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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:

  • Louisiana FM Radio Stations’ Late Filings Lead to $3,000 Proposed Fines
  • Telemarketer Fined $9.9 Million for Thousands of Spoofed Robocalls
  • Wi-Fi Device Manufacturer’s Equipment Marketing Violations End with Consent Decree and $250,000 Penalty

Late Filings Come at a Cost: FCC Proposes $3,000 Fines Against Louisiana FM Stations Over Late License Renewal Applications

Earlier this month, the Media Bureau issued Notices of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture (NAL) against two Louisiana FM radio licensees – one a supermax prison and the other a religious noncommercial broadcaster – for filing their respective license renewal applications late.  The FCC proposed a $3,000 fine for each of the late filings.

Section 73.3539(a) of the FCC’s Rules requires broadcast station license renewal applications to be filed four months prior to the license expiration date.  The prison station’s renewal application was due February 3, 2020 (the first business day following the February 1 deadline), but was not filed until May 29, 2020, mere days before its June 1 license expiration.  Similarly, the noncommercial broadcaster’s station, also subject to the February 3 deadline, did not file its renewal application until May 22.

Section 1.80(b) sets a base fine of $3,000 for failure to file a required form, which the FCC can adjust upward or downward depending on the circumstances of the situation, such as the nature, extent, and gravity of the violation.  In these cases, the FCC noted that neither licensee provided an explanation for their untimely filing, and ultimately proposed the full $3,000 fine for each late application.

Each NAL instructs the licensee to respond within 30 days by either: (1) paying the fine, or (2) providing a written statement seeking a reduction or cancellation of the fine along with any relevant supporting documentation.

Neither NAL, however, impacted the FCC’s review of the stations’ license renewal applications themselves.  According to the FCC, the late filings did not constitute “serious violations” and the FCC found no other evidence of a pattern of abuse.  As such, the Commission stated that it would approve each station’s renewal application in a separate proceeding assuming no other issues are uncovered that would preclude grant of a license renewal.

Thousands of Spoofed Political Robocalls End with $9.9 Million Fine

The FCC recently issued a Forfeiture Order, affirming a $9.9 million fine against a California telemarketer for violations of the Communications Act and the FCC’s rules regarding the use of spoofed phone numbers.

Section 227(e) of the Communications Act prohibits using a telephone caller ID service to “knowingly transmit misleading or inaccurate caller identification information with the intent to defraud, cause harm, or wrongfully obtain anything of value[.]”  Moreover, the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) also protects consumers from unwanted calls by imposing numerous restrictions on robocalls.  Such restrictions include requiring the called party’s prior express consent for certain pre-recorded calls to wireless phones and, for pre-recorded messages to wireless or wireline phones, requiring the calling party to identify itself at the beginning of the message and provide a callback number.  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:

  • Rhode Island LPFM Station Issued $15,000 Fine for Underwriting Violations
  • In Reversal, FCC Rescinds Grant of Construction Permit for Portland FM Translator Over Interference Concerns
  • Unauthorized Operations and EAS Violation Result in Proposed $25,000 Fine for Florida LPFM Station

 Rhode Island LPFM Station’s Underwriting Violations Cost $15,000

The FCC’s Enforcement Bureau entered into a Consent Decree with the licensee of a Rhode Island low power FM (LPFM) station to resolve an investigation into violations of the FCC’s underwriting laws and other rules governing the ownership of LPFM stations.

The underwriting laws aim to preserve the unique nature of the commercial-free, local programming LPFM stations provide to the public, and in turn these stations benefit from access to spectrum and fewer regulatory requirements.  To accomplish this, Section 399B of the Communications Act of 1934 and Section 73.503(d) of the FCC’s Rules prohibit such stations from broadcasting promotional announcements on behalf of for-profit entities in exchange for compensation.  The FCC’s rules also place ownership restrictions on LPFM stations, prohibiting (1) a party from holding an attributable interest in another broadcast station; (2) a transfer of control of an LPFM station without first obtaining FCC approval; and (3) a transfer or assignment of an LPFM license within three years from the date of issue.

