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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:

  • Big-4 Network, Among Others, Settles With FCC Over Emergency Alert Tone Violations
  • Despite Self-Disclosure, Sponsorship ID Violations Land $233,000 Proposed Fine
  • Topeka TV Licensee Enters Into Consent Decree Over Late-Filed KidVid Reports

False Alarm: FCC Enters Into Multiple Consent Decrees Over Emergency Alert Tone Violations

In a single day last week, the FCC announced four separate Consent Decrees in response to unauthorized uses of the Emergency Alert System (“EAS”) tone across various media outlets.  The parent companies of a Big-4 broadcast network and two cable channels, as well as the licensee of two southern California FM stations, each agreed to significant payments to settle investigations into violations of the FCC’s EAS rules.  According to the Consent Decrees, unauthorized emergency tones have reached hundreds of millions of Americans in the past two years alone.

The Emergency Alert System is a nationwide warning system operated by the FCC and the Federal Emergency Management Agency that allows authorized public agencies to alert the public about urgent situations, including natural disasters and other incidents that require immediate attention.  Once the system is activated, television and radio broadcasters, cable television operators, and other EAS “participants” begin transmitting emergency messages with distinct attention tones.  These tones consist of coded signals that are embedded with information about the emergency and are capable of activating emergency equipment.  Wireless Emergency Alerts (“WEA”), which deliver messages to the public via mobile phones and other wireless devices, also use attention signals.

Emergency tones may not be transmitted except in cases of: (1) actual emergencies; (2) official tests of the emergency system; and (3) authorized public service announcements.  In an accompanying Enforcement Advisory published on the same day as the Consent Decrees, the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau noted that wrongful use of the tones can result in false activations of the EAS, as well as “alert fatigue,” in which “the public becomes desensitized to the alerts, leading people to ignore potentially life-saving warnings and information.”

For the Big-4 network, it all started with a joke.  Around the time of last year’s nationwide EAS test, a late-night network talk show parodied the test in a sketch that incorporated emergency tones.  According to the Consent Decree, the network’s programming reaches almost all US television households through hundreds of local television affiliates, as well as through the network’s owned and operated stations.  Shortly after the episode aired, the company removed the offending portions of the program from its website and other streaming sites and did not rebroadcast the episode.  Despite these remedial actions, the damage was already done; in response to the Enforcement Bureau’s investigation, the network’s parent company agreed to pay a $395,000 “civil penalty.”

The parent companies of two major cable channels entered into similar agreements.  In one instance from this past year, an episode of a popular show set in a zombie-infested post-apocalyptic world used simulated EAS tones on multiple occasions over the course of an hour.  That episode was transmitted on eight separate occasions over a two-month period.  According to the Consent Decree, within weeks of the episode’s debut, the Enforcement Bureau reached out to the network regarding the unauthorized uses of the tone and, after a brief investigation, the network’s parent company agreed to pay $104,000 to resolve the matter. Continue reading →

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Twelve large telecom companies and the attorneys general of 50 states and the District of Columbia announced yesterday an agreement on eight voluntary principles that the companies will adopt to combat illegal and unwanted robocalls.  The announcement comes as regulators, telecom companies, and legislators continue to grapple with a worsening robocall problem that has become a significant concern for consumers, generating more complaints at the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission than any other topic.

Both the Senate and House have passed robocall bills that have yet to be reconciled to produce a bill both houses of Congress can agree upon.  In the meantime, the states are attempting to take the lead by working with telecom companies to establish what are effectively best practices.  These include:

  1. Making available free call-blocking and labeling tools to customers, and implementing free call blocking at the network level (network-level call blocking does not require any action from the consumer).
  2. Implementing STIR/SHAKEN, a technology used to provide authentication that calls are coming from a valid source.
  3. Monitoring network traffic for patterns consistent with robocalls.
  4. Investigating suspicious calls and calling patterns by, for example, initiating a traceback investigation or verifying that the commercial customer owns or is authorized to use the Caller ID number.
  5. Confirming the identity of new commercial VoIP customers by collecting information such as physical location.
  6. Requiring other telephone companies with which they contract to cooperate in identifying the source of suspected illegal robocalls.
  7. Working with law enforcement to trace robocalls by identifying a single point of contact for traceback requests, and responding to such requests as soon as possible.
  8. Communicating with state attorneys general to keep them apprised of trends in illegal robocalling and potential additional solutions to combat such robocalls.

