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The FCC announced yesterday that repacked and band-changing television and Class A television stations will have the opportunity to file applications to specify a new channel or expand their proposed facilities between October 3 and November 2.

By way of background, in April of 2013, in preparation for the Broadcast Incentive Auction, the FCC froze the filing of modification applications by full power and Class A television stations that would expand coverage in any direction.  With the conclusion of the Broadcast Incentive Auction, stations that were involuntarily repacked or that elected to change bands in exchange for compensation were required to file applications to transition to their newly-assigned channels.

However, apart from some flexibility to increase coverage in any one direction by up to 1%, those applications could only replicate the coverage a station had before the auction.  A small group of stations that had special situations such as those that were unable to build on their assigned repack channel or which were predicted to receive excessive interference as a result of the repack were allowed to modify their facilities in what the FCC called the “First Priority” window, which closed last Friday.  For the vast majority of stations, however, the window announced yesterday will be their first opportunity in more than four years to expand coverage without requiring a waiver of the freeze.

This “Second Priority” window is limited to repacked and band changing stations.  Eligible stations can change their currently assigned channel or make minor modifications to the facilities currently proposed in their repack construction permit (if already granted), or pending repack application.  Stations seeking a new channel must remain within their currently assigned band (e.g., a UHF station that was paid in the spectrum auction to move to a VHF channel cannot now file to move back to the UHF band).

Applications filed in this window must protect all applications filed in the initial 90-day repack window, the just-concluded First Priority window, and those filed prior to the April 2013 application freeze.  An application seeking a new channel will be handled as a major modification, requiring a 30-day public notice and comment period at the FCC, along with local public notice in the community of license.  Stations seeking to modify their facilities while remaining on their assigned channel must still meet the FCC’s requirements for a minor modification application.

Additional costs caused by building expanded or different-channel facilities are not eligible for repack reimbursement, and stations are therefore not allowed to amend their Form 399 estimates to include those additional amounts.

Filing fees will be required for modification applications filed in this window, and station applications that are mutually exclusive with another application filed during the window will have a 90-day period to resolve the mutual exclusivity or both applications will be dismissed.  The FCC will treat all applications filed during the window as having been filed on the same day, so the precise date of filing will not be relevant in determining whether applications filed during this window are mutually exclusive.

After years of television stations having their fate dictated by the outcome of the Broadcast Incentive Auction and the FCC-designed repack, this window represents the first opportunity in a long time for stations to take control of their own destinies.  Stations will now have the opportunity to obtain what they used to take for granted–the ability to adapt their facilities to changing communities and needs while enhancing their coverage in a post-repack world.  That is an opportunity that should not be missed.

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[Breaking News: Moments before the release of this post, the FCC issued a Public Notice announcing an extension of time to the end of the government’s fiscal year for regulatory fee payors in areas affected by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma to make their regulatory fee payments.  Regulatees in Florida, Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, and affected portions of Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, and Georgia have until midnight on September 29, 2017 to file and pay their fees.  While that only provides an additional three days to pay, the FCC indicates that anyone needing additional relief can file a request using the Commission’s established deferral/reduction request procedures.]

With the end of the government’s fiscal year comes the obligation to pay the annual regulatory fees that defray the cost of FCC activities for which a separate fee, such as an application processing fee, is not paid.  These activities include, ironically enough, rulemaking and enforcement activities that regulatees might prefer not to fund.

Each year, the FCC is required to conduct a proceeding determining how to allocate the cost of its operations among the various industries and types of entities it regulates.  After soliciting comments on each year’s proposed fees, the FCC releases a final order stating how it will apportion the fees among various regulatee categories for the fiscal year.  Thereafter, it issues a Public Notice announcing the deadline for paying the fees, and releases Fact Sheets for each category of regulatee providing more detailed information about how to pay those particular fees.

Over the course of last week, the FCC released its Report and Order setting this year’s annual regulatory fee amounts and almost immediately thereafter announced that annual regulatory fees are due by September 26, 2017.  It also announced that its Fee Filer system is now open to receive payments.  For Media Bureau regulatees, the FCC released this Fact Sheet setting forth the fees for each class and category of broadcast license.  Licensees subject to the fees must file a report listing the fees they owe through the Fee Filer system and then pay that amount by 11:59 pm (ET) on September 26.

