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July 2013

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 Issues “Lighting Fixture” Citation
  • Consent Decree Adopted for Sponsorship ID Violation

FCC Issues Citation to Credit Union for Operating Lighting Fixtures Causing Harmful Interference to Licensed Communications

On July 17, 2013, the FCC issued a citation to the Caribe Federal Credit Union (“CFCU”) in San Juan, Puerto Rico for operating incidental radiators and causing harmful interference to licensed communications in violation of the FCC’s rules. The FCC’s investigation into this matter arose after receiving complaints of interference from an FCC licensee.

On June 12, 2013, an agent of the FCC’s San Juan Office of the Enforcement Bureau used direction finding techniques to determine that the interference, which was transmitting on 712.5 MHz, originated from the CFCU building at 193-195 O’Neill Street, San Juan, Puerto Rico. After further testing, the FCC agent determined that the particular source of the transmission was the interior lighting on the highest ceiling in the building (fifteen light fixtures about 40 feet above the floor).

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Late yesterday, the FCC released a public notice providing information on the repacking process that will follow the broadcast spectrum incentive auction. This is the FCC’s second response to calls by a number of parties seeking greater transparency (and information in general) regarding the technical aspects of the repacking process, including the FCC’s repacking model and modeling assumptions. The FCC anticipates that more pieces of the puzzle, including details about how bids will be selected, how channels will be assigned, and the associated algorithms, will be made public in the coming months.

Specifically, in conjunction with the public notice, the FCC has made available the following:

  1. an update to its TVStudy computer software (now version 1.2) and supporting data for determining the coverage area and population served by television stations using the methodology described in OET Bulletin 69. According to the FCC’s public notice, the updated software operates in the same way as the prior version, but has an improved user interface and enhanced capabilities for station-to-station analysis;
  2. data about Canadian and Mexican television allotments and incumbent licensees in a format that can be readily used with the updated TVStudy software program; and
  3. descriptions of the analysis for “pre-calculating” which stations could be assigned to which channels in the repacking process, and which stations cannot operate on the same channels or adjacent channels, based on geographic issues. The software and data being provided contain preliminary assumptions necessary to perform the analysis. The Commission states that those assumptions are for illustrative purposes only and that the FCC has made no decision as to whether to adopt any of them.

While all additional information regarding the auction and repacking process is welcome, this most recent release appears incremental at best, and we have a long way to go before broadcasters or potential auction bidders will be able to accurately assess their options. Given the stakes, however, those who can decipher the FCC’s auction tea leaves earliest, and most accurately, will be at an advantage in the months to come.

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In a decision that disappointed but didn’t entirely surprise broadcasters, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit today declined to rehear in banc its earlier decision rejecting a request by broadcasters to terminate with extreme prejudice Aereo’s broadcast subscription service in New York. Today’s announcement was not a decision on the merits, but merely the result of a poll taken among the Second Circuit judges in which less than a majority indicated an interest in hearing the case in banc. Barring an effort by broadcasters to seek Supreme Court review (and Fox, at least, has indicated that option is not off the table), the matter will return to the trial court for a full trial on whether Aereo is infringing on broadcast copyrights.

Once again, Second Circuit Judge Denny Chin, who had been the district judge in the earlier Cablevision case on which Aereo has built its business, dissented from today’s decision. His dissent is respectful but spirited, and so thoroughly dismantles the court’s earlier decision in favor of Aereo that a reader new to the dispute could be forgiven for being mystified as to how the other two judges on the original panel could have reached a contrary conclusion.

As interesting as the legal dispute itself is (at least to lawyers), the end result may well be governed more by technology than by law. If you have spent much time in the communications world, you have heard the old saw that “the law struggles to keep up with technology.” In the case of Aereo, however, it has been quite the opposite, with technology struggling to keep up with the law.

