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:

  • 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

Winter Comes for FM Station With Unpaid Regulatory Fees

The FCC’s Media Bureau published a trio of orders this month relating to the unpaid regulatory fees of three unrelated FM stations.  In the most severe case, the Media Bureau revoked the license of a Massachusetts station, ordering it to cease operations immediately.  The Bureau also initiated license revocation proceedings for overdue fees from stations in Illinois and Louisiana.

The Communications Act requires the FCC to assess and collect regulatory fees for certain regulated activities, including broadcast radio.  The FCC assesses a 25 percent penalty on any late or missing payments.  Failure to pay these regulatory fees or related penalties is grounds for license revocation.

The Media Bureau initially sent the Massachusetts licensee several Demand Letters requiring payment of delinquent fees.  The licensee did not respond to them.  Subsequently, in November 2018, the Media Bureau issued an Order to Pay or to Show Cause, which required the licensee to either pay its overdue fees or demonstrate why it did not owe them.  As we discussed at the time, between fiscal years 2014 and 2018, the licensee had accumulated a debt to the FCC of $9,641.73 in unpaid fees and related charges.  After the licensee failed to respond to the November Order, the Media Bureau issued a Revocation Order.  This “death sentence” terminates the licensee’s authority to operate the station and deletes the station’s call sign from FCC databases.

Shortly after releasing the Revocation Order, the Media Bureau issued two separate Orders to Pay or to Show Cause to the licensees of FM stations in Louisiana and Illinois.  According to the Media Bureau, the Louisiana licensee owes the FCC $11,386.77 in regulatory fees, interest, penalties, and other charges for fiscal years 2009, 2011-2014, and 2017, and the Illinois licensee owes $17,296.21 for fiscal years 2007, 2009, 2010, 2012, and 2013.  The Media Bureau had previously sent various notices and Demand Letters to the licensees regarding the overdue amounts without success.

The Louisiana and Illinois licensees each have 60 days in which to submit evidence showing that either full payment has been made, or that payment should be waived or deferred, lest they suffer the same fate as the Massachusetts FM station.

Who Monitors the Monitoring Points?  FCC Warns Texas AM Station Over Multiple Tower and Transmission Violations

The FCC’s Enforcement Bureau issued a Notice of Violation (“NOV”) against the tower owner and licensee of a Dallas-area AM station for improper tower painting and lighting and for operating at variance from its license. Continue reading →

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Pillsbury’s communications lawyers have published FCC Enforcement Monitor monthly since 1999 to inform our clients of notable FCC enforcement actions against FCC license holders and others.  This month’s issue includes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pillsbury’s communications lawyers have published FCC Enforcement Monitor monthly since 1999 to inform our clients of notable FCC enforcement actions against FCC license holders and others.  This month’s issue includes:

Headlines:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pillsbury’s communications lawyers have published FCC Enforcement Monitor monthly since 1999 to inform our clients of notable FCC enforcement actions against FCC license holders and others.  This month’s issue includes:

Headlines:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sometimes it seems the world really is out to get you.

Being in a highly regulated business, broadcasters are quite dedicated to meeting regulatory obligations.  More specifically, being subject to fines (or worse) for every shortcoming makes the average broadcaster not just diligent, but justifiably paranoid in ensuring that every regulatory requirement has been met and checked off the list.  Events like government shutdowns therefore give broadcasters particular angst as they throw the normal processes and routines for compliance into disarray.

We discussed this in a post last week, which parsed obligations that must be met even while the FCC is closed from those for which a broadcaster has no option but to wait until the FCC reopens.  As detailed in that post, the distinction is not always a commonsense one.  For example, we noted that stations must still prepare various quarterly reports for placement in the Public Inspection File by January 10th, but that those reports cannot actually be uploaded to the online Public File until the FCC reopens, as the FCC took its Public Inspection File database offline when it closed on January 3rd, making it impossible for stations to upload those reports.

I therefore listened with interest when a broadcaster indicated last night that after four days of being dark, the FCC’s online Public Inspection File database was suddenly working again.  That seemed unlikely, and sure enough, when I tried to access the database, I was redirected to a page announcing the FCC’s closure during the federal shutdown.  When I noted this, the broadcaster responded that not only was he successfully uploading his Public File documents, but that the “ticker” on the FCC’s website listing recent Public File uploads indicated stations from all over the country were uploading reports at a frantic pace.