Between May 2016 and January 2020, the FCC received a series of complaints concerning announcements broadcast by the station.  Specifically, the complaints alleged that the station had broadcast commercial advertisements, and questioned the station’s compliance with the ownership limitations for LPFM stations.  The Enforcement Bureau followed up by issuing multiple letters of inquiry to the broadcaster seeking information regarding the underwriting practices and ownership structure of the station.  In response, the broadcaster admitted that, over a 16-month period, it received compensation for at least 17 announcements aired on behalf of for-profit entities.  The station also acknowledged that one of its board members held an attributable interest in another radio station, and that a transfer of control effectuating a complete change in board membership took place on March 21, 2016, roughly one year after the FCC issued the station license, and without prior FCC approval.  In fact, the required FCC transfer application was not filed until March 14, 2019.

To resolve the investigation, the license holder entered into a Consent Decree with the Enforcement Bureau under which it must pay a $15,000 civil penalty and implement a five-year compliance plan to prevent future violations.

Upon Further Review: FCC Rescinds Oregon FM Translator Construction Permit Grant Over Predicted Interference

In a recent Memorandum Opinion and Order, the FCC reversed the prior grant of a construction permit to the licensee of a Portland, Oregon FM translator station due to concerns over predicted interference to listeners of a local radio station.

Under Section 74.1204(f) of the FCC’s Rules, the Commission will reject applications for FM translator stations if the proposed operation would cause interference to an existing broadcast station.  To prove such interference, a station opposing grant of such an application must provide “convincing evidence” of the impact of the proposed operation on its listeners.  This evidence includes the name and address of affected listeners, certifications or similar evidence from those listeners that they listen to the existing radio station at their address, evidence that such listener’s address is within the 60 dBu contour of the proposed FM translator, and evidence demonstrating that grant of the authorization will result in interference to the listener’s reception of the existing station at that address.  Additionally, the FCC’s rules (which have since been amended to require online public notices) required at the time that applicants seeking authorization to construct an FM translator station publish public notice of the application in the local newspaper to provide the public with an opportunity to participate in the proceeding.

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:

  • Pennsylvania AM Radio Station’s Tower Marking and Lighting Violations End With Consent Decree
  • Unauthorized Transfer of Control Costs Nevada FM Radio Licensee $8,000
  • Arizona Translator Station Violates Construction Permit Terms and Receives $15,000 Penalty

AM Station Enters Into Consent Decree to Settle Tower Marking and Lighting Case

The Enforcement Bureau entered into a Consent Decree with a Pennsylvania AM radio licensee and tower owner to resolve a years-long investigation into violations of the Commission’s tower lighting and marking rules.

Under Part 17 of the FCC’s Rules and in accordance with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requirements, tower owners must comply with various painting, lighting, and notification requirements.  These rules are critical to maintaining air traffic safety, and the FCC imposes    strict requirements regarding tower painting and lighting maintenance.  Specifically, the FCC’s rules require that tower owners: (1) clean and repaint tower structures as frequently as is necessary to maintain good visibility; (2) ensure tower structures conform to the painting and lighting requirements prescribed in their FCC registration; and (3) notify the FAA of any lighting outages.

In response to an anonymous complaint, FCC investigators made several on-site visits in late 2015 and early 2016 to inspect a broadcaster’s antenna structures located in Pennsylvania, and observed faded paint markings and lighting outages on two of the four structures.  In February 2016, the FCC issued a Notice of Violation for the station’s failure to: (1) clean and paint the antenna structures so that their colored markings were sufficiently visible;  (2) keep the structures lit in accordance with the terms of their FCC registration; and (3) timely notify the FAA of the lighting outage.

