Articles Posted in FCC Enforcement

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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:

  • Texas Wholesaler Fined $22,000 for Using Signal Jamming Device
  • Florida Broadcaster Hit with $125,000 Penalty Over Allegations of Antenna Lighting and Contest Rule Violations
  • FCC Announces Pirate Radio Enforcement Will Target Property Owners and Managers

Texas Wholesale Company in a Jam: Illegal Signal Blocking Device Leads to $22,000 Fine

In a recent Memorandum Opinion and Order, the FCC upheld a $22,000 fine against a consumer goods wholesaler based in Dallas for operating a prohibited cellular signal blocking device, referred to as a signal jammer.

Signal blocking devices can significantly disrupt emergency calling capabilities, and consumer communications more generally, and are therefore banned under the Communications Act and FCC rules.  Section 301 of the Communications Act prohibits radio transmissions without prior FCC authorization, and Section 333 prohibits willful or malicious interference with any licensed or authorized radio communications.  Additionally, Section 302(b) prohibits the manufacture, import, sale, shipment, or use of devices capable of causing harmful interference to authorized radio communications.  Sections 2.805 and 15.1(c) of the FCC’s Rules, implementing Section 302(b), require radio frequency devices to be authorized by the FCC before operation.

In response to a complaint from a cellular company, FCC investigators made an on-site visit in April 2017 to examine interference issues reportedly caused by a signal jammer.  The cellular company claimed that the jammer was likely located on the premises of a Dallas-area wholesale business that, according to the company, had a history of causing interference from the use of signal jammers.  When the investigators arrived, however, they found no jamming device in use.  In discussions with the investigator, the wholesale business owner admitted to operating a signal jammer to prevent employees from using their mobile phones while at work, acknowledged that in February 2017 a representative of the cellular company had warned the wholesaler against using such devices, and claimed that the device had been discarded prior to the investigator’s arrival.  The owner refused to relinquish the device and instead offered to sell the signal jammer to the investigator.   After declining the offer, the investigator issued a Notice of Unlicensed Radio Operation, informing the wholesaler that the use of a signal jammer is illegal.

In July 2017, the Enforcement Bureau issued a Notice of Apparent Liability (NAL) and proposed a $22,000 fine against the wholesaler for use of a signal jamming device.  The wholesaler responded to the NAL, denying that the investigator asked the owner to retrieve the device from the trash, and arguing that the Bureau misapplied the law in calculating the proposed fine amount.  The Bureau considered and rejected the wholesaler’s arguments and imposed the $22,000 fine.

In May 2018, the wholesaler filed a Petition for Reconsideration challenging the fine, citing its history of compliance and offer to surrender the device, and denying that the owner offered to sell the jammer to the investigator.  In the recent Memorandum Opinion and Order, the Bureau again considered and rejected the wholesaler’s arguments.  Applying its procedural rules, the Bureau noted that the Petition raised new facts and arguments that could have been raised in response to the NAL, and therefore dismissed them as procedurally barred, denying the request for a reduction of the fine.  The Bureau also noted that, even if it were to consider the new facts and arguments presented, it would dismiss the arguments on the merits due to the lack of any compliance history with the FCC as a non-license/authorization holder, insufficient evidence regarding relinquishment of the jamming device, and conflicting statements regarding the offer to sell the jamming device to the investigator.  The wholesale company now has 30 days from the release of the Memorandum Opinion and Order to pay the full $22,000 fine.

Florida FM Broadcaster’s Tower Lighting and Contest Rule Troubles Lead to $125,000 Penalty

The Enforcement Bureau entered into a Consent Decree with the licensee of Panama City and Tallahassee-area FM stations to resolve two investigations into contest and tower lighting violations.

The Communications Act and FCC rules regulate on-air contests conducted by television and radio stations to protect the public against misleading and deceptive practices.  Section 73.1216 of the FCC’s Rules provides that a licensee must “fully and accurately disclose the material terms” of a contest it broadcasts, and conduct the contest “substantially as announced and advertised.”  Under Section 73.1208, broadcasters must disclose if program material was previously taped, filmed, or recorded where “time is of special significance,” or “an affirmative attempt is made to create the impression that it is occurring simultaneously with the broadcast.”