I asked for the link he was using, and it took me to what appeared to be the opening page of the FCC’s shuttered online Public File database, including the familiar “Sign in” link and recent uploads ticker on the right side of the screen.  I could successfully sign in on behalf of clients, and on my first visit, the ticker indicated that eight different stations had filed more than a dozen documents in just the past six minutes.  Each time I went back to the page, the ticker had updated, listing more recent uploads by a totally different batch of stations.  Since the ticker only shows the most recent dozen or so uploads, it was impossible to know how many stations had recently uploaded documents to the site, but I counted more than 50 different radio and TV call signs in an hour.

The website looked like the online Public File database in every respect.  It included Public Files for, as best as I could tell, every station in the country that has a Public File, and most convincingly of all, listed all of the uploaded Public File documents for each and every station.  In other words, it did indeed look like the FCC had restored access to the Public File database or that stations had found a backdoor way into it.

Upon closer inspection, however, it took on the appearance of a movie set—all facades without anything behind them.  It listed the various documents in a station’s Public File, including the time of uploading and the precise file size, but clicking on those documents revealed only dead links.  Also suspicious was that it was only up-to-date through September 2018.  The Third Quarter filings stations would have made by October 10th, 2018 were missing across the board with one exception—those stations that had uploaded them in the past few days after apparently spotting them as being missing from the database.  Indeed, the only links to documents that actually took you to a document seemed to be those uploaded in the past few days; older document listings were just dead links.

Given the eerie accuracy of these station Public Files and their odd shortcomings, it seemed clear that they represented a snapshot of stations’ Public Files as they existed in the latter part of September 2018—doppelgangers of stations’ real Public Files, but definitely not the genuine article.  When I asked where the broadcaster had obtained the link, I was told “Google”, and sure enough, when you search for “public inspection file” on Google, it is the first search result listed.  Those interested can find the site here.  Just don’t waste your time uploading any documents to it.

The reason reveals itself when you take a closer look at the link address: https://publicfiles-demo.fcc.gov.  The good news is that it is an actual FCC website and not a phishing website designed to steal station passwords, etc.  The bad news is that it is, as the web address suggests, just a demo site created by the FCC to demonstrate how to use the online Public File database (which all broadcast stations are now required to use).  Its demo nature was confirmed when I found a reference to it in a 2016 post we published here on CommLawCenter.  The FCC launched it on May 12, 2016 for training purposes when it moved TV stations and the first group of radio stations to its new online Public File database.

It is pretty much identical to the real online Public File database in every way, but there is one big difference—the demo site is still functioning, while trying to go to the real database takes you instead to an FCC shutdown notice.

Curiously, there is no hint anywhere on the demo webpage that it is just a demo and not the real online Public File database.  It being a demo does, however, explain why the FCC didn’t bother shutting it down when it shut down many of its other databases.  Unfortunately, when the real database became unavailable, many broadcasters came upon this site through Google or other search engines, and either failed to notice it wasn’t the real Public File database, or thought they had found a way around the FCC’s closed front door to the database.

While it is certainly unfortunate that a lot of stations appear to have wasted a lot of time uploading their Public File documents to a faux database, the far more insidious impact is that these stations have now been misled into believing they have successfully completed their uploads.  As a result, when the FCC eventually reopens and the real online Public File database is made available, these stations won’t know to upload their documents to the correct database, leaving them vulnerable to license renewal challenges and Public File fines (the FCC’s base fine for a Public Inspection File violation is $10,000).  If you hear from any broadcasters claiming that they were able to successfully upload their quarterly Public File reports while the FCC was closed, please disabuse them of that notion.  Let them know that they could not have, and that they need to upload those documents to the correct database no later than the day after the day the FCC reopens.

But that isn’t the end of this already stranger-than-fiction story.  At the beginning of December 2018, the FCC sent emails to over 1,000 radio stations indicating that the FCC had determined from a review of its online Public File database that those stations had failed to populate their online Public Files.  Those emails asked the stations to acknowledge receipt and to respond by providing the FCC with a date by which each station would “complete the upload of all required information.”