When presented with the Notice of Violation, the station responded by acknowledging that it was aware of the lighting outage issues and was taking steps to make the needed painting and lighting repairs.  It also claimed that it had tried to notify the FAA about the lighting outage only to find that the FCC investigators had already filed a notification.

Returning for a reinspection several months later, FCC investigators found that the station had still not remedied any of the violations.  As a result, the FCC issued a Notice of Apparent Liability (NAL) in December 2016  proposing a $25,000 fine, and instructed the station to either pay the amount in full or submit to the Enforcement Bureau justification for a reduction or cancellation of the fine.

The station followed up with numerous filings at the FCC, including a submission to the Commission’s Office of Managing Director seeking reconsideration of the NAL, but the filings failed to properly respond to the Enforcement Bureau, as directed in the NAL.  In July 2019, the FCC issued a Forfeiture Order, noting these procedural failures and ordering payment of the full $25,000 fine.  The station submitted a petition seeking reconsideration of the Forfeiture Order in August 2019.

To finally resolve the matter, the FCC entered into a Consent Decree with the station owner under which the station will pay a reduced $1,900 penalty, certify that each of its antenna structures complies with Part 17 of the FCC’s Rules, and adopt a comprehensive compliance plan to prevent future violations.

Nevada FM Licensee Hit with $8,000 Penalty for Improper Transfer of Control

In a recently adopted Consent Decree, the Media Bureau settled an investigation into an FM radio licensee for conducting a transfer of control without prior Commission approval.

Section 310(d) of the Communications Act prohibits the transfer of control of a station license without first obtaining FCC approval.  Under Section 73.3540 of the FCC’s Rules, a licensee seeking such approval must file an application on FCC Form 315 at least 45 days before the anticipated effective date of the transfer of control. Continue reading →

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October 1, 2020 is the deadline for TV stations to (1) upload to their online Public Inspection Files their must-carry/retransmission consent carriage election statements for the three-year cycle covering January 1, 2021 to December 31, 2023, and (2) notify MVPDs of any changes to their election status.

As we previewed in May, the upcoming October 1 deadline marks the first under the FCC’s new electronic notice system, which replaces the previous requirement that eligible broadcasters mail paper notices to cable and satellite providers regarding carriage elections by October 1 every three years. This year, the FCC’s new procedures simplify this notification process.

Under the new approach, commercial TV stations must place statements electing either must-carry or retransmission consent in their online Public Inspection File by October 1 every third year.  A separate notice to MVPDs is only required when the station wishes to change the status it elected in the prior three-year cycle.  Similar to the obligation imposed on broadcasters (discussed in more detail here), the new rules require cable providers to maintain up-to-date contact information for carriage-related issues in the FCC’s Cable Operations and Licensing System (COALS) database (which the FCC makes available in the online Public Inspection Files of cable providers).  Satellite providers must place such information directly in their online Public Inspection File, making it easier for broadcasters to identify the appropriate contact for election notices.

To that end, stations opting to change their election with respect to any MVPD must send notice of the change to the e-mail address provided by the relevant MVPD, with a copy to the FCC at ElectionNotices@FCC.gov, and attach a copy of the election change notice to the election statement uploaded to the station’s online Public Inspection File.  In response, MVPDs are supposed to confirm receipt of the change notice.  The FCC has said that if broadcasters fail to receive such confirmation, and are unable to reach anyone at the phone number provided by the MVPD, the change notice will still be considered timely if placed in the station’s Public Inspection File, and the proper FCC e-mail address copied, by the October 1 deadline.

Similarly, the FCC simplified the election process for noncommercial educational (“NCE”) stations by eliminating the triennial election notice requirement after October 1, 2020.  As a result, once NCE stations place their election statements requesting carriage in their online Public Inspection File by the October 1, 2020 deadline, no further triennial notices will be required.  While separate carriage notification procedures were adopted for low power television stations and NCE translator stations that qualify for must-carry status, but which do not have a Public Inspection File, the FCC yesterday waived the carriage notice requirement with regard to NCE educational translators.  In doing so, it noted the unique challenges sending such notices would pose for these stations, as they merely rebroadcast rather than originate programming.

