Articles Posted in FCC Administration

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Broadcasters were spared some of the uncertainty related to the December 22, 2018 government shutdown because the FCC was able to independently fund its operations until January 3, 2019.  Yesterday, those funds ran out, and under the Antideficiency Act, FCC employees are prohibited from continuing to work until funds are available to pay them.  While the Antideficiency Act doesn’t directly affect the FCC’s filing and other databases (being automated, they don’t get paid as FCC employees), some of those systems are incapable of operating without regular human intervention, and some can operate without human intervention only until they “break”, at which point the Antideficiency Act prohibits anyone from maintaining or repairing them.

As a result, it wasn’t clear until the past two days which systems might remain online, and which systems would be preemptively taken down to avoid “breakage”.  The FCC released a Public Notice on Wednesday clarifying that the last normal day of business prior to the shutdown was January 2, 2019 (January 3 being only a half-day), so any FCC filings due on January 3rd or thereafter are now due on the day after the day the Commission eventually reopens.

The Public Notice also listed certain Commission electronic filing and database systems that would remain operational during the shutdown, and certain systems that would be taken offline.  Absent from either list was the FCC’s online Public Inspection File database, and conversations with FCC staff minutes before they were required to leave the building indicated that even they didn’t know for sure whether the public file database would continue operating during the shutdown.

The answer became clear late yesterday afternoon when the online Public Inspection File database ceased to function, redirecting stations trying to upload documents and any members of the public wishing to view them to a webpage describing the shutdown.  The public’s inability to access the online Public File triggers the obligation on the part of broadcasters and cable/DBS systems to make available to the public a back-up copy of the political broadcasting portion of their Public Inspection File (generally referred to as the “Political File”).  At the time the Commission created that obligation, it said stations could keep the Political File either electronically or in paper and make it available either at their main studio or on their website.

With the elimination of the Main Studio rule, however, that obligation was further modified such that Political File documents that are not available via the Commission’s online database must now be made available at an “accessible location” in the station’s community of license during normal business hours.  An accessible location would include a station office, the local library, the office of another broadcaster, or any other business.  Broadcasters are not required to make any other portion of their Public Inspection File beyond the Political File available during the federal shutdown.

Moving beyond the Political File “backup” obligation, the shutdown of the online Public Inspection File database also means that broadcasters cannot upload their Quarterly Issues/Programs List or Children’s Commercial Television Limits compliance documents that would otherwise be due in the online Public Inspection File on January 10, 2019.   Accordingly, while the upload of Public File documents is not considered an FCC “filing”, the date to upload those documents has effectively been extended until after the Commission reopens.

However, the inability to upload materials to the Public File does not relieve stations of their recordkeeping obligations.  As stated in a 2016 Public File Report and Order by the FCC, “[i]f the Commission’s online file becomes temporarily inaccessible for the uploading of new documents, [the FCC] will require entities to maintain those documents and upload them to the file once it is available again for upload.”  These materials do not need to be made available to the public during the shutdown, but stations should proceed as usual in the creation of their January 10th documentation and be prepared to upload those materials once the online Public Inspection File database becomes accessible.

Note also that television stations, while not obligated to, can still file their Children’s Television Programming Reports (that would normally be due on January 10th) with the FCC.  This is because the FCC has left the LMS filing system up and running for incentive auction-related filings (which are excluded from the shutdown because auction-related activities at the FCC are separately funded—see below).  However, the Commission’s Public Notice is clear that, other than auction filings and those necessary for the protection of life and property, filings at the FCC during the lapse in government funding “will not be reviewed or processed and will be considered accepted on the day following the day of return to normal operations.”

Finally, be aware that because the spectrum auction operations of the FCC remain fully funded, they are NOT affected by the government shutdown.  FCC staff will continue to be available to answer questions, grant requests for Special Temporary Authority and process requests for reimbursement from television broadcasters that are transitioning to another channel as a result of the broadcast incentive auction and repack.  Because those FCC operations continue, the FCC left its LMS database up and running, which means that transitioning television stations CAN and MUST make filings related to their transition.  This includes the Quarterly Transition Progress Report due on January 10, which must still be filed by that date.  For stations assigned to Phase 2 of the transition, the obligation to notify cable and satellite TV distributors 90 days prior to a station’s transition to a new channel, and the deadline for filing with the FCC a request for any extension of time to transition, remain unchanged.  In that regard, FCC staff will still be available to provide Phase 2 transition stations with the mailing addresses of the multichannel video programming distributors to which the notices must be sent.

