadcast “underwriting announcements” that identify but do not “promote” station donors.  Such identifications may not, among other things, include product descriptions, price comparisons, or calls to action on behalf of a for-profit underwriter.  The FCC recognizes that it is “at times difficult to distinguish between language that promotes versus that which merely identifies the underwriter,” and expects licensees to exercise good faith judgment in their underwriting messages.

In response to complaints from an individual who alleged that the stations had repeatedly violated the Underwriting Laws, the FCC sent the licensee multiple letters of inquiry regarding questionable underwriting messages between August 2016 and March 2017.  According to the FCC, the licensee did not dispute many of the facts in the letters, and the parties entered into the Consent Decree shortly thereafter.  Under the Consent Decree, the licensee (1) admitted that it violated the Underwriting Laws; (2) is prohibited from airing any underwriting announcement on behalf of a for-profit entity for one year; (3) must implement a compliance plan; and (4) must pay a $115,000 civil penalty.

Brooklyn Bitcoin Mining Operation Draws FCC Ire Over Harmful Interference

The FCC issued a Notification of Harmful Interference (“Notification”) to an individual it found was operating Bitcoin mining hardware in his Brooklyn, New York home.

Section 15 of the FCC’s Rules regulates the use of unlicensed equipment that emits radio frequency energy (“RF devices”), a broad category of equipment that includes many personal electronics, Bluetooth and WiFi-enabled devices, and even most modern light fixtures.  Such devices must not interrupt or seriously degrade an authorized radio communication service.  The FCC’s rules require a device user to cease operation if notified by the FCC that the device is causing harmful interference. Continue reading →

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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:

Headlines:

  • FCC Revokes Licenses After Alleged Failure to Report Felony Drug Conviction
  • Car Dealership Receives Citation for Interference-Creating Outdoor Lighting
  • License Renewal Hearing Ordered for Near-Silent Virginia Stations
  • FCC Commissioner Criticizes Local Colorado News Site Over Pirate Radio Station Article

LA Business Stripped of Licenses for Alleged Misrepresentations About Drug Conviction

In a rare Order of Revocation, the FCC revoked all of a Los Angeles communication equipment provider’s licenses after the licensee failed to respond to an inquiry into whether its manager lied about a 1992 felony drug conviction in dozens of Commission filings.

The Order rescinds the licensee’s eleven Private Land Mobile Radio (“PLMR”) and microwave station licenses and dismisses all of the licensee’s pending modification and license renewal applications.

Section 312(a) of the Communications Act authorizes the FCC to revoke a license “for false statements knowingly made … in the application” or when it finds that conditions “warrant it in refusing to grant a license[.]”  Pursuant to Section 1.17(a)(1) of the FCC’s Rules, no person may “intentionally provide material factual information that is incorrect or intentionally omit material information that is necessary to prevent any material factual statement that is made from being incorrect or misleading.”  The FCC heavily weighs any misrepresentation or lack of candor when it determines whether a party is fit to become or remain a licensee.

The FCC began looking into the licensee’s fitness in 2015, when a different Los Angeles business alleged that the licensee had knowingly lied on an at least one FCC application when it replied “No” to a question that asked whether any of the licensee’s controlling parties had ever been convicted of a felony.  As it turns out, the manager (who is also the licensee’s sole shareholder) had been convicted of possession for sale of cocaine and sentenced to serve two years in California State Prison over two decades ago.  The FCC would later learn that the licensee had misrepresented the manager’s criminal history in at least 50 separate FCC filings.

In response, the FCC sent the licensee a Letter of Inquiry (“LOI”) seeking information about the manager’s role with the company and any criminal history.  When the licensee did not respond to the LOI, the FCC commenced a proceeding with an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) to determine whether the licensee had engaged in misrepresentation before the Commission, whether it was qualified to remain a licensee, and what the FCC should do with the licensee’s various outstanding applications.  When the licensee failed to respond to the ALJ’s request to file a written appearance, and failed to appear for a status conference, the ALJ ordered a hearing, which the licensee also ignored.

The FCC determined that the company was unqualified to remain a Commission licensee, revoked all of its licenses, and denied with prejudice all of the licensee’s pending applications.

Light’s Out: FCC Issues Citation to Car Dealership That Fails to Address Harmful Interference

The FCC issued a citation to a North Dakota car dealership for its continued use of outdoor lighting that interferes with a wireless service provider’s nearby cell site.

