FCC Enforcement Monitor June 2022
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 $34,000 Fine for Interrupting Emergency Communications During Wildfire
- Late Programs/Issues Lists and Failure to Disclose Violation Causes $15,000 Proposed Fine for North Dakota Noncommercial Licensee
- License Rescinded for Mississippi Station Not Built as Authorized
Amateur Ham Radio Operator Receives $34,000 Proposed Fine for Transmitting on Radio Frequency Used by Fire Suppression Aircraft
The FCC issued a Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture (NAL) to an amateur radio operator for interfering with the U.S. Forest Service while it and the Idaho Department of Lands were directing aircraft fighting a 1,000-acre wildfire outside of Elk River in northern Idaho. The FCC found that the individual violated Sections 301 and 333 of the Communications Act (the “Act”), and Sections 1.903(a) and 97.101(d) of the Commission’s Rules by operating on government frequencies without a license and causing intentional harmful interference to licensed radio operations.
On July 22, 2021, the FCC received a complaint from the U.S. Forest Service about an individual who had been transmitting on government frequencies, noting that the transmissions had caused interference to fire suppression aircraft operations. The complaint explained that on July 17th and 18th, firefighters working on the “Johnson Fire,” a 1,000-acre wildfire on national forest lands in northern Idaho, received several communications from an individual calling himself “comm tech.” He advised firefighters and aircraft of hazards at a radio repeater sight in Elk Butte and identified his location as the Elk River airstrip. On July 18th, the fire operations section chief drove to the airstrip and found an individual who admitted to transmitting on government frequencies as “comm tech.”
On July 22, 2021, a U.S. Forest Service Law Enforcement and Investigations Branch agent interviewed the individual about the incident. The individual admitted to operating on the government frequency and that he was not authorized to do so. On October 15, 2021, the FCC sent a Letter of Inquiry (LOI) to the individual. In the individual’s response, he again admitted to operating on the government frequency but argued that he was not trying to cause interference and instead was trying to provide information to the firefighters. He suggested a third party may have also been transmitting, and may have continued to do so after he spoke to the fire chief and ceased his own operations.
Section 333 of the Act states 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 the Act or operated by the United States government.” The legislative history of Section 333 describes willful and malicious interference as “intentional jamming, deliberate transmission on top of the transmissions of authorized users already using specific frequencies in order to obstruct their communications, repeated interruptions, and the use and transmission of whistles, tapes, records, or other types of noisemaking devices to interfere with the communications or radio signals of other stations.” Section 97.101(d) of the Commission’s Rules states that “[n]o amateur operator shall willfully or maliciously interfere with or cause interference to any radio communications or signal.” The FCC found that the individual violated Sections 333 of the Act and 97.101(d) of the Rules when he caused harmful interference by making repeated interruptions to the Forest Service’s communications. The unauthorized transmissions impeded legitimate communications and resulted in personnel being diverted away from the fire and to his location at the airstrip.
Section 301 of the Act states that “[n]o person shall use or operate any apparatus for the transmission of energy or communications or signals by radio . . . without a license granted by the Commission.” Section 1.903(a) of the FCC’s Rules requires that wireless licensees operate in accordance with the rules applicable to their particular service, and only with a valid Commission authorization. The FCC found that the individual violated those sections when he made eight separate radio transmissions on the government’s frequency, as he did not have a license to operate on that frequency. According to the FCC, his statements to the U.S. Forest Service and his written response confirmed his actions.
Section 1.80 of the FCC’s Rules establishes a base fine of $10,000 for operating without a license, and $7,000 for causing interference to authorized stations for each violation or each day of a continuing violation. Here, the Commission proposed a total fine of $34,000 – a $10,000 fine for each of the two days of unlicensed operations, and $7,000 for each of the two days of harmful interference. The FCC concluded that there were no mitigating factors supporting any downward adjustment of the proposed fines, and issued the NAL for the full $34,000.
FCC Proposes $9,000 and $6,000 Fines for Minnesota and North Dakota Television Stations’ Late-Filed Programs/Issues Lists
The FCC issued proposed fines of $9,000 and $6,000 in response to allegations that two noncommercial television stations owned by a North Dakota licensee failed to timely upload all of their Quarterly Programs/Issues Lists to the stations’ Public Inspection Files. An FCC staff review of the stations’ Public Inspection Files as part of the license renewal process revealed that during the license term, both stations uploaded numerous Quarterly Programs/Issues Lists late and failed to properly disclose these violations in the stations’ license renewal applications.
Section 73.3527(e)(8) of the FCC’s Rules requires every noncommercial broadcast station to place in its Public Inspection File “a list of programs that have provided the station’s most significant treatment of community issues during the preceding three month period.” The list must include a brief narrative of the issues addressed, as well as the date, time, duration, and title of each program addressing those issues. The list must be placed in the Public Inspection File within 10 days of the end of each calendar quarter. Continue reading →