So if upon hearing of the FCC shutdown you thought you could extend that holiday vacation, think again.  Your regulatory obligations didn’t go away, they just became more complicated to fulfill.

 

 

 

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The FCC announced late today that the freeze that has been in place since April 2013 which prevents full-power and Class A TV stations from filing applications to expand their coverage areas will be lifted temporarily, likely before the end of this year.  The lifting of the freeze allows stations that were not repacked following the Broadcast Incentive Auction to file minor modification applications to expand their signal for the first time in nearly five years.

Earlier this year, television stations that were repacked filed applications specifying facilities on their new channel assignments.  A small group of repacked stations that were unable to build on their assigned channel, and stations that were predicted to receive excessive interference as a result of the repack, were allowed to file applications for different facilities in a priority filing window that closed on September 15.  A second priority window for repacked stations to further modify their facilities is currently underway.  CommLawCenter reported on these various repack milestones here and here.

Today’s announcement alerts full-power and Class A TV stations which were not repacked that the freeze on filing modification applications will be lifted temporarily some time after the second priority window for repacked stations closes on November 2, but before a planned Special Displacement Window for LPTV stations is opened, which is predicted to occur early next year.

Given the timing of those two windows, the odds seem good that the temporary lifting of the freeze will occur before the end of this calendar year.  By allowing these stations to file modification applications before the opening of next year’s LPTV window, the FCC hopes to avoid having LPTV stations file in that window only to find their newly authorized facilities subsequently displaced by full-power and Class A TV stations that have been waiting to file a modification application since 2013.

While the freeze is lifted, applications to modify facilities will be accepted on a first come, first served basis.  Only applications that qualify as minor modifications will be permitted.  The temporary lifting of the freeze also means that processing of modification applications that were pending in April of 2013 can resume.

In this complex game of upgrade chess, LPTV station licensees should file any minor modification applications they are contemplating as soon as possible, since the FCC indicates that the filing of those types of applications will be frozen 30 days prior to the opening of the LPTV Special Displacement Window.  Such is the freeze-thaw cycle at the FCC.

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After the election, it was clear that we would be seeing a much different FCC in 2017. Such transitions typically take time, as a president’s nomination of new candidates to fill the Chairman’s or commissioners’ seats, along with the delay typically associated with obtaining Senate confirmation, means that a new fully-staffed FCC won’t typically be ready for action until May or June following the January change in administrations. By that time, the actions of the prior FCC have often become final and unappealable, or at least the regulated industries have already begun to adapt their operations to comply with those rules, making subsequent changes more complicated.

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As we previously reported, the FCC last year adopted a number of changes to its rules and policies aimed at revitalizing the AM radio service, which for many years has lived in the shadow of the more robust FM service.  One of these changes was to expand the ability of AM broadcasters to use FM translators to rebroadcast their AM signals, thereby improving coverage, particularly at night.  To accomplish this, the FCC gave each AM station the right to file one, and only one, application to move an FM translator up to 250 miles and change the translator’s frequency, provided that it is used to rebroadcast the designated AM station for the next four years.  If that application does not make it through the FCC process for any reason, the broadcaster is barred from filing another.

The FCC gave smaller Class C and D AM stations first crack at its new policy by opening a window on January 29, 2016, during which Class C and D licensees could file modification applications on a first-come, first-served basis.  In other words, if you filed your application on January 29, you trumped anyone who filed a conflicting application after that date.  If parties file mutually exclusive applications on the same day, the applicants need to resolve the mutual exclusivity through settlement negotiations and/or technical amendments (e.g., one or both parties move to a different frequency).

The first window, limited to Class C and D AM stations, closes on July 28, 2016.  On the next day, July 29, a second window opens during which Class A and B AM stations (as well as Class C and D stations that did not file in the first window) may file modification applications to relocate FM translators to be used for AM station rebroadcasts.