At the time the emails went out, I heard from a number of stations that were totally baffled by the FCC’s assertion that they had not uploaded everything, as they were sure they had.  In addition, it seemed incredibly unlikely that such a large number of radio stations could have failed to migrate their Public Files to the FCC’s online database.  It represented a real unsolved mystery, and many of us were intrigued as to what could possibly explain it when the requirement to move radio Public Files online had been so heavily publicized (for example, just here on CommLawCenter, you’ll find it discussed here, here, here, here, here, and here).

Now, however, I’m thinking we may have solved this mystery.  It is indeed possible for the FCC’s assertion that a large number of radio stations have empty online Public Files, and the assertion from many of those stations that they have already uploaded their Public Files, to both be true.  Ironically, in creating the demo site, the FCC was attempting to help broadcasters, but in leaving it up, the FCC has unwittingly set a trap for stations that continues to swallow innocent victims hourly.  I’m betting that a lot of those missing Public Files can be found at the FCC’s online Public File demo site https://publicfiles-demo.fcc.gov—the Bermuda Triangle of online Public File uploads.

[Postscript: In response to the publication of this post, the FCC has taken the demo database offline, preventing more stations from falling into this trap.  While that is obviously a good result overall, it unfortunately means that: (1) communications counsel now cannot determine whether stations they represent mistakenly uploaded to the demo site instead of the real one in order to notify those clients, and (2) stations that mistakenly uploaded their entire Public File to the demo site long before the FCC shutdown have lost the ability to access it in order to demonstrate to the FCC that they made a good faith effort to upload their Public File (albeit to the wrong database).  As a result, stations will need to talk to their employees handling Public File matters and ascertain directly from them what they have uploaded and to where to ensure that, as soon as the FCC reopens, the appropriate Public File documents are uploaded to the correct FCC database.] 

Published on:

Pillsbury’s communications lawyers have published FCC Enforcement Monitor monthly since 1999 to inform our clients of notable FCC enforcement actions against FCC license holders and others.  This month’s issue includes:

Headlines:

  • Unpaid Regulatory Fees Bring License Revocation Proceeding for Massachusetts FM Station
  • Unregistered Tower and Unauthorized Silence Spell Trouble for North Carolina AM Station
  • FCC Issues Warning to Denver Trucking Company for Unauthorized Transmissions on Public Safety Frequency

The Check is (Not) in the Mail: Massachusetts Station Risks Revocation over Missing Regulatory Fees

The FCC’s Media Bureau issued an Order to Pay or to Show Cause (“Order”) to the licensee of a Massachusetts FM station for failing to pay five years’ worth of regulatory fees and the corresponding penalty fees.  In response to the Order, the licensee must either pay the overdue fees or demonstrate why it does not owe regulatory fees.  The Order also launches a proceeding to revoke the station’s broadcast license.

Section 9 of the Communications Act (“Act”) requires the FCC to “assess and collect regulatory fees” for certain regulated activities, including broadcast radio.  Should a party fail to timely pay such fees, the FCC will assess a 25% late fee, as well as interest, penalties and administrative costs.  The FCC may also revoke licenses for failure to pay.

The licensee failed to pay its regulatory fees between fiscal years 2014 and 2018, and has accumulated a debt of $9,641.73 in unpaid fees and related charges.  The FCC repeatedly sent the licensee Demand Letters calling for payment but received no response.  The FCC eventually transferred the licensee’s debt for fiscal years 2014-2017 to the Treasury Department for collection.  At the FCC’s request, the Treasury Department recently transferred this debt back to the FCC in order to consolidate the collection process.

The licensee has 60 days to either: (1) provide the FCC with documented evidence that all its regulatory fee debt has been paid, or (2) show cause for why such payment is either “inapplicable or should otherwise be waived or deferred.”

Failure to provide a satisfactory response to the Order may result in the revocation of the licensee’s sole FM station license.