For context and information on other recent actions taken to combat illegal and unwanted robocalls, read our post from June, where we discussed the FCC’s decision to permit voice service providers to implement call-blocking programs for subscribers on an opt-out basis.  Robocalling finally appears to have achieved the status of Public Enemy Number One, with Congress, states, and federal agencies all working to block the flood of calls inundating the public.

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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:

  • Pennsylvania AM Station’s “Shenanigans” in Connection With Tower Violations Lead to $25,000 Fine
  • Georgia and North Carolina Radio Station Licenses at Risk Due to Unpaid Fees
  • FCC Cites New Jersey Vehicle Equipment Vendor for Programming Transmitters with Unauthorized Frequencies

Pennsylvania Station’s Tower “Shenanigans” Lead to $25,000 Fine

In a recent Forfeiture Order, the FCC fined a Pennsylvania AM radio licensee for various tower-related violations after the licensee failed to sufficiently respond to a 2016 Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture (NAL).

Broadcasters must comply with various FCC and FAA rules relating to registration, lighting and painting requirements.  In particular, they must be lit and painted in compliance with FAA requirements, and any extinguished or improperly functioning lights must be reported to the FAA if the problem is not corrected within 30 minutes.  The FCC’s Rules require lighting repairs to be made “as soon as practicable.”

In 2015, FCC Enforcement Bureau agents responded to an anonymous complaint regarding a pair of radio towers.  Over multiple site visits, the agents determined that multiple mandatory tower lights and beacons were unlit and that the towers’ paint was chipping and faded to such a degree that the towers did not have good visibility.  In connection with the lighting problems, the licensee had also failed to timely file the required “Notice to Airmen” with the FAA, which informs aircraft pilots of potential hazards along their flight route.  The FCC cited these issues in a February 2016 Notice of Violation sent to the station.  The licensee responded by assuring the FCC that it would immediately undertake remedial actions.  However, a site visit from the FCC several months later revealed continuing violations, and the FCC subsequently issued the $25,000 NAL along with directions on how to respond.

At that point, the licensee’s woes expanded from substantive to procedural.  According to a Forfeiture Order, the licensee failed to file a “proper response” to the NAL.  Instead, in a bizarre series of events that the FCC chalked up to “shenanigans,” it noted that the licensee submitted a Petition for Reconsideration of the NAL, as well as a response to the NAL to the Office of Managing Director (OMD), instead of to the Enforcement Bureau.  OMD is a separate department within the FCC that deals with agency administrative matters, such as budgets, human resources, scheduling, and document distribution.  OMD subsequently returned the Petition and the NAL response to the licensee with a letter noting the licensee’s procedural misstep.

The licensee’s “shenanigans” were still far from over, however.  More than a month after OMD returned the licensee’s submissions, the licensee sent a letter to the Enforcement Bureau seeking to arrange an installment plan for the $25,000 proposed fine.  This, too, was procedurally flawed, as the NAL specifically explained that any requests for payment plans must be directed to the FCC’s Chief Financial Officer, not to the Enforcement Bureau.  Though the Enforcement Bureau itself forwarded the request to the CFO’s office, no plan was ever put in place.

According to the Forfeiture Order, despite the licensee’s various filings, it failed to successfully submit a response to the NAL to the Enforcement Bureau.  The Forfeiture Order also noted that even had the licensee’s NAL response been sent to the Enforcement Bureau (instead of OMD), it would have been defective for being late-filed.  The Enforcement Bureau therefore affirmed the proposed fine and ordered the licensee to pay the $25,000 fine within 30 days.

Pay to Play: FCC Initiates Proceedings Against North Carolina and Georgia Radio Stations Over Delinquent Fees

In a pair of Orders to Pay or to Show Cause released on the same day, the FCC began proceedings to potentially revoke the AM radio license of a Georgia station and the FM radio license of a North Carolina station. Continue reading →

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The availability of broadband Internet service in apartment buildings, condominiums, and office buildings, or what the FCC calls multiple tenant environments (MTE), was the subject of a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) and Declaratory Ruling released on Friday of last week. Prior FCC decisions have attempted to strike a balance between promoting competitive access to tenants and preserving adequate incentives for the initial service providers to deploy, maintain, and upgrade infrastructure. For example, the Commission prohibits cable providers and telecommunications carriers from entering into contracts with MTEs that grant a single provider exclusive access to the MTE, but permits exclusive marketing agreements.