This year’s Regulatory Fee Order contained at least some good news for certain broadcasters in the form of reduced fees.  Specifically, television stations in all market sizes saw modest decreases in their fees over last year, although the FCC continues to question whether there are television stations paying the lower satellite station fee that are not entitled to do so and whether the fee for satellite television stations should be increased substantially next year.

On the radio side, all radio broadcasters with a population served of 75,000 or less also saw a decrease in their fees.  However, that was balanced by an increase in fees for radio stations serving a population of more than 3,000,000, with some of those fees increasing by as much as $5,000.  Radio stations between these two extremes received a mixed bag of increases and decreases, apparently as a result of the FCC’s efforts to make the increments between tiers more proportional.

The Regulatory Fee Order contained particularly good news for some small market “singleton” stations.  The FCC increased the de minimis fee exemption from $500 (it had been $10 before 2014) to $1,000.  When it was $500, the exemption only helped a few licensees of stand-alone translator, booster and low power television stations.  With a $1,000 exemption, many stand-alone AM and some stand-alone FM stations in smaller markets are now also relieved of both the obligation to file the report of fees owed and to pay those fees.  Note that in determining whether the exemption applies, the FCC adds together all of the regulatory fees owed by a regulatee, so a small market licensee will lose the exemption if it has other regulatory fees due that, along with the radio station regulatory fee, add up to more than $1,000.

Regulatees who owe less than $25,000 can pay using a credit card.  Those owing $25,000 or more must use wire transfer, debit card, or bank ACH to pay.  Department of Treasury rules prohibit a single entity from paying more than $24,999.99 to a single government agency in a single day by credit card.  This limit applies whether the payment is made as a single payment or as a series of smaller payments that together add up to $25,000 or more.

Failure to timely pay regulatory fees brings with it a 25% penalty, administrative fees, and should the fees remain unpaid for any length of time, rather merciless fee collection activity from outside collection agencies.  Failure to pay regulatory fees at all (as opposed to paying them late) can bring even greater woes, up to and including loss of license.

So, unless you are in a hurricane-affected area, mark September 26th on your calendar as “Reg Fee Day”.  Like death and taxes, annual regulatory fees have become another certainty of life for those regulated by the FCC.  Unlike death, however, some may qualify for an exemption.

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The FCC announced on Friday afternoon that it would push back the December 1, 2017 deadline for commercial and noncommercial broadcast stations to file their biennial ownership reports.  Rather than opening the filing window on September 1 and closing it on December 1, the FCC will open the window on December 1 and close it on March 2, 2018.  The Commission stressed that it is only changing the filing due date, not the period of time covered by the report.  That is, all reports, regardless of when in the window they are filed, must be accurate as of October 1, 2017.  If a station is sold after October 1, 2017, the former ownership of the station must still be reported when the form is finally filed.

This biennial ownership filing cycle is the first one in which both commercial and noncommercial stations file on the new consolidated filing date, which was to be December 1 of odd numbered years.  In addition, it will be the first one to use new ownership report forms accessed and filed through the FCC’s new Licensing Management System (“LMS”), rather than the CDBS filing system that is being phased out.

In its comments in the FCC’s proceeding to reduce or eliminate regulatory burdens on broadcasters, the NAB had requested that the Commission suspend the December 1, 2017 filing date while it considers comments the NAB and others filed seeking a reduction in the frequency and burden of ownership reporting.  NAB followed that request up with a letter asking that the Commission allow additional time specifically for broadcasters to test the new filing system and revised ownership reporting forms to avoid the debacle that occurred in 2009-2010 when the FCC last updated the form for commercial stations, causing multiple delays and suspensions of the filing deadlines.

In delaying this year’s ownership report filing, the FCC said that it was acting of its own accord to permit adequate time for the integration of the new ownership report forms with the FCC’s LMS filing database.  Whatever the technical issues the FCC faces in that process, there is plenty for broadcasters to do during this delay.  For radio broadcasters, the LMS is an entirely new filing system with which they will need to become familiar.  As broadcasters’ recent experience with the unexpected and dramatic redesign of the Emergency Test Reporting System (ETRS) showed, the learning curve surrounding a new filing system can be very steep and frustrating.

