Articles Posted in Congress & Legislation

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The FCC has released its finalized schedule of annual Regulatory Fees for Fiscal Year 2019, and thanks to the collective efforts of all 50 State Broadcasters Associations and the National Association of Broadcasters, there is some good news for radio stations and satellite television stations.

But before we get to that, some information for you from the FCC’s Public Notice released today on filing requirements.  Fees will be due by 11:59 p.m. EDT on September 24, 2019.  You must file via the FCC’s Fee Filer system, which is available for use now.  You may pay online via credit card or debit card, or submit payment via Automated Clearing House (ACH) or wire transfer.  Remember that $24,999.99 is the daily maximum that can be charged to a credit card in the Fee Filer system.  As a result, many stations may have to pay their fees using the other methods.

Television broadcast stations will see an unfamiliar number in the “Quantity” box when they go to pay.  This relates to the FCC’s phase-in of a population-based methodology for calculating television station fee amounts.  It cannot be changed and should not be a cause for concern.  Regulatees whose total fee amount is $1,000 or less are once again exempt and do not need to pay.

In most years, the outcome of the annual Regulatory Fee battle ends with the FCC’s various regulatees rolling their collective eyes and murmuring “just tell me how much I have to fork over.”  This year’s Regulatory Fee proceeding had some surprises, however.  When the proposed fee amounts were first announced, they contained a dramatic increase in year-over-year fee amounts for most categories of radio stations.  Yet, the reason for this sudden increase was neither addressed by the FCC nor readily apparent from the FCC’s brain-numbing summary of its calculation process.

In response, all 50 State Broadcasters Associations and the NAB filed comments pressing the FCC to revisit its fee methodology and to explain or correct what appeared to be flawed data used to calculate broadcast Regulatory Fee amounts.  In particular, they pressed the FCC to explain why the estimated number of radio stations slated to cover radio’s share of the FCC’s budget had inexplicably plummeted between 2018 and 2019, resulting in each individual station having to shoulder a significantly higher fee burden.

In its regulatory fee Order, the Commission acknowledged that its estimate of the number of radio stations that would be paying Regulatory Fees in 2019 had been “conservative”, and failed to include 553 of the nation’s commercial radio stations.  Once these stations were added to the total number of radio stations previously anticipated to pay Regulatory Fees, the impact was to reduce individual station fees from those originally proposed by 9% to 13%, depending on the class of radio station.

This adjustment prevented what would have otherwise been a roughly $3 million dollar overpayment by radio stations nationwide, significantly exceeding the FCC’s cost of regulating radio stations in FY 2019.  The fact that the FCC listened to the concerns of broadcasters, investigated the discrepancy between 2019 station data and that of prior years, and made appropriate changes to fix the problem, is heartening, particularly given that stations’ only options are paying the fees demanded, seeking a waiver, or turning in their license.

Terrestrial satellite TV stations also received a requested correction to their fee calculations.  As noted above, the FCC is transitioning from a DMA-based fee calculation methodology to a population-based methodology for TV stations.  To phase in this new methodology, the Commission proposed to average each station’s historical and population-based Regulatory Fee amounts and use that average for FY 2019 before moving to a fully population-based fee in FY 2020.

In calculating the average of the “old” and “new” fees, however, the FCC neglected to use the reduced fee amount historically paid by TV satellite stations, which is much lower than that paid by non-satellite TV stations in the same DMA.  As a result, a TV satellite station might have seen its 2019 fees jump by tens of thousand of dollars over FY 2018, only to see them drop again in FY 2020.  The FCC acknowledged that its intent in adopting the phase-in was not to unduly burden TV satellite stations in FY 2019, and it therefore recalculated those fees using the lower historical fee amounts traditionally applied to such stations.

While these reductions are a rare win against ever-increasing regulatory fees, there remain big picture issues that Congress and the FCC need to address in the longer term.  Significant among these is the FCC’s reliance on collecting the fees that support its operations from the licensees it regulates (a burden not a benefit), while charging no fees to those that rely on the FCC’s rulemakings to launch new technologies on unlicensed spectrum or obtain rights against other private parties via the FCC’s rulemaking processes (a benefit not a burden).  Such a narrow approach to funding the FCC makes little sense, particularly where it unduly burdens broadcasters, who, unlike most other regulatees, have no ability to just pass those fees on to consumers as a line item on a bill.

We live in a time of disruption.  Disruption affects all areas of the economy, but surely the most affected has to be the communications sector.  If any government agency can claim to be the regulator of this disruption, it must surely be the FCC.  Yet despite the FCC’s position at the forefront of these changes, its Regulatory Fee process is mired in a system in which broadcasters are left holding the bag for more than 35% of the FCC’s operating budget (once again, burden not benefit).  Even as the FCC spends more of its time and resources on rulemakings, economic analysis, and technical studies surrounding new technologies and new entrants into the communications sector whose main goal is to nibble away at broadcasters’ spectrum, audience, and revenue, it still collects regulatory fees only from the licensees and regulatees of its four “core” bureaus – the International Bureau, Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, Wireline Competition Bureau, and Media Bureau.  It’s an old formula, and it no longer works.