Part 17 of the FCC’s Rules, along with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations, set forth monitoring and notice obligations regarding tower lighting systems.  The rules require the owner of an antenna structure to immediately notify the FAA of any lighting outages or other lighting malfunctions.  Tower owners must also notify the FCC within 5 days of any change to the tower’s height or ownership. 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:

  • Louisiana FM Radio Stations’ Late Filings Lead to $3,000 Proposed Fines
  • Telemarketer Fined $9.9 Million for Thousands of Spoofed Robocalls
  • Wi-Fi Device Manufacturer’s Equipment Marketing Violations End with Consent Decree and $250,000 Penalty

Late Filings Come at a Cost: FCC Proposes $3,000 Fines Against Louisiana FM Stations Over Late License Renewal Applications

Earlier this month, the Media Bureau issued Notices of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture (NAL) against two Louisiana FM radio licensees – one a supermax prison and the other a religious noncommercial broadcaster – for filing their respective license renewal applications late.  The FCC proposed a $3,000 fine for each of the late filings.

Section 73.3539(a) of the FCC’s Rules requires broadcast station license renewal applications to be filed four months prior to the license expiration date.  The prison station’s renewal application was due February 3, 2020 (the first business day following the February 1 deadline), but was not filed until May 29, 2020, mere days before its June 1 license expiration.  Similarly, the noncommercial broadcaster’s station, also subject to the February 3 deadline, did not file its renewal application until May 22.

Section 1.80(b) sets a base fine of $3,000 for failure to file a required form, which the FCC can adjust upward or downward depending on the circumstances of the situation, such as the nature, extent, and gravity of the violation.  In these cases, the FCC noted that neither licensee provided an explanation for their untimely filing, and ultimately proposed the full $3,000 fine for each late application.

Each NAL instructs the licensee to respond within 30 days by either: (1) paying the fine, or (2) providing a written statement seeking a reduction or cancellation of the fine along with any relevant supporting documentation.

Neither NAL, however, impacted the FCC’s review of the stations’ license renewal applications themselves.  According to the FCC, the late filings did not constitute “serious violations” and the FCC found no other evidence of a pattern of abuse.  As such, the Commission stated that it would approve each station’s renewal application in a separate proceeding assuming no other issues are uncovered that would preclude grant of a license renewal.

Thousands of Spoofed Political Robocalls End with $9.9 Million Fine

The FCC recently issued a Forfeiture Order, affirming a $9.9 million fine against a California telemarketer for violations of the Communications Act and the FCC’s rules regarding the use of spoofed phone numbers.

Section 227(e) of the Communications Act prohibits using a telephone caller ID service to “knowingly transmit misleading or inaccurate caller identification information with the intent to defraud, cause harm, or wrongfully obtain anything of value[.]”  Moreover, the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) also protects consumers from unwanted calls by imposing numerous restrictions on robocalls.  Such restrictions include requiring the called party’s prior express consent for certain pre-recorded calls to wireless phones and, for pre-recorded messages to wireless or wireline phones, requiring the calling party to identify itself at the beginning of the message and provide a callback number.  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:

  • Rhode Island LPFM Station Issued $15,000 Fine for Underwriting Violations
  • In Reversal, FCC Rescinds Grant of Construction Permit for Portland FM Translator Over Interference Concerns
  • Unauthorized Operations and EAS Violation Result in Proposed $25,000 Fine for Florida LPFM Station

 Rhode Island LPFM Station’s Underwriting Violations Cost $15,000

The FCC’s Enforcement Bureau entered into a Consent Decree with the licensee of a Rhode Island low power FM (LPFM) station to resolve an investigation into violations of the FCC’s underwriting laws and other rules governing the ownership of LPFM stations.