In addition, the FCC requires that all reportable interest holders be identified in the ownership report by one of three types of unique identifiers.  As we have explained before, reportable interest holders must secure a Federal Registration Number (the CORES FRN, not to be confused with the CORES Username and Password needed to access the ETRS), and to do so must provide the FCC with their full Social Security Number.  To address the backlash from those concerned about providing their SSNs, the Commission created a Restricted Use FRN, or RUFRN, that can be used only in ownership reports and requires reporting the interest holder’s name, date of birth, residential address and last four digits of their SSN.  Finally, if an interest holder refuses to release the information needed to secure a CORES FRN or a RUFRN, the licensee may secure a Special Use FRN without revealing any SSN information upon a showing that it made a good faith effort to secure a CORES FRN or RUFRN.

Most recently, the Commission exempted interest holders in noncommercial licensees, many of whom are volunteers, from the CORES FRN/RUFRN requirement going forward, and those licensees may use SUFRNs for their reportable interest holders without having to make a showing of good faith efforts to collect interest holders’ SSNs.

Still, all licensees have some administrative work to do in advance of the ownership report filing, determining which of their interest holders already have a CORES FRN, creating RUFRNs for any interest holders needing them, and determining whether use of the SUFRN is permitted or appropriate for any interest holders.

While the delay will provide broadcasters with more time to address the difficulties of using the new form and filing system, the recent experience with ETRS gives broadcasters plenty to think about as they prepare for their next ownership filing.

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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:

  • TV Station Agrees to $17,500 Consent Decree for Failure to Properly Identify Children’s Programming and Other Violations
  • FCC Proposes $22,000 Fine Against Store for Operating Cell Phone Jammer
  • Marketing of Unauthorized Radio Frequency Devices Leads to $30,000 Civil Penalty

Failure to Properly Identify Children’s Programming and Related Violations Lead to $17,500 Settlement with FCC

The FCC entered into a Consent Decree with a New Jersey commercial TV station to resolve an investigation into whether the station failed to properly identify children’s programming on-air, failed to provide publishers of program guides with necessary children’s programming information, failed to report these violations in its license renewal application, and failed to provide complete and accurate information in its Children’s Television Programming Reports.

The Children’s Television Act of 1990 introduced an obligation for television broadcast stations to offer programming that meets the educational and informational needs of children, known as “Core Programming.” Section 73.671(c)(5) of the FCC’s Rules expands on this obligation by requiring that broadcasters identify Core Programming by displaying the “E/I” symbol on the television screen throughout the program. Section 73.673 of the Rules requires a commercial broadcast television station to provide the publishers of program guides with “information identifying programming specifically designed to educate and inform children,” including the age group of the intended audience. Finally, Section 73.3526 of the FCC’s Rules requires each commercial broadcast station to prepare and place in its public inspection files a Children’s Television Programming Report for each calendar quarter showing, among other things, the efforts made during that three-month period to serve the educational and informational needs of children.

The station’s license renewal application was filed in January 2015. In reviewing the application, the FCC looked at the station’s previously filed Children’s Television Programming Reports and learned that the station’s second quarter 2010 report indicated that certain Core Programming failed to display the “E/I” symbol. The FCC subsequently sent an informal inquiry to the station requesting an explanation, which eventually led to the station filing an amended license renewal application.

In its amended application, the station conceded that it: (1) failed to display the “E/I” symbol during certain Core Programming aired on its multicast streams between the fourth quarter of 2009 and the second quarter of 2015; (2) failed to provide the publishers of program guides the necessary children’s programming information between the second quarter of 2007 and the third quarter of 2016; and (3) failed to provide complete and accurate Children’s Television Programming Reports between the second quarter of 2007 and the fourth quarter of 2016. The amended application also revealed that the station failed to disclose these violations in its 2015 license renewal application.

To resolve the investigation of these violations, the station subsequently entered into a Consent Decree with the FCC under which the station: (1) admitted liability for the violations; (2) agreed to make a $17,500 settlement payment; and (3) agreed to implement a three-year compliance plan to ensure future compliance. The FCC stated that it would grant the station’s license renewal application conditioned upon the station “fully and timely satisfying its obligation to make the Settlement payment….”

Texas Store Faces $22,000 Fine for Operating Cell Phone Jammer

The FCC proposed a $22,000 fine against a Texas store for operating a cell phone jammer.

