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While the FCC’s net neutrality order got most of the attention yesterday, the FCC took another major broadband-related action at its February 26 meeting. Over the strenuous objections of incumbent internet service providers (“ISPs”), trade associations for ISPs, states, the National Governor’s Association and others, the FCC on a 3-2 vote with Commissioners Pai and O’Rielly dissenting, preempted state laws in Tennessee and North Carolina which placed limitations on municipally-owned broadband networks. The FCC’s action, if upheld in the judicial review certain to follow, would allow municipalities currently prohibited by state law from expanding service to do so via federal preemption of those restrictions. Advocates of the FCC’s action argue that it will open the door to a more robust expansion of high-speed broadband service, especially in rural areas and other locations that would otherwise be underserved.

The matter began last year when the City of Wilson, North Carolina and the Electric Power Board of Chattanooga, an agency of the City of Chattanooga, Tennessee (the “EPB”) challenged state restrictions on their operations. Wilson and the EPB own and operate high-speed fiber broadband networks in their respective communities, and each claimed that it wants to expand the geographic scope of its network but is effectively blocked from doing so by state laws. Wilson and EPB asked the FCC to use its power under Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to preempt those laws, arguing that they are inconsistent with the federal policy of making broadband available to all Americans.

Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act provides that the FCC “shall take immediate action to accelerate deployment of [broadband to all Americans] by removing barriers to infrastructure investment and by promoting competition in the telecommunications market.” Wilson and EPB argued that Section 706 gives the FCC the power to preempt the Tennessee and North Carolina statutes because those statutes constitute barriers to network investment and competition. Wilson and EPB were supported by a number of municipalities and municipal utilities, and organizations representing them, as well as by technology companies such as Netflix and scores of individual commenters. Those parties generally argued that encouraging municipalities such as Wilson and EPB to expand internet service to consumers is precisely the sort of competition that the FCC should be promoting, and would encourage the spread of high speed broadband to rural areas that are unserved or underserved by incumbent ISPs. Wilson, EPB and their supporters also asserted that the state laws limiting municipal broadband service were enacted at the behest of incumbent ISPs to insulate them from competition.

Incumbent ISPs and others opposing Wilson and EPB argued that municipal broadband services often fail to succeed financially, leaving taxpayers stuck with the bill, while not necessarily promoting effective competition or the rollout of broadband to unserved areas. They also argued that the FCC lacks authority to preempt state laws under Section 706 because that provision does not explicitly provide such authority. In addition, they argued that preemption would be inconsistent with the Supreme Court’s 2004 decision in Nixon vs. Missouri Municipal League, where municipalities petitioned the FCC for preemption of a Missouri law prohibiting municipalities from providing telecommunications services. At issue in Nixon was the language of Section 253 of the Communications Act of 1934 which provided that no state law could prohibit “the ability of any entity to provide … telecommunications service.” The Court held that “any entity” did not include municipalities, which are political subdivisions of the states themselves. As a result, opponents of Wilson and EPB claimed that Nixon bars the FCC from interfering with a state’s sovereignty over its municipalities by preempting the limitations the state has placed on those municipalities.

Although the text of the Order adopted at the February 26 meeting has not yet been released, from the statements made by the Chairman and commissioners at the meeting, it appears the FCC is asserting that its preemption authority empowers it only to strike down the state restrictions, or “red tape” as Chairman Wheeler referred to them, that the states of Tennessee and North Carolina had imposed on municipalities which they had otherwise authorized to provide broadband service. Proceeding from this perspective, a state could ban a municipality from providing broadband service altogether, but once it has given the municipality authority to provide broadband service, it may not impose restrictions that create barriers to network investment and competition.

It is important to note that the FCC’s Order is limited to the specific statutes in Tennessee and North Carolina, and that other state laws would have to be considered on a case-by-case basis following the filing of petitions with the FCC by municipalities in those states. However, yesterday’s action provides a strong indication of how the current FCC would likely rule in cases involving the other 17 states that have similar restrictions on municipally-provided broadband service.

One can expect at least two things to result from the FCC’s action. First, other municipalities wishing to build or expand their own broadband networks may file petitions with the FCC for preemption of laws in their states claiming that those laws restrict municipally-deployed broadband networks.