After the Second Circuit’s decision in Cablevision created, as Judge Chin’s dissent today puts it, “‘guideposts’ on how to avoid compliance with our copyright laws,” Aereo and others apparently raced to develop technology that could neatly fit through the legal loophole Cablevision ostensibly created. Judge Chin is obviously not a fan of such reverse engineering, noting today that “[i]n my view, however, the system is a sham, as it was designed solely to avoid the reach of the Copyright Act and to take advantage of a perceived loophole in the law purportedly created by Cablevision.”

So far, the Aereo legal proceedings have presumed that Aereo was successful in its engineering efforts, and that its “one tiny antenna per subscriber” approach allows it to technologically clear the legal hurdles of the Copyright Act. Those familiar with the intricacies of radiofrequency engineering, however, have been quick to point out that the biggest obstacle to the Aereo system isn’t the laws of copyright, but the laws of physics.

One of the immutable laws of RF antenna design is that the size of the receiving antenna must correlate to the wavelengths it is meant to receive. As a result, high frequency devices (which means short wavelengths) can get by with smaller antennas, whereas the comparatively massive wavelengths of TV signals require much larger receiving antennas. That is why, during the golden age of over-the-air TV reception, and during the silver age of over-the-air HDTV reception, the promises of smaller and smaller antennas that would work “just as good” as hulking rooftop antennas never came to fruition.

Aereo’s claim of reliable reception with dime-size TV antennas (particularly in New York, the world capital of urban multipath interference) therefore seemed more akin to alchemy than to advanced RF antenna design. However, with the exception of patent lawyers and a fair number of communications lawyers, engineering expertise is not a common skill in the legal trade. As a result, the debate over Aereo has focused on that which lawyers know–the law–rather than on that which determines whether Aereo even fits within the legal loophole it claims to exploit–incredible advancements in TV antenna design.

Communications lawyers are perhaps more sensitized than most to the law/engineering dichotomy, as communications is one of the few fields where engineering solutions to legal problems are often an elegant alternative to brute force legal tactics. Because of this, one of the most interesting commentaries on the Aereo dispute I have come across is a piece by Deborah McAdams titled Aereo’s Unlikely Proposition.

It is a very intriguing article (and well worth a read) in which a number of engineers discuss why the “fits exactly into the shape of the loophole” system described by Aereo can’t exist in the real world. In other words, that Aereo isn’t an example of the law falling behind technology, but of technology being unable to produce an antenna capable of outrunning the law. If true, then the success of Aereo’s legal battle hangs not on whether it has a groundbreaking legal theory, but on whether the claimed antenna technology emerged from Aereo’s engineering department, or from its marketing department.

In either case, Aereo’s claims for its technology would be better assessed in an RF testing lab than in a courtroom. Extended debate over the legality of Aereo’s claimed technology is pointful only once it has been confirmed that Aereo has indeed created a revolutionary antenna technology that functions as described. If not, then the legal wranglings over a theoretical retransmission system are much ado about nothing.

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Last month, the FCC released an Order on Reconsideration and Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that clarified a number of aspects of the FCC’s complex closed captioning requirements for video programming delivered using Internet Protocol (IP) and the devices used by consumers to view it. In the FCC’s words, the Order and Further Notice was issued to “affirm, modify, and clarify certain decisions” made by the Commission last year implementing closed captioning requirements for video programming distributed via IP.

The original IP captioning rules were adopted in January 2012 in response to the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA). The Order on Reconsideration and Further Notice has now been published in the Federal Register, and the rules adopted in the Order are set to take effect on August 1, 2013. For those who would like a refresher on the CVAA and the IP requirements, you can find my previous posts on the subject here and here.

In the Further Notice adopted simultaneously with the Order, the Commission asked for comment on imposing “closed captioning synchronization requirements for covered apparatus, and on how DVD and Blu-ray players can fulfill the closed captioning requirements of the statute.” Based on the publication of the Further Notice in the Federal Register, comments on the Further Notice are now due on September 3, 2013, and reply comments are due September 30, 2013.