Section 301 of the Communications Act bans the use or operation of “any apparatus for the transmission of energy or communications or signals by radio” without a license. Section 302(b) of the Act states that “[n]o person shall manufacture, import, sell, offer for sale, or ship devices or home electronic equipment and systems, or use devices, which fail to comply with regulations promulgated pursuant to this section.” And Section 333 of the Act provides that “[n]o person shall willfully or maliciously interfere with or cause interference to any radio communications of any station licensed or authorized by or under this Act or operated by the United States Government.” Continue reading →

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The FCC and FEMA have established September 27, 2017 as the date for the next nationwide test of the Emergency Alert System (EAS). Like last year’s test, all EAS participants must file Form 1 a month before the test.  The Form 1 has been modified, however, requiring information that was not requested previously.  In addition, the FCC’s Emergency Test Reporting System (ETRS) has been revamped so that prior log in codes do not work and the system’s functionality is now unfamiliar to prior users.  As a result, while the Form 1 is technically due next Monday, August 28th, anyone who has not yet started the filing process should begin immediately and aim to finish the process this week.

Abandoning the ETRS log in system from the prior test, the ETRS now relies on log in information from an entirely separate FCC database, the Commission Registration System (CORES). Therefore, the first step in filing the Form 1 in the ETRS is the rather unintuitive step of establishing an FCC Username and Password in the CORES.  While this step might be simple enough in and of itself, it is important to understand that the CORES system confers control of the licensee’s Federal Registration Number (FRN) on the first person to lay claim to it.

Many broadcasters only know the FRN as the number they have to frantically search for every September when paying their Annual Regulatory Fees. But the FRN and password are increasingly used as the log in for many of the FCC’s other filing systems such as the new Licensing Management System that TV stations use for most application filings, the Universal Licensing System which is the licensing system for stations’ wireless facilities like broadcast auxiliaries and business radios, the International Bureau’s filing system for stations’ earth station facilities, and even an alternate log in for the new Online Public Inspection File.  Therefore, every station owner should establish a CORES Username and Password or have their lawyer do so on their behalf, and then claim the role of “Admin” of their FRN, even if someone else will be making their ETRS filings.

Once the licensee has claimed the Admin role for the station’s FRN, the person making the ETRS filings for the station must establish a CORES Username and Password for themselves and request that the FRN Admin associate the licensee’s FRN with their account. Only once all those steps are complete will the person making the ETRS filings be able to even draft the Form 1.

To reach the Form 1, filers should log into the ETRS using their own CORES Username and Password. A message may appear at the top of the page upon logging in saying that no FRNs are associated with the account.  If you think you have in fact associated the FRN with the account, proceed with drafting the Form 1, as the FRN may appear in the pull down menu despite that message.

Information about the station’s transmitter location, EAS equipment, and stations monitored will prefill from the Form 1 filed for the last nationwide test. This year, stations must also provide the location of their EAS receivers.  The FCC is requesting this information to be able to map where signals are received and sent so that it can better understand any communications breakdowns.  Also new this year, stations will see an instruction to file a separate Form 1 for each encoder, decoder or combination unit.  It is likely that most broadcasters have a combination unit and therefore only need to file one Form 1.  However, there may be situations where multiple filings are needed, for example where a cluster of co-owned radio stations share a studio but have to employ separate encoders and decoders to deal with stations in the group having different monitoring assignments.

So if you were procrastinating before filing the Form 1, or tried and were stymied by the FCC’s updated filing system, it’s time to get moving. Monday’s deadline is coming fast.

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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 $66,000 Fine Against Alaska Noncommercial FM Station for EAS and Other Violations
  • Man Faces $120 Million Fine for “Massive” Robocall Operation
  • FCC Proposes $1,500 Fine Against South Carolina AM Station for Late-Filed License Renewal

Alaska Noncommercial FM Station Faces $66,000 Fine for EAS and Other Violations

The FCC proposed a $66,000 fine against an Alaska noncommercial FM station for a number of violations, including actions that the FCC says “undermine the effectiveness of the Emergency Alert System (EAS).”

Section 11.15 of the FCC’s Rules requires that a copy of the EAS Operating Handbook be located “at normal duty stations or EAS equipment locations when an operator is required to be on duty.” In addition, Section 11.35(a) of the Rules states that EAS participants are responsible for ensuring that EAS equipment, such as encoders and decoders, are installed such that “monitoring and transmitting functions are available during the times the stations and system are in operation.” Also, Section 11.52(d)(1) requires EAS participants to monitor two EAS sources.

A June 2013 FCC inspection of the station’s main studio revealed several violations of the FCC’s EAS Rules. Specifically, the FCC agent found that the station (1) did not have an EAS Handbook; (2) did not have properly operating EAS equipment (because the programming and identification of the station’s EAS device was for another station); and (3) was only monitoring one EAS source.