Second, the FCC’s action will almost certainly be subject to judicial challenges and stay requests by the States of Tennessee and North Carolina, as well as other parties in interest. By limiting its claimed authority under Section 706 to review restrictions imposed by states on municipal broadband service to “red tape” restrictions, without disturbing a state’s right to make the fundamental decision as to whether a municipality should be permitted to offer broadband service in the first place, the FCC is seeking to navigate a course that will make the preemption more limited and therefore easier to defend in the inevitable court challenges. Whether that will be enough for yesterday’s action to survive a trip through the courts remains to be seen.

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I wrote a post here in June on the FCC’s release of its proposed regulatory fees for Fiscal Year 2014. Normally, the FCC releases an order adopting the official fee amounts and the deadline by which they must be filed in early to mid-August of each year. This year, however, licensees were beginning to get nervous, as August was coming to a close and there had still been no word from the FCC as to the final fee amounts and how quickly they must be paid.

Fortunately, the FCC was able to get the fee order out this afternoon, on the last business day of August. Unfortunately, because the Public Notice of the release occurred on the Friday before a three day weekend, many licensees may miss that announcement. According to today’s Public Notice, full payment of annual regulatory fees for Fiscal Year 2014 (FY 2014) must be received no later than 11:59 PM Eastern Time on Tuesday, September 23, 2014. As of today, the Commission’s automated filing and payment system, the Fee Filer System, is available for filing and payment of FY 2014 regulatory fees. A copy of the Public Notice with the details is available here.

Also, as noted in a footnote to that Public Notice, “[c]hecks, money orders, and cashier’s checks are no longer accepted as means of payment for regulatory fees. As a result, it is the responsibility of licensees to make sure that their electronic payments are made timely and the transaction is completed by the due date.” Time to rack up those credit card frequent flyer miles!

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With the heat of Summer now upon us, the FCC is gearing up for its annual regulatory fee filing window, which usually occurs in mid-September. Like other federal agencies, the FCC must raise funds to pay for its operations (“to recover the costs of… enforcement activities, policy and rulemaking activities, user information services, and international activities.”). For Fiscal Year 2014, Congress has, for the third year in a row, mandated that the FCC collect $339,844,000.00 from its regulatees.

Accordingly, the FCC is now tasked with determining how to meet the Congressional mandate. At its most basic level, the FCC employs a formula that breaks down the cost of its employees by “core” bureaus, taking into consideration which employees are considered “direct” (working for one of the four core bureaus), or “indirect” (working for other divisions, including but not limited to, the Enforcement Bureau and the Chairman’s and Commissioners’ offices). The FCC factors in the number of regulatees serviced by each division, and then determines how much each regulatee is obligated to pay so that the FCC can collect the $339M total.

In its quest to meet the annual congressional mandate, the FCC evaluates and, for various reasons, tweaks the definitions or qualifications of its regulatee categories to, most often, increase certain regulatory fee obligations. FY 2014 is just such an occasion. In FY 2013, the FCC, which historically has imposed drastically different fees for VHF and UHF television licensees, decided that, effective this year, FY 2014, VHF and UHF stations would be required to pay the same regulatory fees. In addition, a new class of contributing regulatees, providers of Internet Protocol TV (“IPTV”), was established and is now subject to the same regulatory fees levied upon cable television providers. Prior to FY 2014, IPTV providers were not subject to regulatory fees.

The FCC’s proposals for FY 2014 regulatory fees can be found in its Order and Second NPRM (“Order”). In that Order, the FCC proposes the following FY 2014 commercial VHF/UHF digital TV regulatory fees:

  • Markets 1-10 – $44,875
  • Markets 11-25 – $42,300
  • Markets 26-50 – $27,100
  • Markets 51-100 – $15,675
  • Remaining Markets – $4,775
  • Construction Permits – $4,775

Other proposed TV regulatory fees include:

  • Satellite Television Stations (All Markets) – $1,550
  • Construction Permits for Satellite Television Stations – $1,325
  • Low Power TV, Class A TV, TV Translators & Boosters – $410
  • Broadcast Auxiliaries – $10
  • Earth Stations – $245

The proposed radio fees depend on both the class of station and size of population served. For AM Class A stations:

  • With a population less than or equal to 25,000 – $775
  • With a population from 25,001-75,000 – $1,550
  • With a population from 75,001-150,000 – $2,325
  • With a population from 150,001-500,000 – $3,475
  • With a population from 500,001-1,200,000 – $5,025
  • With a population from 1,200,001-3,000,000 – $7,750
  • With a population greater than 3,000,000 – $9,300

For AM Class B stations:

  • With a population less than or equal to 25,000 – $645
  • With a population from 25,001-75,000 – $1,300
  • With a population from 75,001-150,000 – $1,625
  • With a population from 150,001-500,000 – $2,750
  • With a population from 500,001-1,200,000 – $4,225
  • With a population from 1,200,001-3,000,000 – $6,500
  • With a population greater than 3,000,000 – $7,800

For AM Class C stations:

  • With a population less than or equal to 25,000 – $590
  • With a population from 25,001-75,000 – $900
  • With a population from 75,001-150,000 – $1,200
  • With a population from 150,001-500,000 – $1,800
  • With a population from 500,001-1,200,000 – $3,000
  • With a population from 1,200,001-3,000,000 – $4,500
  • With a population greater than 3,000,000 – $5,700

For AM Class D stations:

  • With a population less than or equal to 25,000 – $670
  • With a population from 25,001-75,000 – $1,000
  • With a population from 75,001-150,000 – $1,675
  • With a population from 150,001-500,000 – $2,025
  • With a population from 500,001-1,200,000 – $3,375
  • With a population from 1,200,001-3,000,000 – $5,400
  • With a population greater than 3,000,000 – $6,750

For FM Classes A, B1 &C3 stations:

  • With a population less than or equal to 25,000 – $750
  • With a population from 25,001-75,000 – $1,500
  • With a population from 75,001-150,000 – $2,050
  • With a population from 150,001-500,000 – $3,175
  • With a population from 500,001-1,200,000 – $5,050
  • With a population from 1,200,001-3,000,000 – $8,250
  • With a population greater than 3,000,000 – $10,500

For FM Classes B, C, C0, C1 & C2 stations:

  • With a population less than or equal to 25,000 – $925
  • With a population from 25,001-75,000 – $1,625
  • With a population from 75,001-150,000 – $3,000
  • With a population from 150,001-500,000 – $3,925
  • With a population from 500,001-1,200,000 – $5,775
  • With a population from 1,200,001-3,000,000 – $9,250
  • With a population greater than 3,000,000 – $12,025

In addition to seeking comment on the proposed fee amounts, the Order seeks comment on proposed changes to the FCC’s basic fee formula (i.e., changes in how it determines the allocation of direct and indirect employees and thus establishes its categorical fees), and on the creation of new, and the combination of existing, fee categories. The Order also seeks comment on previously proposed core bureau allocations, the FCC’s intention to levy regulatory fees on AM Expanded Band Radio Station licensees (which have historically been exempt from regulatory fees), and whether the FCC should implement a cap on 2014 fee increases for each category of regulatee at, for example, 7.5% or 10% above last year’s fees. Comments are due by July 7, 2014 and Reply Comments are due by July 14, 2014.

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Surprise, surprise, the FCC has instituted yet another application filing freeze! The FCC effectively said “enough is enough” and stopped accepting applications for LPTV channel displacements and new digital replacement translators.

Yesterday, the FCC released a Public Notice indicating that, effective June 11, 2014, the Media Bureau would cease to accept applications seeking new digital replacement translator stations and LPTV, TV translator, and Class A TV channel displacements. The FCC did provide that in certain “rare cases”, a waiver of the freeze may be sought on a case-by-case basis, and that the Media Bureau will continue to process minor change, digital flash cut, and digital companion channel applications filed by existing LPTV and TV translator stations.

According to industry sources, there have been grumblings at the FCC that low power television broadcasters have been using the digital replacement translator and LPTV displacement processes to better position themselves from the fallout of the upcoming spectrum auction and subsequent channel repacking. That appears to be confirmed by the Public Notice, as it states that the freeze is necessary to “to protect the opportunity for stations displaced by the repacking of the television bands to obtain a new channel from the limited number of channels likely to be available for application after repacking….” Setting aside the freeze itself for a moment, it seems clear from this statement that the FCC has no illusions that there will be room in the repacked spectrum for all existing low power television stations.