Silent Night: FCC Investigates North Carolina Licensee for Unregistered Tower and Other Violations

The FCC’s Enforcement Bureau issued a Notice of Violation (“NOV”) to the licensee of a North Carolina AM radio station for failing to register and light its tower, and for failure to operate its station in accordance with the FCC’s Rules.

Part 17 of the FCC’s Rules requires a tower owner to comply with various registration, lighting and painting requirements.  With limited exceptions, a tower that exceeds 200 feet in height above ground level must be registered with the FCC.  Further, towers must be painted and lighted in compliance with FAA requirements, and any extinguished or improperly functioning lights must be reported to the FAA if the problem is not corrected within 30 minutes.

Part 73 of the FCC’s Rules sets minimum operating hours for commercial broadcast stations.  A commercial AM station must operate for at least two-thirds of the total hours it is authorized to operate between the hours of 6 a.m. and 6 p.m., and two-thirds of the total hours it is authorized to operate between 6 p.m. and midnight every day except Sunday.  A station that expects to be silent for over 30 days must seek and obtain Special Temporary Authority (“STA”) from the FCC to be silent for such an extended period. Continue reading →

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Pillsbury’s communications lawyers have published FCC Enforcement Monitor monthly since 1999 to inform our clients of notable FCC enforcement actions against FCC license holders and others.  This month’s issue includes:

Headlines:

  • Premature Construction Turns Texas LPFM’s Minor Change into a Major Fine
  • FCC Issues Notice of Violation to Miami LPFM Licensee for Unauthorized Antenna Location
  • California Man Pleads Guilty to FCC Bomb Threat, Fatal “Swatting” Hoax

Houston, We Have a Problem: Media Bureau Proposes $5,000 Fine for Unapproved Construction of a Broadcast Facility

The FCC’s Media Bureau issued a Notice of Apparent Liability (“NAL”) to the licensee of a Houston-area low power FM (“LPFM”) station for engaging in premature construction of broadcast facilities.

Section 319(a) of the Communications Act (“Act”) prohibits the FCC from licensing an applicant to operate broadcast facilities unless that applicant has previously obtained a construction permit from the FCC to build those specific facilities.  A construction permit sets out the facilities and operating parameters for a proposed station, including the station’s frequency allotment.  Though an applicant may initiate certain pre-construction measures, including site clearance and purchase of broadcast equipment that is not specific to the station (e.g., generic studio equipment, but not a frequency-tuned antenna), the applicant may not take more substantive steps until it has a construction permit in hand.

In seeking a construction permit, an applicant must show that its proposed service contour is sufficiently distant from other stations operating on the same or adjacent frequencies as to ensure no interference will be created to existing stations.  If the proposed LPFM facilities do not satisfy the minimum geographic distances set out in Section 73.807 of the FCC’s Rules, the applicant must obtain a waiver of those requirements by demonstrating that the proposed operation will not result in actual interference.  For example, an applicant might be able to demonstrate that intervening terrain (mountains) will block the interfering signal.

According to the NAL, the LPFM applicant filed for a construction permit to modify its existing facilities.  Because the proposed site would not satisfy the minimum distance requirements for two local second-adjacent FM stations, the licensee also filed a waiver request purporting to demonstrate that the proposed service contour would not reach the two FM stations’ potential listeners.

Before the Commission granted either of these requests, it received a Petition to Deny from another local station, alleging that the licensee had prematurely begun construction on the proposed site without prior FCC approval.  The petition alleged that the licensee had mounted an antenna on an existing tower and had already proceeded to attach a transmission line to the antenna, in contravention of the prohibition on premature construction.

The petition also alleged that the waiver request was “flawed” because it did not sufficiently protect local listeners of the two second-adjacent FM stations.  According to the petition, the waiver application assumed its contour would only reach one-story structures, when, in fact, several surrounding structures were two-story.

In response, the applicant swiftly removed its equipment from the tower only three weeks after it had installed it.  In a later amendment, the applicant also proposed operating at a lower power level with a different antenna to reduce the likelihood of interference to nearby two-story buildings.

Nearly ten months later, the Media Bureau issued the NAL, proposing a $5,000 fine for the applicant’s premature construction.  Though the FCC’s Rules establish a base fine of $10,000 for unauthorized construction, the Media Bureau adjusted this amount downward, citing the brief duration of the violation and the licensee’s prior history of compliance.