In addition, the agent found numerous violations of the FCC’s other broadcast rules, including: (1) failure to post a valid license as required by Section 73.1230; (2) failure to maintain a public inspection file as required by Section 73.3527; (3) failure to retain the logs required by Section 73.1840; (4) failure to maintain a main studio staff under Section 73.1125(a); (5) inability to produce documentation designating a chief operator as required by Section 73.1870; and (6) failure to ensure that the station was operating in accordance with the terms of the station authorization or within variances permitted under the FCC’s technical rules, as required by Section 73.1400.

The FCC subsequently issued a Notice of Violation (“NOV”) to the station in August 2013. When the FCC did not receive a response from the station within the 20-day deadline specified in the NOV, the FCC sent a Warning Letter to the station in September 2013, and issued two additional NOVs in November 2013 and April 2016 directing the station “to provide information concerning the apparent violations described in the August 2013 NOV.” Despite signing a receipt for the April 2016 NOV, the station again failed to respond.

The base fine amounts for the apparent EAS violations, broadcast violations, and failures to respond to the NOVs total $11,000, $23,000, and $16,000 respectively. The FCC may adjust a fine upward or downward after taking into account the particular facts of each case. Here, citing the station’s failure to respond to FCC documents of four occasions, the FCC concluded that a 100 percent upward adjustment of the base fine for the failures to respond, or an additional $16,000, was warranted. As a result, the FCC proposed a total fine against the station of $66,000.

FCC Proposes $120 Million Fine for Caller ID Spoofing Operation

A Florida man’s spoofing campaign has earned him a proposed $120 million fine. The man apparently caused the display of misleading or inaccurate caller ID information (“spoofing”) on millions of calls to perpetrate an illegal robocalling campaign.

The Truth in Caller ID Act of 2009, as codified in Section 227(e) of the Communications Act and Section 64.1604 of the FCC’s Rules, prohibits any person from knowingly causing, directly or indirectly, any caller ID service to transmit or display misleading or inaccurate caller ID information with the intent to defraud, cause harm, or wrongfully obtain anything of value. Continue reading →

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According to a newly-released Public Notice, the FCC has directed the U.S. Department of Treasury to pay all broadcasters who had winning bids in the recently concluded spectrum incentive auction.  The only exceptions are those broadcasters that failed to submit sufficient banking information to the Commission for payment to be made.  Since the FCC does not control the actual release of funds, it indicates it will deem the amounts as paid five business days from the release of yesterday’s Public Notice (ie, July 27).  Any broadcaster expecting to be paid that is not listed in the attachment to the Public Notice will want to promptly fix any issues with its banking information so that it too can receive payment.

The Public Notice also establishes the deadline for each category of auction winner to go off-air after getting paid. For the fewer than a dozen stations actually terminating service and going permanently dark, yesterday’s announcement is a major milestone, establishing their last day of operation as October 25, 2017.  These stations can actually cease operating as early as late August, but only if they start airing their required notices to viewers and sending their notices to MVPDs immediately.  Those needing a longer goodbye can ask for additional time to remain on air as long as they can show the FCC good cause for continuing to operate beyond the deadline.

The approximately 30 stations that elected to move to a high or low VHF channel obviously do not face a “go dark” deadline.  Instead, they will transition to their new channel much the same way as stations being involuntarily repacked.  In other words, these stations will start operations on their new channels according to the FCC’s previously-announced transition phase assignments.  They’ll just do so with lighter hearts and heavier pockets than repacked stations.

The majority of the stations listed in the Public Notice as being eligible for an auction payment indicated at the start of the auction (in their Form 177) that they had entered into or intended to enter into a channel sharing agreement for post-auction operation.  These stations have until January 23, 2018 to cease operating on their current channel and commence operations on their shared channel.  If a station’s “intention” to enter into a channel sharing agreement has not yet been realized, it will have until January 23, 2018 to get that done.  In addition, the FCC is allowing channel sharing stations to request up to two 90-day extensions (until July 2018) if they need it.

The timing of yesterday’s announcement effectively means that auction winners whose channel sharing partner was assigned to a new channel as part of the repack will have to transition twice—once to their sharing partner’s pre-transition channel, and a second time to their partner’s repacked channel.  Since the first transition phase testing period does not begin until September 14, 2018, even a channel sharee obtaining both 90-day extension periods would have to get special dispensation from the FCC or go dark for some period of time if it wants to avoid having to do a two-step transition.