AM stations that have not yet filed should keep in mind that:

  1. If you have a Class A or B AM station and plan to relocate an FM translator for AM rebroadcast purposes, you should get your modification application filed on July 29 in order to give yourself the maximum protection against being bumped by an earlier-filed mutually exclusive application.  If you are planning to buy a translator but haven’t actually acquired it yet, there are still ways to get the modification application on file before closing the acquisition.
  2. If you have a Class C or D AM station and plan to relocate an FM translator for rebroadcasts (and haven’t filed a modification application yet), file by July 28.  While Class C and D stations will not be precluded from filing in the second window, July 29 is sure to bring a wave of new modification applications that will change the translator landscape significantly.

But even having these deadlines circled on your calendar won’t help if your modification application is dismissed.  When it comes to modification applications filed in either of these windows, the FCC has made clear that its policy is one and done.  A dismissed application means that you not only lose your place in the processing line, but cannot file again in the windows.  Such a dismissal could occur due not only to deficiencies in the application itself, but also if your deal to acquire the translator falls through.  AM broadcasters buying a translator are therefore well advised to pay careful attention to the due diligence process, the closing conditions in the acquisition agreement, the compliance of the proposed move with FCC technical rules, and their financing for the acquisition.  If a deal falls through, the reason is irrelevant.  You’ll be sitting out the filing window watching your competitors get their FM translators.

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The FCC today announced the application procedures to be used for broadcast stations wishing to participate in the spectrum auction, as well as application procedures for those wishing to purchase that spectrum in the forward auction.  Of particular interest to broadcast stations wishing to participate in the reverse auction is the announcement that the window for filing those auction applications will run from 12 noon Eastern Time on December 1, 2015 to 6pm Eastern Time on December 18, 2015.

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As we reported here, the FCC released its proposals regarding 2015 regulatory fees last May. As August turned into September, licensees were getting anxious as to when the FCC would get around to issuing an order setting the fees and opening the “Fee Filer” online payment system. That happened today with the release of this Public Notice and this Report and Order and Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (note that for the reasons discussed below, these FCC website links will not function correctly until the FCC’s website resumes normal operation on September 8th).

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The FCC has released a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, Report and Order, and Order (really, that’s the title of it) (“NPRM/R&O”) proposing regulatory fees for Fiscal Year 2015 and making other changes to its regulatory fee structure. Comments on the FCC’s proposals are due June 22, 2015, with reply comments due July 6, 2015.

For the fourth consecutive year, the FCC proposed $339,844,000 in regulatory fee payments. The proposed fee tables are attached to the NPRM/R&O as Appendix C and can be used to estimate your likely 2015 regulatory fee burden. Note that effective this year, regulatory fees on Broadcast Auxiliary licenses and Satellite TV construction permits have been eliminated from the fee schedule.

In the NPRM, the FCC requested comment on whether the apportionment of regulatory fees between TV and radio broadcasters should be changed, noting that it expects to collect approximately $28.4 million from radio broadcasters and $23.6 million from TV broadcasters, but that commercial radio stations outnumber commercial TV stations by 10,226 to 4,754. Because the FCC generally allocates regulatory fees based upon the number of FCC employees employed in regulating a particular service, the FCC appears to be suggesting that radio broadcasters may have to shoulder a larger share of the broadcast regulatory fee burden

The FCC also noted that while TV regulatory fees are based upon the size of the DMA in which the TV station is located, radio fees are based upon the population actually served and the class of the station. The NPRM seeks comment on whether changes should be made to this structure, but indicated that any changes made would be unlikely to impact fees this year.

In addition, the FCC requested comment on a petition filed by the Puerto Rico Broadcasters Association requesting regulatory fee relief for broadcasters in Puerto Rico due to economic hardships and population declines specific to Puerto Rico.