The underwriting laws aim to preserve the unique nature of the commercial-free, local programming LPFM stations provide to the public, and in turn these stations benefit from access to spectrum and fewer regulatory requirements.  To accomplish this, Section 399B of the Communications Act of 1934 and Section 73.503(d) of the FCC’s Rules prohibit such stations from broadcasting promotional announcements on behalf of for-profit entities in exchange for compensation.  The FCC’s rules also place ownership restrictions on LPFM stations, prohibiting (1) a party from holding an attributable interest in another broadcast station; (2) a transfer of control of an LPFM station without first obtaining FCC approval; and (3) a transfer or assignment of an LPFM license within three years from the date of issue.

Between May 2016 and January 2020, the FCC received a series of complaints concerning announcements broadcast by the station.  Specifically, the complaints alleged that the station had broadcast commercial advertisements, and questioned the station’s compliance with the ownership limitations for LPFM stations.  The Enforcement Bureau followed up by issuing multiple letters of inquiry to the broadcaster seeking information regarding the underwriting practices and ownership structure of the station.  In response, the broadcaster admitted that, over a 16-month period, it received compensation for at least 17 announcements aired on behalf of for-profit entities.  The station also acknowledged that one of its board members held an attributable interest in another radio station, and that a transfer of control effectuating a complete change in board membership took place on March 21, 2016, roughly one year after the FCC issued the station license, and without prior FCC approval.  In fact, the required FCC transfer application was not filed until March 14, 2019.

To resolve the investigation, the license holder entered into a Consent Decree with the Enforcement Bureau under which it must pay a $15,000 civil penalty and implement a five-year compliance plan to prevent future violations.

Upon Further Review: FCC Rescinds Oregon FM Translator Construction Permit Grant Over Predicted Interference

In a recent Memorandum Opinion and Order, the FCC reversed the prior grant of a construction permit to the licensee of a Portland, Oregon FM translator station due to concerns over predicted interference to listeners of a local radio station.

Under Section 74.1204(f) of the FCC’s Rules, the Commission will reject applications for FM translator stations if the proposed operation would cause interference to an existing broadcast station.  To prove such interference, a station opposing grant of such an application must provide “convincing evidence” of the impact of the proposed operation on its listeners.  This evidence includes the name and address of affected listeners, certifications or similar evidence from those listeners that they listen to the existing radio station at their address, evidence that such listener’s address is within the 60 dBu contour of the proposed FM translator, and evidence demonstrating that grant of the authorization will result in interference to the listener’s reception of the existing station at that address.  Additionally, the FCC’s rules (which have since been amended to require online public notices) required at the time that applicants seeking authorization to construct an FM translator station publish public notice of the application in the local newspaper to provide the public with an opportunity to participate in the proceeding.

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:

  • Pennsylvania AM Radio Station’s Tower Marking and Lighting Violations End With Consent Decree
  • Unauthorized Transfer of Control Costs Nevada FM Radio Licensee $8,000
  • Arizona Translator Station Violates Construction Permit Terms and Receives $15,000 Penalty

AM Station Enters Into Consent Decree to Settle Tower Marking and Lighting Case

The Enforcement Bureau entered into a Consent Decree with a Pennsylvania AM radio licensee and tower owner to resolve a years-long investigation into violations of the Commission’s tower lighting and marking rules.

Under Part 17 of the FCC’s Rules and in accordance with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requirements, tower owners must comply with various painting, lighting, and notification requirements.  These rules are critical to maintaining air traffic safety, and the FCC imposes    strict requirements regarding tower painting and lighting maintenance.  Specifically, the FCC’s rules require that tower owners: (1) clean and repaint tower structures as frequently as is necessary to maintain good visibility; (2) ensure tower structures conform to the painting and lighting requirements prescribed in their FCC registration; and (3) notify the FAA of any lighting outages.

In response to an anonymous complaint, FCC investigators made several on-site visits in late 2015 and early 2016 to inspect a broadcaster’s antenna structures located in Pennsylvania, and observed faded paint markings and lighting outages on two of the four structures.  In February 2016, the FCC issued a Notice of Violation for the station’s failure to: (1) clean and paint the antenna structures so that their colored markings were sufficiently visible;  (2) keep the structures lit in accordance with the terms of their FCC registration; and (3) timely notify the FAA of the lighting outage.