Continue reading →

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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:

  • Investigation Into Undisclosed Radio Station Owner With a History of Felonies Leads to Hearing Designation Order
  • FCC Settles With Alaskan Broadcaster After Disastrous Station Inspection
  • FCC Reinstates Licenses for Tennessee and Alabama Radio Stations, Then Immediately Threatens to Revoke Them

Continue reading →

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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 Settles With Golf Club Operator Over Unauthorized Transfer of 108 Private Wireless Licenses
  • FCC Warns Traffic Management Company Over Unlicensed Radio Operations
  • Months-Long Tower Lighting Outage Leads to Warning

Continue reading →

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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 Revokes License for Unpaid Regulatory Fees; Warns Other Stations of Similar Fate
  • Texas Station Warned Over Multiple Tower and Transmission Violations
  • FCC Nabs Massachusetts Pirate While Commission Continues to Push for Anti-Piracy Legislation

Continue reading →

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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:

  • Oregon LPFM Station Warned Over Emergency Alert System Violations
  • Pennsylvania Man Accused of Interfering With Local Fire Department Operations
  • Earth Station Transmission Problems Lead to Warning Against Florida Wireless Licensee

This is Not a Test: Low Power FM Station Warned Over Emergency Alert Violations

The FCC’s Enforcement Bureau presented a Notice of Violation (“NOV”) to the licensee of a Portland, Oregon low-power FM radio station for a number of violations relating to the Emergency Alert System. The licensee is a local cultural community center that broadcasts Russian-language programming to the area’s Eastern European community.

The Emergency Alert System (“EAS”) is a nationwide warning system that allows authorized state and national public agencies to alert the public about urgent situations, including natural disasters and other incidents that require immediate attention.  The EAS is jointly operated by the FCC, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the National Oceanographic Atmospheric Administration.  Local radio stations make up a vital component of the system by monitoring authorized sources for alerts and rapidly relaying these emergency messages.  Such stations are referred to as “EAS participants.”  Each state is responsible for creating a state EAS plan, which includes designating in-state stations that other stations must constantly monitor for alerts.

Section 11.15 of the FCC’s Rules requires that a copy of the EAS Operating Handbook be located “at normal duty stations or EAS equipment locations when an operator is required to be on duty.”  Section 11 of the Rules also requires EAS participants to monitor two sources, which are specified in each state’s respective EAS plan.

In February 2019, Enforcement Bureau agents inspected the Portland station and discovered two violations of the EAS Rules.  According to the NOV, the station was unable to produce its copy of the EAS Operating Handbook.  The agents also discovered a monitoring error.  The most recent Oregon State Emergency Alert Plan required the station to monitor two specific Portland area FM stations.  During the inspection, the agents found the LPFM station had instead been monitoring a different station.

The licensee has 20 days to respond to the NOV.  In its response, it must provide: (1) an explanation of each violation; (2) a description of the licensee’s corrective actions; and (3) a timeline for completion of these actions.  The FCC will then consider the licensee’s responses and all relevant information to determine what, if any, enforcement action it will take against the licensee for the violations.

State Your Emergency: FCC Accuses Pennsylvania Man of Interfering With Safety Services

In a Notice of Unlicensed Operation and Notification of Harmful Interference (“Notice”), the FCC accused a man of using a two-way radio to cause harmful interference to a local emergency services operation by making unauthorized transmissions on a frequency reserved for public safety.

As we discussed last year, Chairman Pai has noted that protecting public safety and emergency response communications is of the utmost importance.  The Enforcement Bureau has recently responded aggressively to interference complaints from first responders and emergency service departments, including issuing multi-thousand dollar fines.

Section 301 of the Communications Act prohibits the transmission of radio signals without prior FCC authorization.  Section 90.20 of the Rules establishes the requirements for obtaining authorization to use public safety frequencies.  The FCC reserves certain bands for first responders as “public safety spectrum.” Unauthorized transmissions on such bands can pose a threat to first responders and the general public by interfering with local emergency service operations, including police, EMS, or in this case, the fire department.

The Enforcement Bureau began its investigation after being contacted by an eastern Pennsylvania county’s Emergency Management Association.  According to the complaint, harmful interference and unauthorized transmissions were occurring on 155.190 MHz, a frequency used for local fire department communications.  The Enforcement Bureau identified a local individual as the source of the interfering transmissions.

According to the Notice, the individual admitted to operating a VHF-UHF two-way radio at 155.190 MHz, despite not being authorized to operate on that frequency.