The Media Bureau indicated that once the fine was “resolved,” and assuming no additional issues emerged, it intended to grant the waiver and related modification application, finding that the applicant’s new engineering solution was sufficient to prevent interference to the nearby second-adjacent stations.

Technical Foul: Miami Licensee Cited for Unauthorized Facilities

In another case involving an LPFM, the Enforcement Bureau presented a Notice of Violation (“NOV”) to the licensee of a Miami station for operating at variance from the station’s authorization.  As with all other broadcast operations, LPFM stations must operate in compliance with the Commission’s technical rules and with the station’s own authorization.

In August of this year, FCC field agents investigated the Miami LPFM and found violations in nearly every aspect of the station’s operation.  At the time of the investigation, the station’s license authorized it to operate on 107.9 MHz in southern Miami at a height of 62 meters.  Two months prior, the station had been granted a construction permit to operate four miles west of its original location on a new frequency and at a height of 15 meters.

When the field agents located the actual transmission facilities, however, they found that the licensee was operating at a completely different location several miles away from both its licensed and newly-authorized coordinates.  The station was also using an antenna located 45 meters above ground. Continue reading →

Published on:

Pillsbury’s communications lawyers have published FCC Enforcement Monitor monthly since 1999 to inform our clients of notable FCC enforcement actions against FCC license holders and others.  This month’s issue includes:

Headlines:

  • Ownership Questions Lead to Hearing Designation Order for LPFM Licensee
  • NC Man Hit with $40,000 Fine for Unauthorized Transmissions Over Public Safety Radio
  • FCC Issues Notice to Hospital Paging System Licensee for Harmful Interference

FCC Launches Hearing in Response to LPFM’s Undisclosed Foreign Ownership

The FCC has designated for hearing a Low Power FM (“LPFM”) licensee’s modification application after an investigation into whether the licensee misrepresented the makeup and citizenship of its ownership in various Commission filings.

Under Section 309 of the Communications Act (“Act”), the FCC must first determine that the public interest will be served before it can grant a station license or modification application.  If there is a substantial question that prevents the Commission from making that determination, it must designate the application for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”).  The FCC can revoke the license if an ALJ determines that the applicant lacks the “requisite qualifications” to be a licensee, taking into consideration the applicant’s record, character, and truthfulness in dealings with the FCC.

The Act also prohibits entities with greater than 20% alien ownership or voting control from holding a broadcast license where the FCC finds such foreign ownership is not in the public interest.  Many FCC filings require the licensee to identify all officers, directors, and entities with attributable ownership interests in the licensee, including their citizenship.

According to the Hearing Designation Order (“HDO”), the Missouri-based licensee initially applied for a construction permit for a new LPFM station in 2013.  In that application, the licensee listed five individuals as board members and identified all of them as U.S. citizens.  In two separate modification applications in January and November 2017, the licensee identified the same board members as U.S. citizens.

The Enforcement Bureau began its investigation after another licensee alleged that four of the five listed board members were not actually U.S. citizens.  The Bureau discovered that one of the board members had, only weeks before the licensee’s January application, lost an appeal before a federal court to reopen his deportation order to Guatemala.  The court decision referred to him as a Guatemalan citizen.  His wife, another board member, had already been deported to Guatemala.  These revelations indicated that foreign ownership and control of the licensee not only exceeded 20 percent, but that the licensee had also falsely certified the U.S. citizenship of the two board members.

In addition to questions of citizenship, the Bureau also found evidence that the licensee may not have even identified all individuals with attributable interests in the licensee.  Specifically, in documents filed with the Missouri Secretary of State, the licensee listed several officers and board members that it had not disclosed to the FCC.

According to the FCC, these discoveries raised a “substantial and material question of fact” as to whether the licensee misrepresented to the Commission both the makeup and the citizenship of its attributable owners.

The FCC sent the licensee two Letters of Inquiry seeking information about the licensee’s board members, but never received any response.  Failure to respond to a Commission inquiry is also a violation of the FCC’s Rules.