When presented with the Notice of Violation, the station responded by acknowledging that it was aware of the lighting outage issues and was taking steps to make the needed painting and lighting repairs.  It also claimed that it had tried to notify the FAA about the lighting outage only to find that the FCC investigators had already filed a notification.

Returning for a reinspection several months later, FCC investigators found that the station had still not remedied any of the violations.  As a result, the FCC issued a Notice of Apparent Liability (NAL) in December 2016  proposing a $25,000 fine, and instructed the station to either pay the amount in full or submit to the Enforcement Bureau justification for a reduction or cancellation of the fine.

The station followed up with numerous filings at the FCC, including a submission to the Commission’s Office of Managing Director seeking reconsideration of the NAL, but the filings failed to properly respond to the Enforcement Bureau, as directed in the NAL.  In July 2019, the FCC issued a Forfeiture Order, noting these procedural failures and ordering payment of the full $25,000 fine.  The station submitted a petition seeking reconsideration of the Forfeiture Order in August 2019.

To finally resolve the matter, the FCC entered into a Consent Decree with the station owner under which the station will pay a reduced $1,900 penalty, certify that each of its antenna structures complies with Part 17 of the FCC’s Rules, and adopt a comprehensive compliance plan to prevent future violations.

Nevada FM Licensee Hit with $8,000 Penalty for Improper Transfer of Control

In a recently adopted Consent Decree, the Media Bureau settled an investigation into an FM radio licensee for conducting a transfer of control without prior Commission approval.

Section 310(d) of the Communications Act prohibits the transfer of control of a station license without first obtaining FCC approval.  Under Section 73.3540 of the FCC’s Rules, a licensee seeking such approval must file an application on FCC Form 315 at least 45 days before the anticipated effective date of the transfer of control. 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:

  • More Stations Settle with FCC Over Political File Violations
  • FCC Fines Drone Retailer Nearly $3 Million for Marketing Unauthorized Devices
  • California FM Translator Fined for Operating Above Power Limits

Political Ad Troubles Continue: Dozens of Radio Stations Settle With FCC Over Political File Violations

As election season heats up, the FCC remains focused on broadcasters’ Political File recordkeeping.  In the past month alone, the Media Bureau has entered into scores of consent decrees with radio broadcasters stemming from violations of the Commission’s Political File rules.  This barrage of enforcement actions follows similar settlements reached last month (covered here).

This month’s consent decrees continue to involve obligations under Section 315(e)(1) of the Communications Act, which requires broadcasters to place in their Political File records of requests to purchase political advertising time made: (1) by or on behalf of a candidate for public office (i.e., federal, state, or local candidates); or (2) by a non-candidate third party whose ad communicates a message relating to a “political matter of national importance.”  Section 73.1943 of the FCC’s Rules requires stations to upload this documentation “as soon as possible,” which the FCC considers to be “immediately absent unusual circumstances.”  The FCC has repeatedly emphasized that these recordkeeping requirements are essential to a candidate’s ability to assert a right to equal time over the airwaves, as well as to keep the electorate informed so that they can evaluate the validity of political messages and hold political interests accountable.

The investigations arose from issues identified in each of the affected stations’ license renewal applications.  The license renewal application form requires stations to certify compliance with the FCC’s Public Inspection File rule, and the Political File is part of the Public Inspection File.  For stations that were unable to make this certification, further investigations uncovered deficient Political File records in a number of cases.

In particular, FCC staff indicated that failures to timely upload political file materials has been a recurring problem, and that when the rules say that records of a request to purchase airtime must be uploaded to the Public File “as soon as possible,” the FCC interprets that to mean within one business day of the date of the request.

The recent flood of consent decrees has increased awareness of broadcasters’ Political File obligations and has brought recordkeeping and other related compliance issues to the forefront for broadcasters both large and small.  While last month saw settlements involving six large radio broadcasters operating roughly 1,900 stations nationwide, recent actions have targeted licensees controlling just a handful of stations.