While bidding in the first-ever broadcast incentive auction has been over for months now, today’s Public Notice is a major step in finally closing the book on that auction.  The U.S. Treasury will be sending auction payments out over the next few days, and once that is done, all eyes will be on the repack itself.  Given last week’s implosion of the FCC’s filing system under the strain of the initial round of repack construction permit applications and reimbursement claims, the repack promises to be a challenging endeavor for both broadcasters and the FCC.  However, for those broadcasters whose pockets are flush with auction payments, the repack might seem just a little less burdensome.

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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:

  • TV Broadcaster Agrees to $55,000 “Civil Penalty” for Airing False EAS Tones
  • Radio Broadcaster to Donate or Surrender Nine FM Stations to Resolve Investigation of Stations Being Silent for Extended Periods
  • FCC Proposes $6,000 Fine Against California TV Station for Public File and Related Violations

Broadcast of False EAS Tones Leads to $55,000 Settlement with FCC

The FCC entered into a Consent Decree with the parent company of a Florida TV station to resolve an investigation into whether the station transmitted Emergency Alert System (“EAS”) tones outside of an actual emergency.

Section 325(a) of the Communications Act prohibits any person from transmitting “any false or fraudulent signal of distress” or similar communication. Further, Section 11.45 of the FCC’s Rules prohibits transmission of “the EAS codes or Attention Signal, or a recording or simulation thereof,” unless it is “an actual National, State, or Local Area emergency or authorized test of the EAS” (emphasis added).

On August 9, 2016, the FCC received a complaint alleging that the station had “aired a commercial multiple times that improperly used the EAS data burst and tone.” The FCC subsequently began an investigation into whether the station had violated its rules governing EAS, and directed the station to respond to the allegations.  In its response, the station explained that it started airing an advertisement on August 6, 2016 for a professional football team which opened with EAS Tones, the sounds of wind and thunder, and a voiceover stating: “This is an emergency broadcast transmission. This is not a test. This is an emergency broadcast transmission. This is not a test. Please remain calm. Seek shelter.”

The station claimed that its policies and practices do not allow transmission of false EAS tones, but that it received the advertisement from an outside source and the station’s “employees apparently failed to screen the Promotion before airing it.” The station explained that when a senior member of the station’s staff saw the advertisement on August 8, 2016, he notified the general manager that it contained a prohibited use of an EAS tone, and told staff not to air it again.

The station’s parent company subsequently entered into a consent decree with the FCC to resolve the investigation, under which the company (1) admitted that the station aired material that contained simulated EAS tones absent an actual emergency or authorized test of the EAS, (2) agreed to pay a $55,000 civil penalty, and (3) agreed to implement a three-year compliance plan.

Radio Broadcaster Agrees to Donate or Surrender Nine FM Station Licenses for Failure to Operate Stations

The owner of a number of radio stations entered into a Consent Decree with the FCC to resolve an investigation into the company’s alleged failure to operate its stations during their most recent license terms.

Section 312(g) of the Communications Act prohibits extended periods of silence by licensed stations because of their obligation to serve the public by broadcasting on their allocated spectrum. Specifically, a station’s license will automatically terminate if it remains silent for twelve consecutive months unless the FCC acts to extend or reinstate the license where “the holder of the station license prevails in an administrative or judicial appeal, the applicable law changes, or for any other reason to promote equity and fairness.”  Additionally, the Act authorizes the FCC to revoke any station license for failure to operate substantially as set forth in that license, and Section 73.1740 of the FCC’s Rules establishes minimum operating requirements for broadcast stations. Continue reading →

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No, I’m not referring to the fact that physically writing a letter seems to have joined button hooks and slide rules in the dustbin of history.  Instead, another relic of history–the requirement that letters and emails from the public be kept in the public file–disappeared from the FCC’s rulebook today.  Even more consequentially, that change means that it is now possible for a station that has uploaded all of its other public file materials to the FCC’s online database to eliminate its local public file, ending a requirement adopted over fifty years ago.

That news may confuse many, as our regular readers know that the FCC voted to eliminate the requirement at the first meeting of the Pai FCC on January 31, 2017.  At the time, the news was reported in many publications as “FCC eliminates letters from the public from public file.”  As a result, many assumed that the requirement had ceased to exist five months ago.