Finally, the FCC adopted some changes to its regulatory fee structure. The most significant of these is a new regulatory fee, proposed to be set at $0.12 per subscriber annually, imposed upon direct broadcast satellite (“DBS”) providers (i.e., DISH and DIRECTV). The FCC pointed out that while DBS providers historically have paid regulatory fees with respect to regulation by the International Bureau, they have not paid fees with respect to the Media Bureau which also regulates the service. The payment of fees by DBS providers to recover costs associated with Media Bureau regulation of DBS was teed up in a notice of proposed rulemaking last year and was adopted in the NPRM/R&O.

After comments and reply comments are received, the FCC will release an order setting forth the final 2015 regulatory fee amounts. This order is usually released in August but sometimes isn’t available until September. The order will also establish the precise filing window for submitting regulatory fees, which is typically in the latter part of September.

Those wishing to oppose the proposed regulatory fee changes will need to file their comments and reply comments with the FCC by the respective June 22, 2015 and July 6, 2015 deadlines.

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March 2015
The next Quarterly Issues/Programs List (“Quarterly List”) must be placed in stations’ public inspection files by April 10, 2015, reflecting information for the months of January, February and March 2015.

Content of the Quarterly List

The FCC requires each broadcast station to air a reasonable amount of programming responsive to significant community needs, issues, and problems as determined by the station. The FCC gives each station the discretion to determine which issues facing the community served by the station are the most significant and how best to respond to them in the station’s overall programming.

To demonstrate a station’s compliance with this public interest obligation, the FCC requires the station to maintain and place in the public inspection file a Quarterly List reflecting the “station’s most significant programming treatment of community issues during the preceding three month period.” By its use of the term “most significant,” the FCC has noted that stations are not required to list all responsive programming, but only that programming which provided the most significant treatment of the issues identified.
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In a post today on the FCC’s Blog, Diane Cornell, Special Counsel to Chairman Wheeler, described the FCC’s efforts to reduce backlogs of applications, complaints, and other proceedings pending at the FCC. The post announces that the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau has closed 760 docketed proceedings, and is on track to close another 750 by the end of the year. The post also indicates that the FCC’s Wireless Bureau resolved 2046 applications older than six months, reducing the backlog of applications by 26%.

Of particular interest to broadcasters, however, is the news that the “Enforcement Bureau has largely completed its review of pending complaints, clearing the way for the Media Bureau to grant almost 700 license renewals this week.” Many of these pending complaints were presumably based on indecency claims, which have in recent years created such a backlog of license renewal applications (particularly for TV stations) that it has not been unusual for a station to have multiple license renewal applications pending at the FCC, even though such applications are only filed every eight years.

For those unable to buy or sell a broadcast station, or to refinance its debt, because that station’s license renewal application was hung up at the FCC, this will be welcome news. Just two years ago, the number of indecency complaints pending at the FCC exceeded 1,500,000, dropping to around 500,000 in April of 2013, when the FCC proposed to “focus its indecency enforcement resources on egregious cases and to reduce the backlog of pending broadcast indecency complaints.”

While indecency and other complaints will certainly continue to arrive at the FCC in large numbers given the ease of filing them in the Internet age, today’s news brings hope that most of them will be addressed quickly, and that long-pending license renewal applications will become a rarity at the FCC. That would be welcome news for broadcasters, who frequently found that the application delays caused by such complaints were far worse than any fine the FCC might levy. Such delays were particularly galling in the many cases where the focus of the complaint was content wildly outside the FCC’s definition of indecency (“language or material that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory organs or activities“).

For a number of years, complaints that merely used the word “indecent” were put in the “indecency complaint” stack, resulting in multi-year holds on that station’s FCC applications. I once worked on a case where a politician who had been criticized in a TV’s newscast for his performance in office filed an FCC complaint stating that the station’s comments about him were “indecent”. You guessed it; this exercise of a station’s First Amendment right to criticize a public official resulted in a hold being placed on the station’s FCC applications for years while the complaint sat at the FCC.

The FCC’s efforts to eliminate these delays, and the inordinate leverage such delays gave to even the most frivolous complaints, are an excellent example of the FCC staff working to accomplish the Commission’s public interest mandate. While broadcasters may feel they have not have had many reasons to cheer the FCC in recent years, today’s announcement certainly merits some applause.

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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.