While the settlements to date have not included monetary payments, by entering into consent decrees, the licensees are now on the hook for additional compliance measures, including preparing and implementing comprehensive compliance plans, along with filing periodic FCC compliance reports.

Political File obligations continue to be some of the most nuanced and complicated rules the FCC enforces, and the FCC’s guidance in this area continues to evolve.  Stations are therefore advised to work closely with counsel to understand their obligations and develop procedures to ensure compliance.  Additional information on the political broadcasting rules is also available in our Advisory on the subject.

Drone Retailer Hit with Nearly $3 Million Fine for Marketing Unauthorized Devices

The FCC recently issued a $2,861,128 fine against a large online drone retailer for marketing unauthorized drone equipment and failing to fully respond to a Commission request for information in the course of the investigation.

Section 302 of the Communications Act restricts the manufacture, import, sale, or shipment of devices capable of causing harmful interference to radio communications.  In addition, under Section 2.803(b) of the FCC’s Rules, devices that emit radiofrequency (RF) energy must first undergo the Commission’s equipment authorization procedures before being marketed for sale in the United States.  Such devices must also adhere to strict identification and labeling requirements.

Following several complaints about the company’s marketing of noncompliant RF transmitters intended for use in operating drones, the FCC’s Spectrum Enforcement Division issued a Letter of Inquiry (“LOI”) in January 2016 seeking information and documents related to the allegations. 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 Six Major Radio Groups Over Political File Violations
  • Texas Radio Stations Face Proposed Fines for Contest Rule Violations
  • $15,000 Fine Proposed for LPFM Station Airing Commercial Ads

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:

  • Time Off the Air Leads to License Termination for North Dakota Radio Station
  • FCC Enters Into Consent Decree With Tech Company Imposing $250,000 Civil Penalty for Unlawful License Transfers and Failure to Disclose a Felony
  • Virginia Radio Station Faces Proposed $7,000 Fine and Reduced License Term Over Failure to Timely File its Renewal Application

The Sound of Silence: North Dakota Radio Station Faces License Termination After Prolonged Period Off-Air

After going off the air and remaining silent due to financial concerns, an FM station’s license was revoked for failure to timely resume operations.

Section 73.1740(a)(4) of the FCC’s Rules permits a licensee to temporarily discontinue operations for up to 30 days provided that the licensee: (1) notifies the FCC by the tenth day of discontinued operations, and (2) requests authorization from the Commission to remain silent for any period beyond 30 days. However, Section 312(g) of the Communications Act of 1934 provides that a broadcast station’s license automatically expires if it does not transmit a broadcast signal for 12 consecutive months. The FCC may extend or reinstate a license terminated by virtue of this provision if doing so would “promote equity and fairness.”

On August 15, 2018, the North Dakota licensee took the station off the air due to financial concerns. After several months of radio silence, the station finally requested special temporary authority (STA) to remain silent on October 30. Despite the delay, the FCC granted the STA for a period of 180 days, cautioning that the station’s license would expire as a matter of law if operations did not resume by 12:01 a.m. on August 16, 2019, when the station would reach 12 months of silent status. The Commission also noted that the STA request had failed to meet both the 10-day notification requirement and the 30-day deadline for seeking authorization for discontinued operations. At the end of the authorized 180 days, the licensee sought an extension of the STA, which the FCC granted, again reminding the licensee of the August 16, 2019 deadline to resume operations. 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:

  • Wireless Internet Provider Hit With $25,000 Proposed Fine for Interference Caused by Network Equipment
  • Unauthorized License Transfers Lead to Consent Decree and $70,000 Civil Penalty
  • FCC Issues Notice of Violation to AM Daytimer Operating Past Sunset

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:

  • Radio Skit Gone Wrong Draws $20,000 Proposed Fine for False Emergency Alert
  • Wireless Microphones Operating on Unauthorized Frequencies Generate Hefty Proposed Fine
  • FCC Issues Citation to Convenience Store Over Errant Surveillance Equipment

No Laughing Matter: Emergency Alert Parody Leads to Proposed $20,000 Fine Against New York FM Station

The FCC recently issued a Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture proposing a $20,000 fine against a New York radio station for airing a false emergency alert.  As we have written in the past, the FCC strictly enforces its rules against airing false Emergency Alert System (“EAS”) tones, arguing that false alerts undermine public confidence in the alert system.

