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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:

  • Failure to Monitor and Repair EAS Equipment Nets $8,000 Fine
  • Fines for Late-Filed License Renewals Continue
  • $25,000 Fine for Failure to Answer FCC Correspondence

Act of Vandalism Ends With $8,000 Fine

In a recently released Notice of Apparent Liability (“NAL”), the FCC issued a fine totaling $8,000 against a New Mexico AM broadcaster for violating the FCC’s Emergency Alert System (“EAS”) rules. The NAL alleges that the broadcaster failed to properly maintain its EAS equipment, a violation of Section 11.35 of the FCC’s Rules.

During a June 2011 main studio inspection, an agent from the Enforcement Bureau’s San Diego Field Office observed that the station’s EAS equipment was not operational. According to the NAL, the Station’s EAS equipment had been damaged by vandalism six months prior to the inspection. In addition to the equipment failure, Station employees were unable to provide the required EAS documentation (i.e., logs or other EAS records) associated with the mandatory weekly and monthly tests required by Section 11.61 of the FCC’s Rules.

Inoperable EAS equipment is a violation of Section 11.35(a) of the Commission’s Rules, which mandates that broadcasters must ensure that the required EAS equipment is installed, maintained and monitored. Section 11.35(a) also requires EAS participants to log, among other things, instances when the station experiences technical issues during participation in the weekly or monthly EAS tests. Pursuant to Section 11.35(b), EAS participants must seek FCC approval if their EAS equipment will not be functioning for more than 60 days. The base fine for an EAS violation is $8,000. The FCC, stating that “EAS is critical to public safety,” levied the full fine against the broadcaster.

Late Filings and Unauthorized Operations Lead to $10,000 Forfeiture

The FCC recently issued a joint Memorandum Opinion and Order and NAL to the licensee of an AM station in South Carolina for several violations of the FCC’s Rules. The licensee was ultimately fined $10,000 for failing to file its license renewal application on time and for unauthorized operation of the station following the license’s expiration.

Section 73.3539(a) of the FCC’s Rules requires license renewal applications to be filed four months prior to the expiration date of the license. The AM station’s license was set to expire in December 2003, but no license renewal application was filed. The station licensee later explained that it did not file a renewal application because it did not realize the license had expired. In May of 2011, seven years later, the FCC notified the station that the station’s license had expired, its authority to operate had been terminated, and that its call letters had been deleted from the FCC’s database.

After receiving this letter, the station filed a late license renewal application and a subsequent request for Special Temporary Authority (“STA”) to operate the station until the license renewal application was granted. Because so much time had passed since the station failed to timely file its 2003 license renewal application, the deadline for the station’s 2011 license renewal application (for the 2011-2019 license term) also passed without the station filing a timely license renewal application. As a result, the FCC found the station liable for an additional violation of its license renewal filing obligations. The base fine for failing to file required forms is $3,000. Thus, the FCC found the station liable for a total of $6,000 relating to these two violations.

Further, the FCC found the licensee liable for violations of Section 301 of the Communications Act because the station continued operating for seven years after its license had expired. The base forfeiture for such a violation is $10,000, but the FCC lowered the proposed forfeiture to $4,000 because the station had previously been licensed.

In spite of the rule violations and $10,000 fine, the FCC decided to grant the station’s license renewal application, finding that the station’s violations did not evidence a “pattern of abuse.”
FCC Fines Unresponsive Party $21,000 Above Base Fine

A recent NAL released by the Enforcement Bureau provides a reminder that regulatory ignorance is not bliss. According to the NAL, the Enforcement Bureau, as part of an investigation into billing practices, issued a Letter of Inquiry (“LOI”) to a provider of prepaid calling cards on July 15, 2011. The LOI mandated that a response be submitted by August 4, 2011.

The provider failed to respond to the LOI by the initial deadline. The Enforcement Bureau, via e-mail on August 29, 2011, provided an additional extension of time to respond until September 8, 2011. The extended deadline again came and went without action by the provider. As of December 9, 2011, the Enforcement Bureau had not received a response to its July 2011 LOI. Pursuant to Section 1.80 of the FCC’s Rules, the base fine for failure to respond to FCC correspondence is $4,000.

The NAL noted that the FCC’s authority under Sections 4(i), 218, and 403 of the Communications Act of 1934 “empowers it to compel carriers … to provide the information and documents sought by the Enforcement Bureau’s LOI,” and that failure to respond to an Enforcement Bureau request “constitutes a violation of a Commission order.” The Enforcement Bureau stated that the provider’s “egregious, intentional and continuous” misconduct warranted a $21,000 upward adjustment to the base $4,000 fine, for a total fine of $25,000.

A PDF version of this article can be found at FCC Enforcement Monitor.

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In what now seems like ages ago, the FCC and FEMA conducted the first nationwide test of the Emergency Alert System back on November 9, 2011. While the FCC and FEMA are continuing to review and analyze what went right and what went wrong during the national test, EAS Participants should not forget that their work may not be done. As we discussed immediately following the test, the FCC has mandated that EAS Participants submit the full results of their test to the FCC, either online or on paper, no later than December 27, 2011.

I reported back in October that the FCC created three separate forms for purposes of reporting a station’s test results. Stations should have completed Form 1 prior to the test, providing background information regarding the station’s facilities and equipment, and Form 2 on or as close as possible to the November 9 test date, providing information on whether or not the station received the national test alert and whether the alert was passed along.