While there have been myriad FCC application freezes over the years, they have been occurring with increasing frequency. From the radio perspective, absent a waiver, extraordinary circumstances, or an FCC-announced “filing window”, all opportunities to seek a new radio license (full-power, low power FM or translator) have been quashed for some time now.

The first notable television freeze occurred in 1948 and lasted four years. The FCC instituted a freeze on all new analog television stations applications in 1996. In furtherance of the transition to digital television, the FCC instituted a freeze on changes to television channel allotments which lasted from 2004 to 2008. In 2010, the FCC froze LPTV and TV translator applications for major changes and new stations; a freeze which remains in effect today.

Yet another freeze on TV channel changes was imposed in 2011 in order to, among other things, “consider methodologies for repacking television channels to increase the efficiency of channel use.” And as Scott Flick wrote here last year, still another television application freeze on full power and Class A modifications was launched on April 5, 2013. That freeze remains in effect and effectively cuts off all opportunities for existing full-power or Class A television stations to expand their signal contours to increase service to the public. The volume of application freezes has grown to such an extent that it is difficult to keep track of them all.

In terms of reasoning, yesterday’s Public Notice indicated that since the DTV transition occurred five years ago, the impact of the instant freeze would be “minimal” since transmission and contour issues should have been addressed as part of, or generally following, that transition. The Notice proceeded to say that LPTV displacement and digital replacement applications were necessary after the DTV transition, and up to the FCC’s April 2013 filing freeze, for purposes of resolving “technical problems” associated with the build-out of full-power DTV stations, but that since there have been no “changes” to those service areas because of the last freeze, there should be no need for LPTV channel displacements or digital replacement translators.

Left out in the cold by these cascading freezes are broadcast equipment manufacturers and tower crews. As previously noted by numerous broadcasters and the NAB, the FCC’s frosty view of just about every form of station modification is effectively driving out of business the very vendors and equipment installers that are critical to implementing the FCC’s planned channel repacking after the spectrum auction. As we learned during the DTV transition, the size and number of vendors and qualified installers of transmission and tower equipment is very limited and, given the skills required, can’t be increased quickly. Driving these businesses to shrink for lack of modification projects in their now-frozen pipelines threatens to also leave the channel repacking out in the cold.

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Earlier today, the FCC held its monthly Open Meeting, where it adopted rules to implement the Broadcast Television Incentive Auction.You can watch a replay of the FCC’s Open Meeting on the FCC’s website.

Thus far, the FCC has released three documents relating to the actions it took today in this proceeding, as well as separate statements from four of the five commissioners, providing at least some initial guidance to affected parties: (1) a News Release, (2) a summary of upcoming proceedings, and (3) a staff summary of the Report & Order.

At the meeting, the commissioners noted that, when released, the Report and Order will contain a number of rule changes to implement the auction. The major takeaways are:

  • The reorganized 600 MHz Band will consist of paired uplink and downlink bands, with the uplink bands starting at channel 51 and expanding downwards, followed by a duplex gap and then the downlink band;
  • These bands will be comprised of five megahertz “building blocks”, with the Commission contemplating variations in the amount of spectrum recovered from one market to the next, meaning that not all spectrum will be cleared on a nationwide basis, and in some markets, repacked broadcasters will be sharing spectrum with wireless providers in adjacent markets;
  • The FCC anticipates there will be at least one naturally occurring white space channel in each market for use after the auction by unlicensed devices and wireless microphones;
  • The auction will have a staged structure, with a reverse auction and forward auction component in each stage. In the reverse auction, broadcasters may voluntarily choose to relinquish some or all of their spectrum usage rights, and in the forward auction, wireless providers can bid on the relinquished spectrum;
  • In the reverse auction, participating broadcasters can agree to accept compensation for (1) relinquishing their channel, (2) sharing a channel with another broadcaster, or (3) moving from UHF to VHF (or moving from high VHF to low VHF);
  • The FCC will “score” stations (presumably based on population coverage, etc.) to set opening prices in the auction;
  • The FCC will use a descending clock format for the reverse auction, in which it will start with an opening bid and then reduce the amount offered for spectrum in each subsequent round until the amount of broadcast spectrum being offered drops to an amount consistent with what is being sought in the forward auction;
  • The auction will also incorporate “Dynamic Reserve Pricing”, permitting the FCC to reduce the amount paid to a bidding station if it believes there was insufficient auction competition between stations in that market;
  • The rules will require repurposed spectrum to be cleared by specific dates to be set by the Media Bureau, which can, even with an extension, be no later than 39 months after the repacking process becomes effective;
  • The FCC will grandfather existing broadcast station combinations that would otherwise not comply with media ownership rules as a result of the auction; and
  • The FCC continues to intend to use its TVStudy software to determine whether a repacked station’s population coverage will be reduced in the repacking process, despite NAB’s earlier protests that the current version of the software would result in reduced coverage for nine out of ten stations in the country.

