Articles Posted in

Published on:

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 Proposes $235,668 Fine for Filing Untruthful Information
  • Major Phone Carrier Settles Dispute With FCC Over Rural Call Completion Issues for $40 Million
  • Repeat Pirate Nets $25,000 Fine

Tower Records: FCC Proposes Large Fine for Dozens of Falsified Tower Registrations

After a bizarre string of events involving unlit towers, falsified applications, and alleged theft, the FCC proposed a penalty of $235,668 against a Wisconsin holding company for providing false and misleading information on dozens of Antenna Structure Registration (“ASR”) applications and misleading an Enforcement Bureau agent.

Section 1.17 of the FCC’s Rules requires a party that is either (A) applying for an FCC authorization; or (B) engaging in activities that require such authorizations, to be truthful and accurate in all its interactions with the FCC.  Specifically, Section 1.17(a)(2) states that no person shall “provide material factual information that is incorrect or omit material information that is necessary to prevent any material factual statement that is made from being incorrect or misleading….”

In December 2016, the Enforcement Bureau began investigating an unlit tower in Wisconsin after the Federal Aviation Authority (the “FAA”) forwarded a complaint from a pilot who had noticed the structure.  Unlit towers pose a serious danger to air navigation.  In the midst of the investigation, the tower’s ASR information was changed to show a new company had taken control of the tower.  When an FCC investigator reached out to the newly registered owner, the company’s CEO stated that his company had recently acquired the tower, knew of the lighting problem, and would make repairs as soon as the weather permitted.  In the meantime, the company also began changing the registration information for other towers, requested flight hazard review from the FAA for some of these towers, and filed an ASR application for construction of a new tower in Florida.

Several months later, the original owner of the unlit tower informed the FCC that the other company was not actually the owner and that the imposter company’s “CEO” had improperly changed the ownership information for several sites in the ASR system.  The true owner also claimed that the alleged fraudster had changed locks and stolen equipment from several of the real owner’s towers—including the new lighting equipment that the original owner bought to repair the extinguished tower lighting.

In response, the Enforcement Bureau sent a Letter of Inquiry (“LOI”) to the claimed CEO’s physical and email addresses seeking more information about his various applications.  To date, the Bureau has not received any response.

In a Notice of Apparent Liability (“NAL”), the Enforcement Bureau determined that the CEO’s company became subject to Section 1.17 when it applied for the Florida tower registration, and also that the CEO was engaging in activities that require FCC authorization.  According to the NAL, the CEO apparently provided false and misleading information on 42 separate change in ownership applications and communicated false information to the investigating agent.  According to the Enforcement Bureau, the company also violated Section 403 of the Communications Act (the “Act”) by failing to respond to the LOI.

Under its statutory authority to penalize any party that “willfully or repeatedly fails to comply” with the Act or the FCC’s Rules, the FCC may issue up to a $19,639 forfeiture for each violation or each day of a continuing violation.  Accordingly, the FCC proposed a fine of $19,639 for each of the 10 apparently false applications filed in the past year, $19,639 for the company’s alleged misleading statements to the investigating agent, and an additional $19,639 for its failure to respond to the FCC’s questions, for a total of $235,688.

Missed Connections: Major Phone Carrier Agrees to Pay $40 Million After Investigation Into Rural Call Completion Issues

The FCC entered into a Consent Decree with a major phone carrier after an investigation into whether the carrier violated the Commission’s Rural Call Completion Rules.

According to the FCC, consumers in low-population areas face problems with long-distance and wireless call quality.  In an effort to address these problems, the FCC has promulgated a series of directives that prohibit certain practices it deems unreasonable and require carriers to address complaints about rural calling (“Rural Call Completion Rules”).

In 2012, the FCC’s Wireline Competition Bureau determined that a carrier may be liable under Section 201 of the Act for unjust or unreasonable practices if it “knows or should know that calls are not being completed to certain areas” and engages in practices (or omissions) that allow these problems to continue.  This includes (1) failure to ensure that intermediate providers (companies that connect calls from the caller’s carrier to the recipient’s carrier) are performing adequately; and (2) not taking corrective action when the carrier is aware of call completion problems. Continue reading →

Published on:

As those that receive our Pillsbury Client Advisories know (you can sign up for those here), April 10th was the deadline for placing various quarterly reports in your station’s public inspection file.  With many radio stations having shifted to an online public file on March 1st, this was the first quarterly deadline falling after that conversion.  As a result, consider this a friendly reminder that if you dutifully prepared your Quarterly Issues/Programs List a few weeks ago and then unthinkingly dropped it into the file drawer like you’ve done a hundred times before, you’ve got a problem.  The Quarterly Issues/Programs List that was required to be uploaded by April 10th details programming aired from January 1, 2018 through March 31, 2018 designed to serve the needs and interests of your station’s community.