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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

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Embedded in the Music Modernization Act signed into law in 2018 was a provision that extended most federal copyright protections to pre-1972 sound recordings. Prior to the enactment of the MMA, sound recordings made prior to February 15, 1972, may have been protected under state law, but federal copyright law protections did not apply.

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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 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.

Real Consequences

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.

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The FCC today released an Order waiving, at least for this year, the requirement that full power, Class A and low power television stations file what has traditionally been known as a Form 317 report by December 1.  More formally known as the DTV Ancillary/Supplementary Services Report, and due each December 1 for the past two decades, the reports are now actually filed on Form 2100, Schedule G rather than on the discontinued Form 317 (small wonder that everyone still refers to it as the Form 317 report).

The purpose of the report is to inform the FCC if a TV station has used its spectrum to provide non-broadcast services during the past year, and if so, to submit a payment to the government equivalent to 5% of the gross revenues derived from that service.  Ancillary or supplementary services are all services provided on any portion of a DTV station’s digital spectrum that is not necessary to provide the single free over-the-air program stream required by the FCC.  Any video broadcast service that is provided with no direct charge to viewers is exempt.  According to the FCC, examples of services that are considered ancillary or supplementary include “computer software distribution, data transmissions, teletext, interactive materials, aural messages, paging services, audio signals, subscription video, and the like.”  If the station charges a fee for such a service, it must pay the government 5% of the gross revenues derived from that service when it files its report.

The FCC first adopted the requirement in 1999 as a result of a directive contained in the Telecommunications Act of 1996.  Since then, the rule has required digital full power commercial and noncommercial TV stations, and later Class A and low power television stations, to report annually “whether they provided ancillary or supplementary services in the 12-month period ending on the preceding September 30.”  The rule requiring the filing of these reports mandates that TV stations file them whether or not they have any non-broadcast services to report.  In fact, the rule pointedly says that failure to file “regardless of revenues from ancillary or supplementary services or provision of such services may result in appropriate sanctions.”  As a result, many thousands of these reports have been filed over the years despite the fact that very few stations have ever offered such services.

When the FCC this summer opened the door in its Modernization proceeding for suggestions as to how to eliminate unnecessary regulatory burdens, a chorus rang out in support of modifying this particular rule.  In one of those now glaringly obvious “how could someone not have thought of this twenty years ago?” moments, first Commissioner O’Rielly and then numerous commenters suggested modifying the rule to eliminate the requirement for all stations except those that actually provide such services.  That led to the FCC voting last month to issue a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking proposing to eliminate the filing requirement for all stations that do not offer ancillary or supplementary services.

Buried in a footnote to that NPRM was the answer to a question many of us had asked over the years; namely, what is the percentage of stations indicating they are actually providing such services?  Having been involved in the filing of well over a thousand of these reports over the years, we had yet to file one indicating a station has actually provided ancillary or supplementary services.  Now we know that, according to the NPRM, fewer than 15 stations nationwide offered such services in 2016, yielding a total payment to the government of roughly $13,000.  That’s fewer than fifteen out of more than 6600 reports filed in 2016 (0.2%).

Stated differently, if the FCC had just asked each of those 6600 stations to mail in $2.00 rather than a report, the government would have garnered more revenue while wasting far less station resources.  Of course, that doesn’t take into account the resources the FCC was forced to expend processing 6600 reports looking for the 15 that actually reported revenues, ensuring that fulfilling this congressional mandate currently costs the FCC more than it brings in.

For that reason, today’s Order waiving this year’s filing requirement for stations not offering such services will likely be welcome news not just for those broadcasters, but for FCC staff as well.  It does, however, remain a short-term fix.  The FCC’s proceeding to permanently change the rule is still underway, with the comment deadline not yet set.  Based on today’s waiver, the odds seem pretty good that by the time December 1, 2018 rolls around, a waiver will no longer be necessary as the change will have been incorporated into the rule.  In a time when even the most mundane proposals for change can generate fervent opposition, this may be the rare Commission rule that lacks a constituency to defend it to the death.

So the vast majority of stations that had been drafting their 2017 report can stop right now.  Of course, if your station is one of the lonely 15 that provided ancillary and supplementary services during the past year, the waiver doesn’t apply and you will still need to file the report and pay the FCC 5% of the gross revenues generated.  Then Congress can debate at length where to spend the $13,000.