The EAS system is a public warning system utilizing broadcast stations, cable systems, satellite providers, and other video programming systems to permit the President to rapidly communicate with the public during an emergency.  Federal, state and local authorities also use the EAS system to deliver localized emergency information.  The FCC’s rules expressly forbid airing EAS codes, the EAS Attention Signal (the jarring long beep), or a recording or simulation of these tones in any circumstance other than in an actual emergency, during an authorized test, or as part of an authorized public service announcement.  Besides desensitizing the public to alerts in cases of real emergencies, the data embedded in the codes can trigger false activations of emergency alerts on other stations.

On October 3, 2018, FEMA, in coordination with the FCC, conducted a nationwide test of the EAS and Wireless Emergency Alert (“WEA”) systems.  Shortly afterwards, the FCC received a complaint that a New York FM station transmitted an EAS tone during an on-air skit lampooning the scheduled test.  The FCC issued a Letter of Inquiry to the station, demanding a recording of the program and sworn statements regarding whether the tone was, in fact, improperly transmitted.

In response, the station confirmed that it aired the EAS Attention Signal as part of a skit produced by a station employee.  When reviewing the skit before airing, the station spotted an improper EAS header code in it, and told the employee to delete it.  However, the employee merely replaced the header code with a one-second portion of the EAS Attention Signal.  The station then approved and aired the program.

In response, the FCC found that the segment violated its rules, noting that the “use of the Attention Signal in a parody of the first nationwide test of the EAS and WEA is specifically the type of behavior section 11.45 seeks to prevent.”  The FCC also noted that the brief duration of the tone aired was not a defense to a finding of violation.

As a result, the FCC proposed a $20,000 fine.  Although the base fine for airing a false EAS alert is $8,000, the FCC concluded that the circumstances surrounding this case warranted an upward adjustment.  In particular, the FCC stressed the gravity of the situation, noting that the broadcaster aired the false alert on one of the highest-ranking stations in New York City, which itself is the nation’s largest radio market.  Given these facts, the FCC proposed a $20,000 fine.  The station has thirty days to either pay the fine, or present evidence to the FCC justifying reduction or cancellation of it.

A Broad Spectrum of Violations Creates Problems for Wireless Microphone Retailer

In a recently-issued Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture, the FCC proposed a $685,338 fine against a seller of wireless microphones, asserting that the retailer advertised 32 models of noncompliant wireless microphones.

The FCC allocates radiofrequency spectrum for specific uses, with particular attention given to the potential for harmful interference to other users.  The FCC has made certain bands available for use by wireless microphones, with technical rules varying depending on the particular band used.  For manufacturers and retailers, this means their devices must be designed to operate only within the permitted frequency bands.

Under Section 302(b) of the Communications Act, “[n]o person shall manufacture, import, sell, offer for sale, or ship devices or home electronic equipment and systems, or use devices, which fail to comply with regulations promulgated pursuant to [FCC Rules]”.  Section 74.851(f) of the FCC’s Rules requires devices that emit radiofrequency energy (like wireless microphones) to be approved in accordance with the FCC’s certification procedures before being marketed and sold in the United States.  Such devices are also subject to identification and labeling requirements. 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:

  • Rebroadcast Changes Lead to FM Translator Station Fine
  • Delinquent Regulatory Fees Threaten AM Station License
  • Procedural Missteps Lead to Dismissal of Stations’ Applications in Administrative Proceeding

North Carolina FM Translator’s Primary Station Change Leads to Fine

Following a Notice of Apparent Liability issued last year, the FCC recently issued a Forfeiture Order fining a North Carolina FM Translator station $2,000 for changing the station it rebroadcasts without notifying the Commission.  However, in an oversight by the FCC, the Order was issued in error as the station had already paid the outstanding fine.