As a result, the FCC commenced an administrative hearing to determine whether the licensee: (1) made misrepresentations in its applications; (2) violated the Commission’s foreign ownership rules; (3) failed to maintain the accuracy of its pending application; and (4) failed to respond to the FCC’s inquiries.

In light of these questions, the ALJ must also examine the facts to determine whether granting the licensee’s pending application is in the public interest, and whether the licensee is even qualified to hold an FCC license at all.

FCC Proposes $40,000 Fine for Impersonating a Firefighter

In a Notice of Apparent Liability (“NAL”), the FCC found a North Carolina man apparently liable for transmitting on a frequency licensed to local first responders while impersonating a member of the local Volunteer Fire Department. Continue reading →

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Pillsbury’s communications lawyers have published FCC Enforcement Monitor monthly since 1999 to inform our clients of notable FCC enforcement actions against FCC license holders and others.  This month’s issue includes:

Headlines:

  • FCC Cracks Down on Call Spoofing Operations with Multimillion-Dollar Fine
  • New Jersey Utility Company Investigated for Improper Use of Private Land Mobile Radio
  • FCC Issues Repeated Notices to Florida LPFM Licensee Over Transmitter Issues

Call Me Maybe? FCC Proposes $37.525 Million Fine for Illegal Spoofing Operation

In response to the growing menace of ”spoofed” calls, the FCC issued a $37.525 million Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture (“NAL”) to an Arizona telemarketer alleged to have made over 2.3 million spoofed calls over the past two years.

Section 227(e) of the Communications Act (“Act”) generally prohibits “call spoofing,” the practice of causing a false number to appear on a caller ID display to disguise the caller’s identity.  Section 227(e) of the Act and Section 64.1604 of the FCC’s Rules make it unlawful to knowingly transmit misleading or inaccurate caller ID information “with the intent to defraud, cause harm, or wrongfully obtain anything of value.”  Further, the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (“TCPA”) and Section 64.1200 of the FCC’s Rules prohibit marketing calls to numbers listed in the National Do-Not-Call-Registry (“DNR”).  Consumers can add their home and mobile phone numbers to the DNR in order to avoid unwanted telemarking calls.

The FCC was tipped off to the Arizona company’s spoofing operation by a whistleblower who had formerly worked in the company’s telemarketing phone room.  According to the employee, the company purchased a call directory and plugged the directory’s numbers into a telemarketing platform that would dial the numbers.  The company then modified its caller ID information to display the phone numbers of prepaid phones it had purchased from a big box store.  To avoid suspicion, the company regularly searched the Internet for complaints associated with the prepaid phone numbers and removed from rotation any numbers that had garnered a large amount of complaints.  If a consumer tried returning a telemarketing call originating from a prepaid phone, company policy instructed employees to hang up on or otherwise avoid complaining customers.  In addition to the prepaid phones, the company also used unassigned numbers and numbers assigned to unrelated private citizens.  As an example, the NAL describes an innocent consumer whose number was spoofed by the company and who received several calls a day for months from consumers attempting to complain about the company’s calls.

The FCC began its investigation by subpoenaing the company’s call records from the telemarketing platform.  According to the NAL, the company made 2,341,125 calls using 13 separate phone numbers.  Unsurprisingly, none of the 13 numbers were actually assigned to the company.  However, the FCC was able to match these numbers to dozens of complaints filed with the Federal Trade Commission from DNR registrants who had received unwanted calls.

According to the whistleblower, the company’s illicit behavior earned it nearly $300,000 per month.  The FCC alleges that the company’s spoofing and sophisticated prepaid phone operation show the company knew that what it was doing was wrong and sought to evade law enforcement and civil suits by hiding its connection to the illegal marketing scheme.

Pursuant to Section 227(e) of the Act and Section 1.80 of the FCC’s Rules, the FCC may impose a fine of up to $11,278 for each spoofing violation.  Previously, the FCC has applied a base fine of $1,000 per call in large-scale spoofing operations.  Out of the total 2,341,125 spoofed calls, the Enforcement Bureau was able to specifically examine and confirm the nature of 37,525 calls, and thus proposed a fine of $37,525,000.