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Under a new federal law, businesses are forbidden from restricting, prohibiting or penalizing consumer-posted reviews of the business or its goods and services. The Consumer Review Fairness Act of 2016 goes into effect tomorrow, March 14, 2017, and declares unlawful any “form contract” that prohibits or restricts the ability of an individual to engage in a “covered communication,” which is broadly defined to include any review, performance assessment, or other similar analysis of the company’s goods, services, or conduct.  Our Pillsbury colleagues Michael Heuga, Amy L. Pierce and  Catherine Meyer discuss the details of the new law in a recent Pillsbury Client Alert.

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What a difference a day makes.

As previously discussed in CommLawCenter, the Department of Labor announced in May a change to its overtime regulations.  That change would more than double the minimum salary needed to qualify an employee as exempt from overtime pay, and was scheduled to go into effect on December 1, 2016.  Because the change in the overtime-exempt minimum salary was so dramatic (moving from  $23,660 to $47,476 annually) the business community has been seeking to block it or at least mitigate its impact.  As part of that effort, Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee recently introduced S.3464 in the Senate, which would phase in the higher salary threshold over several years, and offer some relief to nonprofits, colleges and universities, certain health care providers, and state and local governments.

As we noted a few weeks ago, however, the likelihood of that legislation becoming law before December 1 is slim, particularly given that President Obama is likely to veto any bill that threatens to undercut the goal of using more overtime pay to help rebuild the middle class.  Taking a different tack, the State of Nevada and twenty other states brought suit against the Department of Labor’s new regulations in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas.  A similar suit brought in that court by the Plano Chamber of Congress and over fifty other business organizations was recently consolidated with the 21 States’ suit.

In response to a motion filed by the 21 States, the District Court today granted a nationwide preliminary injunction, preventing the new salary threshold (and scheduled increases to it in future years) from going into effect until the court has had an opportunity to rule on the legality of the rule change.  In doing so, the court made clear that the Department of Labor will have a hard time defending it.  Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), Congress exempted from overtime pay those employees who are employed in a “bona fide executive, administrative, or professional capacity”, and authorized the Department of Labor to adopt, and from time to time update, regulations defining which employees fall into those categories.

In granting the preliminary injunction, the court found that the Department of Labor had exceeded that authorization by including a salary component in addition to the “duties” test embedded in the statute:

After reading the plain meanings together with the statute, it is clear Congress intended the EAP exemption to apply to employees doing actual executive, administrative, and professional duties. In other words, Congress defined the EAP exemption with regard to duties, which does not include a minimum salary level.

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[The FLSA] authorizes the Department to define and delimit these classifications because an employee’s duties can change over time….  While this explicit delegation would give the Department significant leeway to establish the types of duties that might qualify an employee for the exemption, nothing in the EAP exemption indicates that Congress intended the Department to define and delimit with respect to a minimum salary level. Thus, the Department’s delegation is limited by the plain meaning of the statute and Congress’s intent. Directly in conflict with Congress’s intent, the Final Rule states that “[w]hite collar employees subject to the salary level test earning less than $913 per week will not qualify for the EAP exemption, and therefore will be eligible for overtime, irrespective of their job duties and responsibilities.”  With the Final Rule, the Department exceeds its delegated authority and ignores Congress’s intent by raising the minimum salary level such that it supplants the duties test.

Further buttressing his preliminary findings, the judge added that:

The Department has admitted that it cannot create an evaluation “based on salary alone.”  But this significant increase to the salary level creates essentially a de facto salary-only test. For instance, the Department estimates 4.2 million workers currently ineligible for overtime, and who fall below the minimum salary level, will automatically become eligible under the Final Rule without a change to their duties.  Congress did not intend salary to categorically exclude an employee with EAP duties from the exemption.  [Cites omitted for clarity.]

It seems likely the Department of Labor will seek an immediate appeal of the preliminary injunction for two reasons.  First, of course, is the fact that the federal government hoped that once the rule change went into effect on December 1, it would be politically impossible to reduce the salary threshold without incurring the ire of millions of employees now receiving overtime pay.  Second, and a more recent development, is that if the preliminary injunction holds, and the court case continues beyond January 20 (as it will), a Department of Labor within the Trump administration might no longer be interested in defending the rule change, effectively letting the preliminary injunction become permanent.

On top of that, if the final result of the court case is a ruling that any increase over the existing $23,660 annual salary requirement is impermissible without a statutory change, then the drastic increase in the salary threshold attempted by the Department of Labor will have backfired.  Any effort to adopt a more moderate increase in the salary threshold would run headlong into the court’s decision here.  And the law of unintended consequences strikes again.