The individual was given 10 days to respond to the Notice.  In his response, the individual must explain the steps he is taking to avoid operating on unauthorized frequencies and causing harmful interference.  It will then be up to the FCC to determine whether further enforcement action, including fines or other sanctions, is appropriate. Continue reading →

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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:

Headlines:

  • FCC Fines Kentucky Men $144,344 for Illegally Operating LPTV Station for 18 Years
  • North Carolina Radio Station Settles With FCC Over Decades of Unauthorized Transfers
  • Connecticut Radio Station Warned for Inspection and Antenna Violations

Pay Up: FCC Fines Two Kentucky Men for Illegally Operating LPTV Station for 18 Years

The FCC issued a Forfeiture Order imposing a $144,344 penalty against the operators of a Kentucky unlicensed low-power television (“LPTV”) station.  The station had been operating without FCC authorization since 1998.  The Communications Act prohibits the operation of a broadcast station without FCC authorization.  As we reported in 2017, the FCC previously adopted a Notice of Apparent Liability (“NAL”) against the individuals.  This Forfeiture Order affirms the NAL.

The first individual (“Individual 1”) initially applied for and was granted the LPTV license in 1990, as well as a subsequent renewal term that ran from July 1993 through August 1998.  By the time that term expired, however, the individual licensee had failed to file a license renewal application or seek special temporary authorization to operate the station, and by August 1998, the station was operating without any FCC authorization.  In 2004, the FCC’s Media Bureau sent a letter to the individual asking whether he had filed a license renewal application.  Receiving no response, the Media Bureau sent a letter notifying the licensee that the station’s license had been cancelled.

Fast forward eight years, to 2016, when the Media Bureau learned that the station might still be operating.  The matter was referred to the Enforcement Bureau, which confirmed that the station was still on the air.  During the investigation, Enforcement Bureau field agents interviewed Individual 1 as well as a second individual who identified himself as the station’s studio manager and operations manager (“Individual 2”).  During their meeting with Individual 2 at the station, the agents issued a Notice of Unlicensed Radio Operation (“NOUO”) demanding the station cease operations and warning of possible further enforcement action.  In Individual 2’s response to the NOUO, he argued that the station was actually still licensed and referred to the NOUO as only a “request” to shut down.

Field agents returned a few months later to find the station still operating.  The Enforcement Bureau subsequently issued the NAL.

Both men responded individually to the NAL.  Individual 1 claimed, among other things, that the license should still be in effect because he filed a license renewal application in 2004 and included $1,155 to cover license renewal fees for three of his stations through 2022.  He further claimed that the station should remain on air because of the benefits it provides to local residents.  At the same time, however, Individual 1 also claimed to have “never operated a TV station” in the area and had not visited the station in over 15 years.  Finally, Individual 1 sought a reduction in the proposed penalty due to an inability to pay.

The FCC outright rejected all of Individual 1’s claims.  Regarding the late license renewal application, besides filing the application six year late, the filing would only have covered the preceding license term.  Further, the Media Bureau could not have accepted the application because while the funds could have covered the stations’ accumulated annual regulatory fees, Individual 1 did not include application processing fees, without which the Media Bureau cannot review an application.

In response to the claims about benefiting the local community, the FCC stated that any alleged benefit from operations “does not absolve [the operator] from liability.”  The FCC also rejected Individual 1’s claim that he never operated the station, noting that the claim conflicted with the evidence, which included filings and statements made by both individuals to the contrary.

Individual 2’s response to the NAL similarly did not gain much traction with the FCC, despite a few novel theories.  In his response, Individual 2 claimed that the FCC lacks jurisdiction over the station because its signal was not intended to reach beyond the state of Kentucky.  Further, Individual 2 included a petition signed by over 100 local residents urging the FCC to allow the station to continue operating.  Individual 2 also claimed that he lacked the financial resources to pay the penalty.

The FCC rejected Individual 2’s federalism argument as contradicting the plain language of the Communications Act, which prohibits making unauthorized intrastate or interstate transmissions.  Further, the Commission gave no weight to the station’s “community support,” as it had no bearing on the unlicensed operation of a broadcast station.

The FCC also declined to reduce the penalty amount for either party, who it found jointly and individually liable.  Beyond a lack of evidence of inability to pay, the FCC determined that the severity of the violation warranted the penalty, which was calculated by multiplying the $10,000 per day base penalty amount by 22 days of unauthorized operations.  In fact, the Forfeiture Order states that the only reason the penalty was not greater is because $144,344 is the statutory maximum permitted under the Communications Act for a continuing violation.  The FCC also reminded the parties that an ability to pay is only one consideration in adjusting a penalty amount.  Here, the violation lasted over 18 years, and the parties were notified or directly warned at several points over that period about the consequences of operating without a license.