In Form 3, the FCC has asked for more detailed information on the success or failure of the test. We were the first to point out publicly that there is a conflict in dates between the FCC’s form page on the website which indicates that the deadline is December 24, and the FCC’s National EAS Test Public Notice which indicates that the deadline is December 27. However, the FCC’s filing rules and discussions we have had with FCC staff confirm that the official deadline is December 27.

So if you have not done so already, make sure to submit the required information about the success or failure of your EAS equipment during the national test prior to next week’s deadline.

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At its October Open Meeting, the FCC announced that it was moving ahead on two proposals to “standardize” and “enhance” television stations’ public reporting regarding the programming they air, and their business and operational practices. The first of those items to be released related to the Online Public Inspection File, which we report on in detail here and here. The Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in that proceeding has already been published in the Federal Register and the first round of comments in that proceeding are due on December 22, 2011.

The second item, which deals with the new disclosure form to replace television stations’ current Quarterly Issues Programs Lists and the FCC’s prior failed attempt to standardize and enhance station disclosures on FCC Form 355, has now appeared in the Federal Register. We discuss this proposed form in detail here. The publication of this item establishes the deadline for comments on the new form, which are due on January 17, 2012, with Reply Comments due on January 30, 2012.

The FCC has moved swiftly in getting these items published, thereby commencing the public input process on these proposals, and has indicated that they are a high priority at the Commission. Broadcasters’ best opportunity to influence how these proposals take shape is now. As a result, stations should review the proposed form and our analysis of both it and the related Online Public File to understand the impact these new requirements could have on their operations.

We previously noted that the proposed form is highly duplicative of portions of the Online Public File proposal. Regardless of what information is collected, having to disclose it twice, in two different formats, is a burden on broadcasters that the FCC appears to have not acknowledged. In addition, the new form being put forth by the FCC for comment, far from merely standardizing the way programming information is disclosed, could well end up standardizing what programming is actually aired, intruding on licensee programming discretion.

Broadcasters that fail to participate in these proceedings do so at their own peril, as the resulting regulatory requirements could well be the proverbial lump of coal that TV broadcasters find in their stocking this year.

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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:

  • Malfunctioning Monitor Costs Broadcaster $10,000
  • FCC Fines Tower Owner $13,000 For Lighting and Ownership Issues

Faulty Remote Light Monitoring System Results in $10,000 Fine

According to a recent Notice of Apparent Liability (“NAL”), agents at the FCC’s Norfolk Field Office received a complaint of an unlit tower from the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”). Two weeks later, agents from the Norfolk Field Office contacted the local Sheriff’s Office for a visual confirmation of the tower’s lighting status. A deputy indicated that all but one of the lights on the 700 foot tower were not functioning and that the only functioning light was located 100 feet from the ground.
Section 17.51 of the FCC’s Rules requires certain structures to install and maintain red obstruction lighting. These lights must be functional between sunset and sunrise. The base fine for failure to comply with lighting and painting regulations is $10,000. Sections 17.47, 17.48 and 17.49 require structure owners to 1) inspect all automatic or mechanical lighting control devices at least every three months, 2) notify the FAA immediately of tower lighting malfunctions or extinguishments, and 3) maintain logs detailing any malfunctions or extinguishments.
The Norfolk field agents conducted an onsite inspection of the tower almost one month after receiving notification of the complaint from the FAA. The tower owner’s contract engineer was present at the time of the onsite inspection. During that inspection, the agents confirmed that only one tower light was functioning and that the tower’s remote light monitoring system was also malfunctioning. The NAL indicated that the consulting engineer admitted that the monitoring system had notified the tower owner that the top beacon was not functioning only six days prior to the onsite inspection. The tower owner notified the FAA at that time. The engineer also stated that the tower owner did not maintain tower logs detailing regular tower and control device inspections or instances of malfunctions.

In light of these failures, and the period of time over which they occurred, the FCC assessed a fine of $10,000 to the tower owner.

Reporting Failures Result in Fines Totaling $13,000

The registrant of an antenna structure in California was recently found liable for $13,000 for violations related to the antenna structure’s red obstruction lighting and for failing to notify the FCC of the structure’s change in ownership.

In response to complaints that the structure’s obstruction lighting had failed, agents from the Los Angeles Field Office contacted the registrant of the structure. Section 303(q) of the Communications Act of 1934 and Section 17.51(a) of the FCC’s Rules require that antenna structures be painted with aviation orange and white and have red obstruction lighting indicating the top and midpoints of the structure. Upon inspection, however, the agent found that none of the structure’s lights were functioning between sunset and sunrise. The Enforcement Bureau subsequently issued a Letter of Inquiry. In response, the registrant admitted that the lights were not operational for a period of two months, and he was unsure if he had notified the Federal Aviation Administration at the time of the outage, as required by Section 17.48 of the FCC’s Rules. As noted above, the base forfeiture for failing to comply with the required lighting and painting standards is $10,000. Though the violation was “repeated” because the outage lasted two months, the FCC did not issue an upward adjustment of the penalty.
The FCC further found that the registrant had violated Section 17.57 of the FCC’s Rules, which requires that tower owners immediately notify the FCC of any changes in ownership. The registrant assumed ownership of the structure in April 2008, but did not update the ownership information filed with the FCC until January 2011, after being contacted by agents from the Enforcement Bureau. The base forfeiture for violating the rules pertaining to tower ownership notifications is $3,000. As a result, the FCC tacked on an additional $3,000 fine, resulting in a total proposed fine of $13,000 for the tower owner.

A PDF version of this article can be found at FCC Enforcement Monitor.