The bulk of the Order is largely a response to three Petitions for Reconsideration filed in connection with last year’s Report and Order, which adopted rules governing the closed captioning requirements for owners, providers, and distributors of IP-delivered video programming, as well as the closed captioning capabilities of devices used by consumers to view video programming. The Petitions were filed by the Consumer Electronics Association, TV Guardian, and a coalition of consumer groups, respectively.

Highlights of the FCC’s Order and Further Notice include:

  • Refusing to limit covered devices to those intentionally designed to play back video programming, but clarifying the rule and issuing two class-based waivers in response to requests by the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) to exclude equipment such as digital cameras and baby monitors;
  • Clarifying that the January 1, 2014, deadline for devices to be equipped to display closed captioned video programming applies to the date of manufacture of the apparatus, and “not to the date of importation, shipment, or sale”;
  • Reaffirming its decision to allow video programming providers and distributors to select either the rendering or pass through of captions to end users; and
  • Delaying a final decision regarding whether video clips (i.e., “excerpts of full length programming”) should be included within the scope of covered programming until more information is collected as part of another public notice that the FCC plans to issue within the next six months.

The CEA had requested that the FCC narrow the applicability of the closed captioning equipment requirements to cover only those devices intended by the manufacturer to receive, play back, or record IP video programming, rather than broadly applying the rules to any device with a video player.

In response, the FCC revised its definition of “apparatus” to make clear that “video players” requiring captioning capability include only those that display “video programming transmitted with sound.” The FCC declined to limit the requirement to only those devices intentionally designed to play back video programming, but clarified its rule and issued two class-based waivers excluding from the requirement equipment such as still digital cameras and baby monitors, which play back consumer generated images and not IP “video programming” as defined by the CVAA.

The following two classes of “apparatus” qualify for the waiver:

(i) devices that are primarily designed to capture and display still and/or moving images consisting of consumer-generated media, or of other images that are not video programming as defined under the CVAA and our rules, and that have limited capability to display video programming transmitted simultaneously with sound … and (ii) devices that are primarily designed to display still images and that have limited capability to display video programming transmitted simultaneously with sound.

The FCC also decided to delay the January 1, 2014 compliance deadline for DVD players that do not render or pass through closed captions. According to the Commission, that extension was granted to give the FCC more time to collect data regarding additional costs that might be imposed by adding IP captioning functionality to low-cost devices like DVD and Blu-ray players. The extension does not apply to other removable media players or to DVD players that already have the ability to caption.

Regarding the TV Guardian Petition, the FCC denied the Petition, which had requested that the Commission prohibit video programming providers and distributors from rendering captions where passing through captions is “technically feasible”, determining that the request was inconsistent with the language of the CVAA. The FCC also noted that the consumer electronics industry “coalesced around the use of HDMI, which permits the use of rendered captions but does not pass through closed captions, meaning that it only conveys captions when they have been decoded and mixed into the video stream.”

The FCC deferred a decision on the main thrust of the third Petition, filed by a number of consumer groups, which questioned why IP video captioning requirements only apply to “full-length programming” that appears on TV with captions and is then distributed via IP to end users substantially in its entirety. The coalition of consumer groups urged the FCC to expand the captioning requirement to also cover “video clips” containing less than a full-length program. The FCC is keeping the record open on this issue until more information is gathered on the captioning of video clips, including the difficulty of doing so, and the degree to which such captioning already occurs voluntarily.

Finally, in the Further Notice, the FCC asked for “further information necessary to determine whether the Commission should impose synchronization requirements on device manufacturers.” What the FCC is asking for here is additional information to determine whether to “require apparatus manufacturers to ensure that their apparatus synchronize the appearance of closed captions with the display of the corresponding video.” In the Report and Order, the FCC had declined to impose synchronization requirements on manufacturers, instead placing the obligation on video programming distributors and providers.

As noted, initial comments on the Further Notice are due September 3, 2013, with reply comments due on September 30, 2013. The issues raised in the proceeding are obviously complex, so those who wish to file comments should start preparing sooner rather than later.