However, because the change affects what information the government requires of broadcasters (or in this case, no longer requires), it had to first be approved by the Office of Management and Budget under the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1995.  News of the OMB approval then needed to be published in the Federal Register, along with the effective date of the rule change (only in government would a statute called the Paperwork Reduction Act actually require more paperwork).

OMB approval has now been received, and the Federal Register duly reported that today, along with the corresponding effective date of the change: June 29, 2017.  So, for stations that have already uploaded all other public file documents to the FCC’s public file database, including political file documents, the requirement to maintain a local “paper” file is no more.

That in turn has at least two ripple effects.  First, as the FCC noted in eliminating the requirement, stations will now be able to secure their facilities at a time when the media finds itself increasingly the target of threats and violence.  No longer will potentially unstable or violent individuals be able to make it past the front door merely because they know the phrase “I’d like to see the public file.”

Second, such stations will no longer need to ensure they have sufficient staff continuously on hand to guarantee a visitor can immediately inspect the local public file at any time during regular business hours, including lunchtime.

So if your station has uploaded all of its other public file documents to the FCC’s database, today, for the first time since 1965, you can hang a sign saying “Out to Lunch” on the front door.  Go have a bite with your station colleagues, and regardless of where you eat, it will no doubt be a particularly tasty and very memorable lunch.

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The FCC voted unanimously yesterday to adopt a Notice of Inquiry (“NOI”) that may have a profound impact on the delivery of communications services in residential and commercial buildings, shopping malls and other multiple tenant environments (“MTEs”). This proceeding will revisit FCC rules and policies developed during the last 17 years, focusing on whether changes need to be made to enhance broadband deployment and consumer choice.  Building owners and managers, communications service providers, and tenants all have a stake in the outcome of this inquiry.

In a nutshell, current FCC policies favor competitive access by telecom and video service providers (with some exceptions), and prohibit exclusive contracts between service providers and building owners that would limit such access. These rules also cover access to in-building wiring and the conduits and rights-of-way within these properties that are owned or controlled by the service providers.   The rules apply to regulated service providers because the FCC generally lacks jurisdiction over building owners and managers.

The most recent FCC order, issued in 2010, approved the use of exclusive marketing and bulk billing arrangements between video providers and building owners. Exclusive marketing arrangements give video providers the exclusive right to market services to residents in a building.  Bulk billing arrangements permit the video provider to serve each resident of the building, usually at a significant discount from the retail rate.  The billing for services is often included within the rent, whether the resident uses the services or contracts with another service provider.

The FCC initiated this proceeding in response to allegations from fixed and mobile broadband service providers that they face challenges in expanding their service footprint because of MTEs with exclusive contracts. There are also arguments that state regulations intended to encourage competitive access actually hinder the ability to provide competitive services. In one pending proceeding, a group of service providers has asked the FCC to preempt an ordinance recently adopted by the City of San Francisco requiring building owners to give competing service providers access to existing wiring upon request from a resident, which the complaining service providers and many building owners contend will deter investment in the communications infrastructure of new buildings and is impractical because of space limitations in many older buildings.

Unlike the earlier proceedings which were focused on specific markets (telecommunications or video services) or types of buildings (resident or commercial), the NOI will cover all services and all types of MTEs. Indeed, for the purpose of this proceeding, MTEs include both commercial and residential premises such as apartment and condominium buildings, shopping malls, gated communities, mobile home parks, garden apartments and other centrally managed residential real estate developments, or any multi-unit premise occupied by two or more distinct units.  Most buildings are covered by this proceeding.

Some of the specific questions on which the FCC seeks comment include:

  1. Whether there are state and local regulations that may inhibit broadband deployment and competition within MTEs;
  2. Whether the FCC should revisit its decision approving exclusive marketing and bulk billing arrangements;
  3. Whether revenue sharing agreements, exclusive wiring arrangements or other types of contractual provisions are affecting broadband competition within MTEs;
  4. Whether there are statutory or jurisdictional considerations that should guide the FCC’s actions in this proceeding; and
  5. Whether the proposed reclassification of broadband internet access as an information service will impact the FCC’s legal authority to address broadband deployment within MTEs.

Comments in this proceeding will be due July 24, 2017 and reply comments will be due August 22, 2017.   The NOI process is a first step toward the development of new rules.  Once the NOI comment cycle is completed, the FCC may issue a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking proposing rule changes, requiring another round of comments before new rules could be adopted.