Finally, the FCC will be asking for public input on numerous additional issues, such as opening bid numbers, bid adjustment factors, bidding for aggregated markets in the forward auction, dealing with market variations, setting parameters for price changes from round to round, activity rules, and upfront payments and bidding eligibility. The FCC will consider in future proceedings ways to mitigate the impact of repacking on LPTV/TV translators, how to address interference between broadcast and wireless operations, and how best to facilitate the growth of “white spaces” devices in the unlicensed spectrum.

Although today’s Open Meeting and these preliminary documents provide some guidance on many complex incentive auction issues, they only scratch the surface, and there are many blanks the FCC will need to fill in between now and the auction. One of those that broadcasters will be watching very carefully is how the Media Bureau will be handling reimbursement of stations’ repacking expenses. That has turned out to be a very challenging issue in past FCC efforts at repurposing spectrum, and the fact that the amount set aside by Congress for reimbursement might well fall short of what is needed has many broadcasters concerned.

We will know more about this and many other issues when the Report and Order is released, hopefully in the next week or two, but the real answers are going to reveal themselves only very slowly over the next year or two. The FCC has to hope that they will still have broadcasters’ attention by the time we reach that point.

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May 2014

This Advisory provides a review of the FCC’s political broadcasting regulations.

Introduction
More than ten years after adoption of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (“BCRA”) of 2002, popularly known as “McCain-Feingold,” Congress’ and the FCC’s interest in political broadcasting and political advertising practices remains undiminished. Broadcast stations must ensure that a broad range of federal mandates are met, providing “equal opportunities” to all candidates using the stations’ facilities, affording federal candidates for public office “reasonable access” and treating all candidates for public office no less favorably than the station treats its most favored advertisers. Accordingly, it is imperative that broadcasters be very familiar with what is expected of them in this regulatory area, that they have adequate policies and practices in place to ensure full compliance, and that they remain vigilant in monitoring legislative, FCC, and FEC changes in the law.

In this environment, it is critical that all stations adopt and meticulously apply political broadcasting policies that are consistent with the Communications Act and the FCC’s rules, including the all-important requirement that stations fully and accurately disclose in writing their rates, classes of advertising, and sales practices to candidates. That information should be routinely provided to candidates and their committees in each station’s carefully prepared Political Advertising Disclosure Statement.

Many of the political broadcasting regulations are grounded in the “reasonable access,” “equal opportunities,” and “lowest unit charge” (“LUC”) provisions of the Communications Act. These elements of the law ensure that broadcast facilities are available to candidates for federal offices, that broadcasters treat competing candidates equally, and that stations provide candidates with the rates they offer to their most-favored commercial advertisers during specified periods prior to an election. As a general rule, stations may not discriminate between candidates as to station use, the amount of time given or sold, or in any other meaningful way.

It is also important to note that television stations affiliated with ABC, CBS, NBC, or FOX located in the top 50 markets must keep their political records in their online public inspection file located on the FCC’s website. Beginning July 1, 2014, all other television stations must commence placing new political file documents in the political file section of their online public inspection file as well. This requirement does not apply to radio stations at this time.

While this Advisory outlines some of the general aspects of the political broadcasting rules, there are dozens of possible variations on any one issue. Accordingly, stations should contact legal counsel with any specific questions or problems they may encounter.—Article continues.

A pdf version of this entire article can be found at Political Broadcasting Advisory.