History of an Error: North Carolina Licensee Settles with FCC Over Decades of Unauthorized Transfers and Missing Ownership Reports

The Media Bureau entered into a Consent Decree with the licensee of a North Carolina AM radio station and FM translator station for violating the FCC’s rules governing transfers of control and the filing of ownership reports.

Section 310 of the Communications Act and Section 73.3540 of the FCC’s Rules prohibit the transfer of control of broadcast licenses from one individual, entity, or group to another without prior FCC approval.  In the case of full-power broadcast stations, parties must file FCC Form 315 applications and receive FCC consent before a transfer of control can be consummated.

The transfer of control applications ultimately leading to the Consent Decree were filed with the FCC in April 2018, but the licensee’s problems began over thirty years earlier, shortly after the FCC approved an assignment of the AM station’s license.  The FCC believes that, in 1986, the licensee had five attributable shareholders (the FCC states in a footnote that it is unable to locate the licensee’s original assignment application).  However, over the next few years, over 50% of the licensee’s stock changed hands without FCC consent.  Again, in 1992, more than 50% of the licensee’s stock was transferred without consent, and new directors were appointed to control the licensee.  In 1994, another unauthorized transfer transpired when a minority shareholder acquired a 66% interest in the licensee without prior Commission approval. Continue reading →

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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:

Headlines:

  • Alabama FM Licensee Admits to On-Air Contest and Unauthorized Transfer of Control Violations
  • Silicon Valley Start-Up Agrees to Pay $900,000 Penalty for Unauthorized Satellite Launches
  • Michigan AM Licensee Faces Proposed $18,000 Fine and Reduced License Term for a Variety of Violations

No-Win Situation: FM Licensee Settles with FCC Over On-Air Contest and Unauthorized Transfer of Control Violations

The FCC’s Enforcement Bureau entered into a Consent Decree with the licensee of an Alabama FM radio station for violating the FCC’s rules governing on-air contests and transfers of control.

The FCC regulates licensee-conducted contests in order to protect the public against deceptive and misleading practices.  Section 508 of the Communications Act (“Act”) prohibits a licensee from knowingly deceiving the public by manipulating or predetermining the results of a contest.  Section 73.1216(a) of the FCC’s Rules requires a licensee to “fully and accurately disclose the material terms of the contest” and the contest must be conducted in accordance with those announced terms.

Section 310 of the Act and Section 73.3540 of the FCC’s Rules prohibit the transfer of control of a broadcast license without prior FCC approval.  A de facto transfer occurs when a licensee no longer retains ultimate control over vital aspects of a station’s operations, including its programming, personnel, and finances.

In August 2016, the FCC received a complaint alleging that the licensee “prematurely ended” an on-air contest and failed to award the advertised prizes. According to the complaint, the station instead kept the prizes and provided them to its own employee.

The Enforcement Bureau responded nearly a year later by issuing a Letter of Inquiry (“LOI”) to the licensee seeking information about the contest. In its response, the licensee denied any knowledge of the contest nor was it was able to find any records related to the contest.  According to the Consent Decree, the licensee’s professed lack of knowledge about the contest “raised questions about the Licensee’s control over the Station.”  As a result, in July 2018, the Enforcement Bureau issued a supplemental LOI to the licensee investigating the apparent de facto unauthorized transfer of control to the third party that conducted the contest, who had a time brokerage agreement with the station.  According to the FCC, it had not approved, nor had the licensee applied for, a transfer of control of the license.

To resolve the FCC’s investigation, the licensee entered into a Consent Decree with the Enforcement Bureau.  Under the terms of the Consent Decree, the licensee agreed to (1) admit liability for violations of the FCC’s contest and unauthorized transfer of control rules; (2) pay a $12,000 civil penalty; and (3) develop and implement a compliance plan to prevent further violations of the FCC’s Rules.

Space Oddity: Start-Up Agrees to Pay $900,000 to Settle Investigation into Unauthorized Satellite Operations

After a bizarre string of events involving unauthorized communications satellites, space launches from India, and experimental weather balloons over California, the FCC entered into a Consent Decree with a Silicon Valley satellite start-up.

Section 301 of the Act and Section 25.102 of the FCC’s Rules prohibit the operation of any device for the transmission of energy, communications, or signals by space or earth stations unless in accordance with an FCC authorization.  Section 25.113 of the FCC’s Rules requires FCC authorization before deployment and operation of a space satellite. Continue reading →