If you generated a paper copy of the List, but forgot that it now must be uploaded, be sure to make a note of that fact and upload it as soon as possible.  Broadcasters are asked in their license renewal applications to certify that all documents have been timely placed in the public inspection file.  With the FCC’s public file database now logging the precise time a document is submitted, failing to properly disclose any late-filed documents is not only easy for the FCC to spot, but creates added risk for stations that falsely certify in their license renewal applications that the public file was complete at all times.  With license renewals occurring only once every eight years, even a few “oops” moments each year can soon begin to look like a “pattern of noncompliance” to the FCC.

There is, however, a very select group of stations that received a bye on the April 10 uploads.  The FCC announced this week that it was granting a small number of waiver requests filed by various stations seeking more time to meet the online public file deadline.  While these stations had sought relief from the requirement for varying periods of time, the FCC’s response was not so specialized.  It instead granted each of the stations seeking more time until June 23, 2018 (60 days from release of the Order) to comply with the online public inspection file requirement.

The FCC also made clear in the Order that it will not be providing such generalized relief in the future.  Going forward, any station seeking more time must provide information that demonstrates (1) the economic hardship the station would incur in complying with the online public file requirement; (2) the station’s technical inability to do so; or (3) another reason for a waiver as described in the 2016 Expanded Online Public File Order.

So if you are one of the select few stations that received a little extra time to move to an online public file, it’s your Second Quarter Issues/Programs List that will be the test of whether you have successfully moved to an online public file mindset.  For all other stations, your time is already up.

Posted in:
Published on:
Updated:
Published on:

Today the FCC publicly released a Report and Order eliminating TV stations’ annual obligation to report whether they have provided feeable ancillary or supplementary services on their spectrum during the past year unless they have actually provided such services.  The order was originally slated for discussion and a vote at next week’s FCC Open Meeting, but the Commission wound up adopting this widely supported change early, unanimously voting for it on circulation.

Previously, all digital television stations had to report by December 1 of each year whether they had provided feeable ancillary or supplementary services in the past year, what those services were, and then submit payment to the government of 5% of the gross revenue derived from such services.  Ancillary and supplementary services are any services provided on a TV station’s digital spectrum that is not needed to provide the single free over-the-air program stream required by the FCC.  The reason the word “feeable” is important is that broadcast video streams (i.e., multicast streams) do not trigger payment of the 5% fee.  Examples previously provided by the FCC of feeable ancillary and supplementary services include computer software distribution and data transmissions.

Observers had expected this rule change for a while.  In the spring of 2017, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai spearheaded the “Modernization of Media Regulation Initiative,” which aimed to institute a massive review of potentially outdated or irrelevant regulations affecting broadcasters, cable system operators, and satellite providers.  At Commissioner Michael O’Rielly’s urging, the Commission originally proposed today’s changes in a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) in October 2017.  The following month, the Media Bureau spontaneously waived the December 1, 2017 filing deadline for TV stations that had not provided feeable services over the prior twelve-month reporting period, signaling that the proposed rule change was likely coming.

Indeed, the FCC received broad support from commenters for the change.  In last year’s NPRM, the FCC noted that of 1,384 full-power commercial TV stations, fewer than 15 reported revenues from ancillary or supplementary services, netting the Commission around $13,000 in fees.

As a result, today’s Order amends Section 73.624(g) of the FCC’s Rules to require that only TV stations actually providing feeable ancillary or supplementary services need file the report in the future.  The FCC could find no justification for the immense expense incurred in having broadcasters submit, and the FCC collect and process, forms merely indicating the station hadn’t provided such services.  It wasn’t so much the FCC concluding that the expense outweighed the public interest benefit; it was the FCC being unable to point to a public interest benefit.

Which just makes you wonder just how this rule stayed in place for nearly 20 years, and no prior FCC bothered to ask that fundamental question.