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The FCC just gave broadcasters another reason to answer the door graciously. Earlier this week, the FCC whacked a Pennsylvania Class A Television broadcaster with an $89,200 Notice of Apparent Liability (NAL) for refusing to allow FCC inspectors to inspect the station’s facilities, not just once, but on three different occasions. It is rare to see the FCC show its irritation in an NAL, but the language used by the FCC in this particular NAL leaves no doubt that the Commission was not happy with the licensee, particularly with what the FCC believed was blatant disregard for its authority. As the FCC put it, “this is simply unacceptable.”

Regarding specific rule violations by the licensee, the FCC alleged violations of Section 73.1225(a), which requires a broadcaster to make its station available for inspection by the FCC during normal business hours or at any time of operation; Section 73.1125(a), which requires a broadcaster to maintain a main studio location staffed with at least two employees during regular business hours; and Section 73.1350(a), which requires a broadcaster to operate its station in compliance with the FCC’s technical rules and in accordance with its current station authorization.

The NAL indicated that local field agents from the Enforcement Bureau’s Philadelphia Office attempted a station inspection during regular business hours once on August 17, 2011, and twice on September 30, 2011, without success. Physical access to the main studio of record was blocked by a locked gate.

After calling the station, the field agents were met at the locked gate by the station manager, who indicated that he was on his way to a doctor’s appointment, that no one else was available at the station to facilitate an inspection, and that the field agents would have to return the next day in order to gain access to the station. After leaving the site of the main studio, one field agent attempted to call the sole principal of the licensee but was forced to leave a voicemail requesting that the owner return the call to discuss the inaccessibility of the main studio. The field agent also called the main studio and left a voicemail. The call was later returned by the station manager, who indicated that he was still at his doctor’s appointment. According to the NAL, the agent identified the caller ID number on the returned call as being that of the main studio. When questioned about it, the station manager indicated “that the Station used his personal cellular number as the Station’s main studio number.”

On the second inspection attempt, the field agents again encountered the locked gate. The station manager, who met them at the gate, asked the field agents to wait outside the gate until he returned from the main studio building. The field agents left “after waiting more than ten minutes for the Station Manager to return….” The field agents returned later that day and once again encountered the locked gate. An agent called the main studio and spoke to the station manager, who indicated that, the “gate must remain locked for security reasons and that the public must contact the station to obtain access.” The field agents noted that there was no signage or other information posted at the locked gate to indicate such a requirement.

After their departure, one of the agents again attempted to contact the station owner in order to discuss the inaccessibility of the main studio. The agent was forced to leave a second voicemail, reiterating his request for a return call. Neither call was returned by the owner.

In March 2012, a local field agent determined that, after monitoring the station’s transmissions, the station was operating from a tower structure that was not specified in its current authorization. The agent, with the collaboration of the tower owner, determined that the station was operating from a tower approximately two-tenths of a mile away from its authorized transmitter site. Both towers were owned by the same tower company.

The NAL noted that the FCC has previously fined broadcasters for failure to provide access for inspection, but that “none of those cases involved repeated, direct, in-person refusals of access by the highest level of a broadcast station’s management, as well as multiple failures by the licensee’s sole principal to return FCC agent calls concerning the refusals.” The NAL also stated that, “continued refusal…is an egregious violation of the Commission’s rules warranting stringent enforcement action.” These events led to the maximum fine of $37,500 for each day the field agents were refused access. The $75,000 was then added to the fines for the main studio and unauthorized operation violations. The main studio base forfeiture is $7,000. The unauthorized operation base forfeiture is $4000, but the FCC elected to upwardly adjust that amount by another $3200. At the end of the day, the licensee was assessed a fine of $89,200.

In hindsight, it seems very unlikely that, even had the station been in a state of disarray or total chaos, any potential fine from the FCC could have exceeded the nearly $90,000 fine the licensee instead received for refusing access.

The obvious lesson learned here if is that if the FCC comes knocking at your door, let them in.

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May 2014

Class A and Full-Power Television Broadcasters in All Markets Regardless of Network Affiliation and Market Rank Must Comply with the Online Retention of Political Programming Materials as of July 1, 2014

The FCC recently published in the Federal Register a reminder that all Class A and full-power television broadcasters must, by July 1, 2014, begin maintaining new political advertising materials mandated by Section 73.1943 of the Commission’s Rules in the station’s online public inspection file.