For veterans of the cumbersome certified mail approach previously used for many years, the new approach seems almost too easy.  If only that were true of all FCC rule changes.

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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:

  • More Stations Settle with FCC Over Political File Violations
  • FCC Fines Drone Retailer Nearly $3 Million for Marketing Unauthorized Devices
  • California FM Translator Fined for Operating Above Power Limits

Political Ad Troubles Continue: Dozens of Radio Stations Settle With FCC Over Political File Violations

As election season heats up, the FCC remains focused on broadcasters’ Political File recordkeeping.  In the past month alone, the Media Bureau has entered into scores of consent decrees with radio broadcasters stemming from violations of the Commission’s Political File rules.  This barrage of enforcement actions follows similar settlements reached last month (covered here).

This month’s consent decrees continue to involve obligations under Section 315(e)(1) of the Communications Act, which requires broadcasters to place in their Political File records of requests to purchase political advertising time made: (1) by or on behalf of a candidate for public office (i.e., federal, state, or local candidates); or (2) by a non-candidate third party whose ad communicates a message relating to a “political matter of national importance.”  Section 73.1943 of the FCC’s Rules requires stations to upload this documentation “as soon as possible,” which the FCC considers to be “immediately absent unusual circumstances.”  The FCC has repeatedly emphasized that these recordkeeping requirements are essential to a candidate’s ability to assert a right to equal time over the airwaves, as well as to keep the electorate informed so that they can evaluate the validity of political messages and hold political interests accountable.

The investigations arose from issues identified in each of the affected stations’ license renewal applications.  The license renewal application form requires stations to certify compliance with the FCC’s Public Inspection File rule, and the Political File is part of the Public Inspection File.  For stations that were unable to make this certification, further investigations uncovered deficient Political File records in a number of cases.

In particular, FCC staff indicated that failures to timely upload political file materials has been a recurring problem, and that when the rules say that records of a request to purchase airtime must be uploaded to the Public File “as soon as possible,” the FCC interprets that to mean within one business day of the date of the request.

The recent flood of consent decrees has increased awareness of broadcasters’ Political File obligations and has brought recordkeeping and other related compliance issues to the forefront for broadcasters both large and small.  While last month saw settlements involving six large radio broadcasters operating roughly 1,900 stations nationwide, recent actions have targeted licensees controlling just a handful of stations.

While the settlements to date have not included monetary payments, by entering into consent decrees, the licensees are now on the hook for additional compliance measures, including preparing and implementing comprehensive compliance plans, along with filing periodic FCC compliance reports.

Political File obligations continue to be some of the most nuanced and complicated rules the FCC enforces, and the FCC’s guidance in this area continues to evolve.  Stations are therefore advised to work closely with counsel to understand their obligations and develop procedures to ensure compliance.  Additional information on the political broadcasting rules is also available in our Advisory on the subject.

Drone Retailer Hit with Nearly $3 Million Fine for Marketing Unauthorized Devices

The FCC recently issued a $2,861,128 fine against a large online drone retailer for marketing unauthorized drone equipment and failing to fully respond to a Commission request for information in the course of the investigation.

Section 302 of the Communications Act restricts the manufacture, import, sale, or shipment of devices capable of causing harmful interference to radio communications.  In addition, under Section 2.803(b) of the FCC’s Rules, devices that emit radiofrequency (RF) energy must first undergo the Commission’s equipment authorization procedures before being marketed for sale in the United States.  Such devices must also adhere to strict identification and labeling requirements.

Following several complaints about the company’s marketing of noncompliant RF transmitters intended for use in operating drones, the FCC’s Spectrum Enforcement Division issued a Letter of Inquiry (“LOI”) in January 2016 seeking information and documents related to the allegations. Continue reading →

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On July 30, 2020, the FCC released a Public Notice and Final Cost Category Schedule for the C-Band Relocation, and established August 31, 2020 as the deadline for C-Band earth station licensees to submit their lump sum election notices.  We discussed the Public Notice and Schedule here.

