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FCC Enforcement Monitor

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:

  • A discussion of a number of forfeitures issued by the FCC fining individuals up to $25,000 for operating unlicensed radio stations.

FCC Sends Warning to Unlicensed Radio Operators

The FCC has recently been taking an active stance against unlicensed radio operations, as further evidenced by four recently issued penalties for violations of the Communications Act. Radio stations operating without a license should take this as a warning of future enforcement actions against such illegal operations.

In the first two instances involving the same individual in San Jose, California, the Enforcement Bureau issued two separate Notices of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture (“NAL”) for $25,000 each to the operator for unlicensed broadcasting on various FM band frequencies and for a failure to allow inspection of an unlicensed broadcast station. After several months, the operator failed to respond to either of the NALs. As a result, the Enforcement Bureau issued the two $25,000 Forfeiture Orders against the individual.

In a second case, a Florida man was found apparently liable for $15,000 for operating an unlicensed FM radio transmitter in Miami. In September 2011, the Enforcement Bureau, following up on a complaint lodged by a national telecommunications carrier, discovered two antennas used for unlicensed operations on the frequency 88.7 MHz on the roof of a building. During the site visit, the building’s owner indicated that the equipment was located in a rooftop suite rented by a tenant. The Enforcement Bureau agents left a hand-delivered Notice of Unlicensed Operations (“NOUO”) with the building owner, who indicated that he would deliver the NOUO to the tenant. On three subsequent occasions, agents from the Miami Field Office determined that the antennas in question were the source of radio frequency transmissions in excess of the limits of Part 15 of the FCC’s rules, therefore requiring a license for operation.

When the agents were finally able to interview the tenant, he admitted to owning the transmitter and operating the station. He also stated that he had been employed as a disc jockey for a station previously authorized to operate on 88.7 and was “aware he needed a license to operate the station.”

The base forfeiture amount under the FCC’s rules for operation without an authorization is $10,000. In this case, the FCC concluded that a $5,000 upward adjustment of the NAL was warranted because the operator was aware that his operations were unlawful prior to and after receipt of the NOUO.

Though the FCC issued the multiple hefty penalties for unlicensed operations described above, the FCC was ultimately more sympathetic to a third unlicensed operator. In September 2011, the Enforcement Bureau’s San Juan Office issued a NAL against the operator of an unlicensed radio transmitter in Guayama, Puerto Rico for $15,000. In response to the NAL, the operator argued that he believed his broadcast operations were legal, and he submitted financial information to support the claim that he was unable to pay the full amount of the NAL. Though the FCC affirmed its claims that the operator willfully violated the FCC’s rules, the FCC nevertheless lowered the fine to $1,500 due to the operator’s inability to pay.

After issuing multiple fines against unlicensed operators this month, the FCC is likely to continue issuing similar penalties in the future. Radio operators should be mindful of the equipment used in their operations and the signal levels transmitted during operations to avoid facing similar consequences.