As previously reported, pursuant to the FCC’s Second Report and Order (“R&O”), adopted in May 2012, Class A and full-power television stations affiliated with the top four networks in the top 50 Designated Market Areas (“DMAs”) have been required to comply with the online political file rule since August 2, 2012.

The R&O stayed the online political file requirement for all Class A and full-power television stations that are not a top four network station in the top 50 DMAs until July 1, 2014. Accordingly, from July 1, 2014 forward, all stations, regardless of network affiliation or DMA, must begin keeping their political file in their online public inspection file. Notably, while political advertising documents created on or after July 1, 2014 must be placed in the online public file, stations should continue to retain hard copies of pre-July 1, 2014 documents in their physical public file to comply with the two-year retention period for political file documents set forth in Section 73.3526(e)(6).

The Federal Register notice can be viewed here.

A pdf version of this article can be found at Client Alert.

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If there had been any doubt that the Video Division of the FCC’s Media Bureau would check a television station’s online public inspection file to confirm the truthfulness of certifications made by the licensee in a pending license renewal application, that doubt has been eliminated.

In a Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture released December 3, the Video Division has proposed a $9,000 fine against the licensee of two Michigan televisions stations on the grounds that (i) each station had filed their Children’s Television Programming Reports (“Kidvid Reports”) late, and (ii) the stations failed to report those violations in responding to one of the certifications contained in their license renewal applications.

According to the FCC, the licensee had filed each station’s Kidvid Report late for three quarters during the license term in violation of Section 73.3526(e)(11)(iii) of the Commission’s Rules.

The problem was compounded when the licensee failed to disclose those violations in responding to Section IV, Question 3 of the Form 303-S, which requires licensees to certify “that the documentation, required by 47 C.F.R. Section 73.3526…has been placed in the station’s public inspection file at the appropriate times.” That same certification requires the applicant to submit an exhibit explaining any violations.

The Video Division of the FCC proposed that each station be assessed a fine of $3,000, the base forfeiture amount for failing to timely file Kidvid Reports, plus a fine of $1,500 for omitting from its renewal applications information regarding those violations. The Division suggested that it could have fined each station $3,000, rather than $1,500, for the reporting failure, but reduced the amount because each licensee “made a good faith effort to identify other deficiencies.”

Fortunately for the licensee in this case, it had checked the certification box with a “no,” and disclosed that its quarterly issues/programs lists had not been timely uploaded to the FCC’s online public file for the station. While the licensee did not mention anything about the late-filed Kidvid Reports, apparently the Video Division believed that the licensee’s failure to disclose was intentional enough to warrant a fine, but not deliberate enough to warrant a charge of misrepresentation or lack of candor that could have resulted in a much larger fine or worse.

The lessons learned from the Video Division’s action include: before signing off and filing a station license renewal application, (i) check the FCC’s online database to make sure that it has a record of all documents that were required to be timely filed, (ii) check the station’s paper (in the case of radio) and online (in the case of television) public inspection file to confirm (or not) that the file is complete and that the documents required to be in the file were placed there on a timely basis, and (iii) discuss with counsel what may need to be disclosed (or not disclosed) in response to certifications contained in a station’s application for renewal of license.

Of future concern is whether the Media Bureau will now be more inclined to impose even higher fines, claiming misrepresentation/lack of candor, where a license renewal applicant makes an unqualified affirmative certification that is not correct, or where the applicant states that it is unable to make an affirmative certification and provides an explanation, but does not fully disclose all material facts in its explanation. Recently the Media Bureau imposed a $17,000 fine against a station for violating Section 1.17 (misrepresentation/lack of candor) after having concluded that had the station “exercised even minimal due diligence, it would not have submitted incorrect and misleading material factual information to the Commission.” The Bureau made a point of the fact that the base statutory fine for misrepresentation or lack of candor is $37,500. Affirmative due diligence and caution are your best insurance policies in avoiding such a new and unbudgeted line item expense on your company’s next P&L.

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Yesterday, the FCC released a Notice of Proposed Rule Making setting forth a number of potential changes to its technical rules governing AM radio designed to revitalize AM stations and enhance the quality of AM service.