Pursuant to Section 302(a) of the Communications Act, the FCC regulates all radio frequency energy-emitting devices (“RF devices”) that are capable of causing “harmful interference to radio communications.”  Section 15 of the FCC’s Rules regulates intentional and unintentional radiators of RF emissions, ranging from garage door openers to sophisticated computer components.  Section 18 regulates equipment that generates or uses RF energy for industrial, scientific, and medical (“ISM”) purposes.  If ISM equipment causes harmful interference with an authorized radio service, Section 18.111(b) of the Rules requires its operator to take “whatever steps may be necessary to eliminate the interference.”  Similarly, Section 18.115(a) requires the operator to “promptly take appropriate measures to correct the problem.” Continue reading →

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Back in 2015, I wrote a post on CommLawCenter discussing the prevalence of interns in the communications industry, and the Department of Labor’s crackdown on businesses illegally failing to pay their interns.  That crackdown began in 2010, with the DOL applying a rigid six-part test to determine whether an intern must be paid at least minimum wage for time spent working.  This caused a lot of consternation in media companies, with many electing to just drop internship programs rather than risk a violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act.  For those media companies, and the students that faced a suddenly diminished number of available internships, an announcement this past week from the Department of Labor will be welcome news.

When the Department of Labor stepped up enforcement against for-profit businesses illegally using unpaid interns, it released a Fact Sheet on whether an individual could be classified as a trainee or intern exempt from the Fair Labor Standard Act’s requirement that employees be paid at least the federal minimum wage and receive overtime pay. The Fact Sheet laid out the six-part test that the DOL adopted in the 1960s, noting that “[i]nternships in the ‘for-profit’ private sector will most often be viewed as employment” unless all six of the criteria are met. The six criteria were:

  • the internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment;
  • the internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;
  • the intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;
  • the employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;
  • the intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and
  • the employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

From the DOL’s perspective, if an employer couldn’t demonstrate that all six factors were met, the intern was an employee, and the employer would be liable for paying the intern wages and overtime.

The reason I wrote about the crackdown in 2015, however, was because of a then-recent ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit which found the Department of Labor’s test too rigid, and instead applied a more flexible standard that assessed whether the business or the intern was the “primary beneficiary” of the arrangement.  Specifically, the court examined whether the internship was primarily for the economic benefit of the employer or primarily for the educational benefit of the intern.

As I noted at the time, that was good news for businesses in New York, Connecticut, and Vermont, which are within the Second Circuit’s jurisdiction, and potentially for businesses elsewhere, as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit is influential.  The logic of its ruling might well persuade courts in other circuits to follow suit.

That did in fact happen, with the California-based Ninth Circuit court recently becoming the fourth circuit to adopt the “Primary Beneficiary” test.  Recognizing this judicial tide, the Department of Labor announced on January 5, 2018 that it is also adopting the Primary Beneficiary test.  It indicated it was doing so both to comply with these court rulings and to eliminate the confusion of dueling tests that depend on what part of the country a business is located.

While I have had to learn a lot about employment law in handling mergers, sales, and other media transactions, I am not an employment lawyer, have not played one on TV, and did not stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night.  I would therefore encourage those interested in getting the full details of the DOL’s announcement to take a look at a new Employment Advisory on the subject by Pillsbury’s own Julia Judish and Andrew Lauria.  In particular, you should note their admonition that this only changes the federal standard, and if your state has a more restrictive standard, you will need to take that into consideration.

Among other things you will learn is that the DOL, in classic government fashion, replaced the rigid six-factor test with a seven-factor test.  The big difference, however, is that the old test required every factor to be met, whereas the new test has seven factors for consideration (along with any other factors that might be relevant to a particular intern), with no single factor being determinative of the outcome.  For example, if your internship program met five of the six old factors, but you couldn’t prove that the internship yielded no “immediate advantage” to the business and that the intern might actually impede your operations, the new test may be more to your liking.

So if you discontinued your internship program because you couldn’t show all six factors favored a finding that the position was correctly categorized as an unpaid internship or, as was often the case, you just didn’t want to risk having to defend yourself against a lawsuit for unpaid wages, you may want to revisit that decision.  If an objective review would find that the business is the primary beneficiary of the internship, you’ll still need to pay wages and overtime to your interns.  But if you are comfortable (after checking with counsel of course) that the primary beneficiary is the intern, then it is time to relaunch your internship program and introduce a whole new generation to the wonders of the media workplace.  Maybe, just maybe, they will then become your ambassadors to a new generation that doesn’t really know what to make of any media that doesn’t have the word “social” in front of it.

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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:

Headlines:

  • FCC Proposes $20,000 Fine for Decade-Old EEO Violations
  • FCC Goes After Small North Carolina Radio Station for Absence During Inspection
  • Drone Company Agrees to $180,000 Settlement for Non-Compliant A/V Equipment

“Hire” Education: FCC Pursues South Carolina Radio Stations for EEO Violations

The FCC proposed a $20,000 fine against the operator of five radio stations near Myrtle Beach for allegedly failing to observe the Commission’s Equal Employment Opportunity (“EEO”) recruitment rules from 2008 through 2010.

