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 special issue takes a look at the government’s renewed efforts to scuttle Pirate Radio operations.
Since the government first began regulating the airwaves, it has struggled to eliminate unlicensed radio operators. In its latest effort, the FCC is taking a hardline approach to this illegal behavior and is partnering with local and federal law enforcement, as well as Congress, to accomplish the task. While Chairman Pai has made clear that pirate radio prosecutions are once again a priority at the FCC, it is Commissioner O’Rielly who has been the most vocal on this front, calling for more aggressive action against unauthorized operators. The continued prevalence of pirate radio operations has been chalked up to several factors, including insufficient enforcement mechanisms and resources, the procedural difficulties in tracking down unregulated parties, and lackadaisical enforcement until recently. Regulators and broadcast industry leaders have also expressed frustration with the whack-a-mole nature of pirate radio enforcement—shutting down one operation only to have another pop up nearby.
Congress has also begun to take an interest in the issue, with the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology holding a hearing last week discussing the subject. One of the witnesses was David Donovan, president of the New York State Broadcasters Association. In his testimony, he listed numerous risks that unlicensed operations present to the public, including failure to adhere to Emergency Alert System rules and RF emissions limits (which can be critically important where a pirate’s antenna is mounted on a residential structure). Pirate operators also create interference to other communications systems, including those used for public safety operations, while causing financial harm to legitimate broadcast stations by diverting advertising revenue and listeners from authorized stations.
Despite these harms, pirate operations continue to spread. This past month, the FCC issued a Notice of Unlicensed Operation (“NOUO”) to a New Jersey individual after the FCC received complaints from the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) that an FM station’s broadcasts were causing harmful interference to aeronautical communications operating on air-to-ground frequencies. FCC agents tracked the errant transmissions to the individual’s residence and confirmed that he was transmitting without authorization.
Days later, the FCC issued an NOUO to another New Jersey resident who was transmitting unlicensed broadcasts from a neighborhood near Newark Airport. Once again, FCC agents were able to determine the source of the signal and found that the property owner was not licensed to broadcast on the frequency in question.