In the past several years, the Commission has instituted several changes to its AM rules and policies in hopes of improving AM radio and reducing the regulatory burdens on AM broadcasters. Among these are:

  • 2005 and 2008 – Announced simplified AM licensing procedures for KinStar (2005) and Valcom (2008) low-profile and streamlined AM antennas, which provide additional siting flexibility for non-directional stations to locate in areas where local zoning approval for taller towers cannot be obtained;
  • 2006 – Adopted streamlined procedures for AM station community of license changes;
  • 2008 – Adopted moment method modeling as an alternative methodology to verify AM directional antenna performance, reducing the cost of AM proof of performance showings substantially;
  • 2009 – Authorized rebroadcasting of AM stations on FM translators, which has proven to be extremely successful, with over 10% of all AM stations now using FM translators to provide improved daytime and nighttime service to their communities of license;
  • 2011 – Authorized AM stations to use Modulation Dependent Carrier Level (“MDCL”) control technologies, which allow AM stations to cut energy costs through reduced electrical consumption on transmissions and related cooling functions;
  • 2011 – Announced an FM translator minor modification rule waiver policy and waiver standards to expand opportunities for AM stations to provide fill-in coverage with FM translators;
  • 2012 – Authorized all future FM translator stations licensed from Auction 83 to be used for AM station rebroadcasting;
  • 2012 – Granted first Experimental Authorization for all-digital AM operation; and
  • 2013 – Improved protection to AM stations from potential re-radiators and signal pattern disturbances by establishing a single protection scheme for tower construction and modification near AM tower arrays, and designating moment method modeling as the principal means of determining whether a nearby tower affects an AM radiation pattern.

Now, with the introduction of yesterday’s Notice of Proposed Rule Making, the FCC is considering yet more changes to its rules to help AM radio. Among the proposals in the Notice of Proposed Rule Making are:
(1) Open an FM translator filing window exclusively for AM licensees and permittees during which AM broadcasters may apply for a single FM translator station in the commercial FM band to be used solely to rebroadcast the AM station’s signal to provide fill-in and/or nighttime service. The window, as proposed, would have the following limitations:

  • Applications filed during this window must strictly comply with the existing restrictions on fill-in coverage governing AM use of FM translators (e.g., they must be located so that no part of the 60 dBu contour of the FM translator will extend beyond the smaller of a 25-mile radius from the AM station’s transmitter site, or the AM station’s daytime 2 mV/m contour; and
  • Any FM translator station authorized though this filing window will be permanently linked to the licensee or permittee of the primary AM station acquiring the authorization, and the FM translator authorization may not be assigned or transferred except in conjunction with that AM station.

(2) Modify the daytime community coverage standards for existing AM stations contained in Section 74.24(i) of the FCC’s Rules to require only that stations cover either 50% of the population or 50% of the area of the station’s community of license with a daytime 5 mV/m signal. This proposal would not affect applications for new AM stations, or proposals to change the community of license of an existing AM station, both of which will continue to require that 100% of the community of license receive at least a 5 mV/m signal during the day, and cover at least 80% of the community of license at night with a nighttime interference-free signal.

(3) Modify nighttime community coverage requirements for existing AM stations by (i) eliminating the nighttime coverage requirement for existing licensed AM stations, and (ii) in the case of new AM stations and AM stations seeking to change their community of license, modify the rules so the station would be required to cover either 50% of the population or 50% of the area of the community of license with a nighttime 5 mV/m signal or a nighttime interference-free contour, whichever value is higher.

(4) Delete the AM “Ratchet Rule,” which currently results in a reduction of nighttime signal coverage for AM stations relocating their licensed facilities.

(5) Permit wider implementation of Modulation Dependent Carrier Level control technologies by amending the FCC’s rules to allow AM stations to commence operation using MDCL control technologies without seeking prior FCC authority, provided that they notify the FCC of the MDCL operation using the Media Bureau’s Consolidated Database System within 10 days of commencing such operation.

(6) Modify AM antenna efficiency standards, and consider whether the minimum field strength values set forth in various technical rules could be reduced by approximately 25%.

While the changes under consideration are significant, AM broadcasters will have a fair amount of time to contemplate them before comments on the proposals are due at the FCC. The comment deadline will be 60 days after Federal Register publication of the Notice of Proposed Rule Making, with reply comments due 30 days after that.