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But there are treatments available. When the Department of Labor announced in May that it would more than double the minimum salary needed to qualify an employee as exempt from overtime pay on December 1, 2016, you could hear the collective gasp from businesses nationwide. That sound echoed even more loudly in broadcast studios across the country, as the “round the clock/breaking news” nature of running a broadcast station places a high premium on employees that aren’t locked into a 9 to 5 existence. By increasing the minimum salary needed for an employee to qualify as overtime-exempt (from $23,660 annually to $47,476 annually), the rule change may price many broadcast employees out of their jobs.

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The FCC’s video description rules require covered broadcasters and MVPDs to provide audio-narration of the key visual elements of a program during pauses in the dialogue so as to make it more accessible to individuals who are blind or visually impaired. Under the current rules (which Congress in 2010 directed the FCC to reinstate after a court struck them down in 2000), broadcast stations affiliated with ABC, CBS, Fox, or NBC that are located in the top 60 television markets are required to provide 50 hours of programming with video description per calendar quarter. The top five non-broadcast networks on Pay-TV systems serving 50,000 or more subscribers (currently USA, TNT, TBS, History, and Disney Channel, as of July 1, 2015) are also subject to this requirement.

In addition to directing the FCC to reinstate its video description rules in the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 (CVAA), Congress gave the FCC authority to adopt additional video description rules if the benefits of doing so would outweigh the costs. At today’s Open Meeting, the FCC tentatively concluded that the substantial benefits of adopting additional video description requirements would outweigh the costs of the proposed requirements, and therefore adopted a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking recommending an update to and expansion of its video description rules.

The FCC’s additional proposed requirements include increasing the required amount of video-described programming on each covered network from 50 hours per calendar quarter to 87.5 hours, and expanding the number of networks subject to the rules from four broadcast and five non-broadcast networks to five broadcast and ten non-broadcast networks.

The NPRM will also seek comment on a “no-backsliding rule”, which would keep covered networks subject to the requirements even if they fall below the top-five (broadcast) or top-ten (non-broadcast) ranking.

Dissenting in part, Commissioners Pai and O’Rielly voiced concern that the FCC’s proposals exceed the Commission’s statutory authority, which had been the downfall of the earlier rules. In particular, both commissioners warned that the proposals far exceed the 75% increase of the total hour requirement permitted under the CVAA:  Commissioner Pai’s “conservative estimate” was that the proposed additional requirements would increase the total hours requirement by 192% (before taking into account the no-backsliding rule).  With respect to the no-backsliding rule, Commissioner Pai described the proposal as the “Hotel California” approach to regulation, and accused the FCC of Orwellian speak and “reinvent[ing] math”—where the “top five broadcast networks can mean more than five networks.”

The text of the NPRM and comment deadlines have yet to be released, but it’s already sounding like the FCC will be in for a lively debate.

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As we posted earlier, the FCC voted at its February meeting to preempt state laws in Tennessee and North Carolina restricting municipalities from providing broadband service. The FCC has now released the text of its Order, and it reveals the expanse of the FCC’s concerns, filling in the details as to the types of state law provisions the FCC considers to be barriers to broadband competition and therefore subject to preemption. The Order furnishes critical guidance to other municipalities considering a challenge of laws in their own states. It also informs state legislators as to how they can modify existing state laws to avoid a future confrontation with the FCC.

In the Order, the FCC preempted a Tennessee law prohibiting municipal electric utilities from providing broadband service outside their service areas, and certain restrictions and requirements of a North Carolina law. The FCC did so under its asserted authority pursuant to Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to remove barriers to broadband investment and promote broadband competition. The specific restrictions the FCC found to constitute or contribute to such barriers are summarized below, and the breadth of the FCC’s preemption of these restrictions is substantial. As a result, no one should be surprised to see more preemption requests arriving at the FCC.

Tennessee Law

The Tennessee law was fairly straightforward. It prohibited a municipally-owned electric power system from offering internet or video services anywhere outside the geographic footprint in which it provides electric service. The FCC found that this territorial restriction was an explicit barrier to broadband investment and competition, and used its authority under Section 706 to preempt the restriction. This portion of the FCC’s decision offers no real surprises, and relies on a fairly basic view of what constitutes a barrier to growth in municipal broadband.

North Carolina Law

Far more interesting is the portion of the Order relating to North Carolina. The North Carolina law was more complex, containing a variety of restrictions and requirements for municipalities wishing to deploy broadband service. The FCC found that, taken in the aggregate, these portions of the law created a barrier to broadband investment and competition, leading the FCC to preempt them. While acknowledging that some of the preempted provisions in the North Carolina law might have been allowed to stand individually, the FCC concluded that the aggregate effect required their preemption. In taking this approach, the FCC left some uncertainly as to which provisions it would have preempted on even a stand-alone basis, but provided very helpful guidance as to both the nature and scope of the FCC’s concerns. As the list of provisions preempted by the FCC set forth below indicates, the FCC’s view of barriers to municipal broadband growth is quite expansive.
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