In response to a request from the Society of Broadcast Engineers, the FCC announced today that the deadline for submitting election notices will be extended until September 14, 2020.  The FCC still has under review a separate request by ACA Connects to stay the deadline entirely while the FCC reviews an Application for Review filed by that organization.

In the meantime, C-Band earth station licensees have an additional two weeks to consider their options.

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On Monday, August 17, 2020, the Department of Justice, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Federal Communications Commission released a joint advisory on the acquisition and use of counter-drone equipment by non-federal public and private entities. In the Advisory, the agencies highlight federal criminal laws and other federal statutes and regulations that may be implicated by the use of such technology, specifically for drone detection and mitigation.

The Advisory comes at a time when the United States is seeing a significant uptick in the use of drones or unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). Last week, the FAA noted that more than 1.6 million commercial and recreational drones are registered with the agency, and that it has certified more than 188,000 remote aircraft pilots. This widespread adoption of drones has heightened security concerns over the risk that they could present to the public, particularly at widely attended outdoor events such as sporting events or concerts. In addition to the use of drones in warfare, high-profile domestic incidents, including this week’s close call between a drone and Air Force One over the Washington area, present a case for the need for effective and widely available counter-UAS measures. As tech companies race to develop solutions, federal agencies are cautioning the public to be mindful of the possible legal restrictions of selling and operating counter-UAS technology.

Continue reading →

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The FCC took another significant step in the C-Band reallocation process, releasing its Final Cost Category Schedule for Relocation Expenses of C-Band (3.7-4.2 GHz) satellite licensees. The Public Notice accompanying the cost schedule also established August 31, 2020 as the deadline for C-Band earth station licensees to elect whether they wish to receive a lump sum reallocation payment.

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:

  • FCC Settles with Six Major Radio Groups Over Political File Violations
  • Texas Radio Stations Face Proposed Fines for Contest Rule Violations
  • $15,000 Fine Proposed for LPFM Station Airing Commercial Ads

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:

  • Time Off the Air Leads to License Termination for North Dakota Radio Station
  • FCC Enters Into Consent Decree With Tech Company Imposing $250,000 Civil Penalty for Unlawful License Transfers and Failure to Disclose a Felony
  • Virginia Radio Station Faces Proposed $7,000 Fine and Reduced License Term Over Failure to Timely File its Renewal Application

The Sound of Silence: North Dakota Radio Station Faces License Termination After Prolonged Period Off-Air

After going off the air and remaining silent due to financial concerns, an FM station’s license was revoked for failure to timely resume operations.

Section 73.1740(a)(4) of the FCC’s Rules permits a licensee to temporarily discontinue operations for up to 30 days provided that the licensee: (1) notifies the FCC by the tenth day of discontinued operations, and (2) requests authorization from the Commission to remain silent for any period beyond 30 days. However, Section 312(g) of the Communications Act of 1934 provides that a broadcast station’s license automatically expires if it does not transmit a broadcast signal for 12 consecutive months. The FCC may extend or reinstate a license terminated by virtue of this provision if doing so would “promote equity and fairness.”

On August 15, 2018, the North Dakota licensee took the station off the air due to financial concerns. After several months of radio silence, the station finally requested special temporary authority (STA) to remain silent on October 30. Despite the delay, the FCC granted the STA for a period of 180 days, cautioning that the station’s license would expire as a matter of law if operations did not resume by 12:01 a.m. on August 16, 2019, when the station would reach 12 months of silent status. The Commission also noted that the STA request had failed to meet both the 10-day notification requirement and the 30-day deadline for seeking authorization for discontinued operations. At the end of the authorized 180 days, the licensee sought an extension of the STA, which the FCC granted, again reminding the licensee of the August 16, 2019 deadline to resume operations. Continue reading →