The stated goal of the FCC’s EEO Rule is to promote equal access to employment opportunities in the communications industry while deterring discrimination in the hiring process.  Pursuant to the EEO Rule, the FCC requires broadcast stations to follow certain procedures before filling each full-time vacancy.  Among other things, the EEO Rule requires stations to use outside recruitment sources to publicize vacancies, notify interested third party referral sources of vacancies, and generate and retain in-depth recruitment reports.

This particular inquiry began in 2011 when the FCC randomly selected the stations’ employment unit for an EEO audit.  The audit revealed several alleged violations surrounding eleven vacancies over the preceding two-year period.  The FCC found that the licensee had either used no recruitment sources or only word-of-mouth when it recruited for six of the eleven vacancies.  Further, the licensee allegedly failed to contact a third party that had previously requested notification of full-time vacancies.

In addition, the FCC asserted that the licensee failed to keep adequate records of the number of interviewees or the referral source of most of the interviewees during that period.  As a result, this information was missing from both the licensee’s Annual EEO Public File Reports and its public inspection file.  The FCC concluded that this meant the licensee could not adequately “analyze its recruitment program … to ensure that it is effective…” as Section 73.2080(c)(3) of the FCC’s Rules requires.

As a result, the FCC issued a Notice of Apparent Liability (“NAL”) proposing to fine the stations.  While Section 503(b)(1)(B) of the Communications Act authorizes the FCC to penalize any person who violates the Act or the FCC’s Rules, neither the FCC’s Rules nor its forfeiture guidelines establish a base fine amount for specific EEO violations.  Instead, the FCC characterized the asserted violations as a “failure to maintain required records,” for which the forfeiture guidelines recommend a base fine of $1,000.  The FCC applied this fine to each of the six alleged violations of its recruitment rule and proposed an additional $2,000 fine for each of the other claimed EEO violations.  The FCC then added a $4,000 upward adjustment based on the licensee’s history of similar EEO violations at other owned stations, resulting in a total proposed fine of $20,000.

The NAL also proposed a reporting requirement under which the stations would need to report their recruitment and EEO activities directly to the FCC’s Media Bureau for each of the next three years.

Of particular interest to stations assessing their own EEO compliance, the licensee’s 2008-09 and 2009-10 recruitment reports indicated that the stations had lost much of their recruitment data to “unauthorized removal.” Specifically, the licensee subsequently reported that some of the records disappeared following the dismissal of the stations’ local business manager.  That explanation did not satisfy the FCC, which noted that the licensee’s loss of records “does not excuse it from having violated [the FCC’s] rules.”

This action is another reminder of the FCC’s strict enforcement of its EEO Rule.  Stations needing a refresher on these requirements should check out our EEO Advisory for more information, and our 2018 Broadcasters’ Calendar for important EEO-related deadlines coming up in the next year.

Out to Lunch: AM Broadcaster Notified of Station Inspection Violation

The Commission presented a Notice of Violation (“NOV”) to a small North Carolina broadcaster for failing to staff its station during lunch hour one day this past March.  In the same action, the FCC observed that the station was also transmitting from an antenna for which it was not licensed. Continue reading →

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Each year around this time, Pillsbury’s Communications Practice releases its Broadcasters’ Calendar for the upcoming year.  It may not be the perfect stocking stuffer, but broadcasters that don’t read it closely are much more likely to end up on the FCC’s Naughty List next year.  When I’m on the road visiting stations or speaking at broadcaster conventions, it’s fairly common that someone walks up to me and tells me how much they appreciate the Broadcasters’ Calendar.  Rarely do calendars without pictures attract such attention.

I cannot take credit for the calendar, however.  The current communications lawyers at Pillsbury are merely the stewards of this publication.  When I joined the firm 30 years ago, the Broadcasters’ Calendar was already a well-established annual publication.  I honestly don’t know when the first Broadcasters’ Calendar was published, but I suspect there are editions floating around out there announcing deadlines relating to the launch of FM radio and color television.

And if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the Broadcasters’ Calendar is blushing.  Clients have sent me bootlegs in which someone has lifted the content wholesale and just put it on their own letterhead.  For a number of years I entertained myself by incorporating unusual words into the calendar just to see who was copying it outright rather than merely happening to describe a particular deadline the same way.

But it’s not hard to understand why the Pillsbury Broadcasters’ Calendar has developed such a following.  It outlines numerous regulatory and other deadlines broadcasters face in the coming year, along with brief descriptions of what complying with a particular deadline requires.

Despite the advent of a deregulatory FCC, the 2018 edition of the Broadcasters’ Calendar contains a fairly hefty number of entries, including dates and deadlines for TV’s upcoming spectrum repack and the conclusion of radio’s migration to an online public inspection file.  Fortunately, the 2018 edition also notes some filing deadlines that the FCC is actively considering eliminating.  Here’s hoping that the 2019 edition will be significantly thinner.