Sections 74.1232(b) and 74.1251(c) of the FCC’s Rules set forth eligibility, licensing, and other technical rules applicable to FM translator stations.  Under Section 74.1232(b), an entity may not hold multiple FM translator licenses to retransmit the same signal to substantially the same area without showing a “technical need” for an additional station.  Section 74.1251(c) requires a translator licensee to notify the FCC in writing if it changes the primary station it rebroadcasts.

The Media Bureau’s investigation began in response to a Petition for Reconsideration challenging the grant of a construction permit for the translator station.  The licensee originally applied for the permit in July 2018, but amended its application to change its primary station.  The Bureau granted the amended application the following month.

In its filing, the petitioner acknowledged that it was not a party to the application proceeding, but argued that it was effectively precluded from participating because the FCC granted the application only ten days after the amended application was placed on public notice.  The Commission ultimately dismissed the challenge, determining that ten days is a reasonable amount of time to prepare and file a pleading and further concluded that the petitioner had sufficient notice of the amended application.  The Commission also found that reconsideration of the application grant is not required in the public interest under the FCC’s rules.

In April 2019, the station filed a license application for the now-constructed station, which the Commission granted shortly thereafter.  In response, the petitioner filed a new petition contesting the grant of the license itself claiming that (1) there was no “technical need” for the translator, such as issues with poor signal quality, and (2) the translator was not operating as authorized.  This petition prompted the FCC’s review of the station’s rebroadcasting practices.

In December 2019, the FCC issued a Memorandum Opinion and Order and Notice of Apparent Liability that again rejected the petitioner’s argument that there was no “technical need” for the translator station, noting that this issue is considered at the permitting, not the licensing phase, and that a showing of technical need is only required when the same party proposes to own more than one translator rebroadcasting the same signal in substantially the same area.

The FCC did, however, conclude that the station violated the FCC’s rules by rebroadcasting a station not specified in its authorization without notifying the FCC.  The FCC found that for roughly a month, the translator rebroadcast a nearby AM station, rather than the FM station specified in its license.

Despite these violations, the FCC concluded that permittees are entitled to a “high degree of protection” and a presumption that the Commission’s public interest determination in granting the permit should remain in effect unless it is shown that the station’s operation would go against the public interest.  As a result, the Commission dismissed the license challenge and instead proposed a fine to resolve the violations.

The Notice of Apparent Liability proposed a $2,000 fine.  Although the base fine amount for failure to file required information is $3,000, and $4,000 for unauthorized transmissions, the FCC proposed the reduced fine due to the short duration of the violations and a lack of history of prior offenses.  The Commission recently followed this NAL with a Forfeiture Order requiring the station to pay the $2,000 fine or file a written statement justifying a reduction or cancellation of the fine.  Days later, however, the Commission issued a separate order cancelling the Forfeiture Order, noting that the station had actually already paid the fine, and indicating that the Forfeiture Order was therefore “issued in error”.

Delinquent Payments Come at a High Price: Failure to Pay Regulatory Fees Threatens California AM Station

As previous CommLawCenter posts demonstrate, failure to pay regulatory fees can lead to significant penalties, including license revocation.  In one recent example, the FCC initiated a license revocation proceeding against a California AM station, ordering it to either pay its delinquent regulatory fees or demonstrate why no payment is due.

Section 9 of the Communications Act (the “Act”) requires the FCC to “assess and collect regulatory fees” to recover the costs of its regulatory activities.  When a payment is late or incomplete, a monetary penalty equal to 25 percent of the fee amount owed will be assessed.  The Act also requires the FCC to charge interest on the debt owed.  In addition to these monetary penalties, Section 9A(c)(4) of the Act and Section 1.1164(f) of the FCC’s Rules provide that the FCC may revoke a licensee’s authorization for failure to timely pay regulatory fees.  If the FCC wishes to pursue that option, the licensee must be given at least 60 days to either pay the debt or demonstrate why the fees are inapplicable.  Although applied sparingly by the FCC, the Commission may waive, reduce, or defer payment of the debt where a party demonstrates “extraordinary circumstances” that outweigh the public interest in recovering the regulatory fees. Continue reading →