In addition to the NAL, the FCC also issued a separate Citation and Order that cites the company for violating the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, as many of the call recipients were registered with the DNR.  The FCC uncovered 45 instances where the company dialed DNR registrants; however, it may not impose a monetary fine against parties not regulated by the FCC until: (1) the FCC issues a citation to the violator; (2) the FCC provides the violator a reasonable opportunity to respond; and (3) the violator continues to engage in the cited conduct.  The Citation and Order warns the company that any future violations could result in hefty fines.

The past year has seen several enforcement actions aimed at large scale robocall and spoofing operations.  The FCC asks consumers to report any illegal calls or text messages, and advises against answering calls from unknown numbers or giving out personal information.

A Failure to Communicate: FCC Investigates New Jersey Utility Company for Private Land Mobile Radio Violations

The FCC’s Enforcement Bureau issued a Notice of Violation (“NOV”) to a large New Jersey utility company for operating its Private Land Mobile Radio (“PLMR”) in an unauthorized manner and failing to regularly transmit station identification information. Continue reading →

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Pillsbury’s communications lawyers have published FCC Enforcement Monitor monthly since 1999 to inform our clients of notable FCC enforcement actions against FCC license holders and others.  This month’s issue includes:

Headlines:

  • International Hotel Company Agrees to $504,000 Settlement for Overlooked Wireless License Transfers
  • Media Bureau Fines AM Licensee for Years-Old Unauthorized Transfers
  • Suburban Elementary School Busted as Pirate Radio Operator

Approval Needed: International Hotel Chain Settles with the FCC for $504,000 Over Unauthorized Transfers

The FCC recently entered into a Consent Decree with a global hotel company for violating the FCC’s rules governing transfers of control.  The company admitted to transferring dozens of private wireless licenses without prior FCC approval in the midst of its multi-billion dollar acquisition of another international hotel group.

In addition to regulating the transfer of broadcast licenses, Section 310 of the Communications Act (“Act”) prohibits the transfer of control of a private wireless license holder without prior FCC approval.  Under Section 1.948 of the FCC’s Rules, parties seeking consent to a transfer of control of such a license must first file FCC Form 603 and await Commission approval before completing the transfer.

At issue in this case were the transfers of 65 wireless licenses controlled by entities owned or operated by the acquired company.  Unlike commercial wireless services such as wireless broadband, private wireless licenses are generally used for internal communications, like those associated with company operations or security.  According to the late-filed transfer applications, these wireless licenses were used for “operational efficiency and safety of employees and guests” at the company’s various properties.  Prior to the transaction, the acquired company’s employees controlled the use of the licenses as part of their regular operational duties.  Though the day-to-day use of the licenses did not change as a result of the company’s acquisition, ultimate control of the licenses did.

In February 2017, several months after the deal was completed, the hotel company voluntarily disclosed the violations to the FCC, chalking up the missing applications to “administrative oversight … during a larger transaction.”  By January 2018, applications for transfer of control of all 65 licenses were submitted to the FCC’s Wireless Bureau.  Those applications remain pending.

To resolve the FCC’s investigation of the violations, the acquiring company entered into a Consent Decree with the Commission.  Under the terms of the Consent Decree, the hotel company agreed to (1) admit liability for violations of the FCC’s unauthorized transfer rules; (2) develop and implement a compliance plan to prevent further violations of the FCC’s Rules; and (3) pay $504,000 to the United States Treasury.

Trust Issues: “Ridiculously Complicated” Estate Planning Leads to $8,000 Fine

The Media Bureau entered into a Consent Decree with the licensee of three Georgia AM radio stations to resolve an investigation into an unauthorized transfer of control of the station licenses.

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

The applications ultimately leading to the Consent Decree were filed with the FCC in March 2018, but the licensee’s problems began nearly two decades earlier when the licensee’s sole owner created an irrevocable trust and named two of his sons as co-trustees.  That same day, the FCC approved the licensee’s acquisition of the Georgia stations.  The following day, the licensee’s owner, functioning as de facto trustee of the irrevocable trust (and without his sons’ knowledge), transferred 90% of his equity in the licensee to the trust in the form of non-voting shares.  When the station acquisition was consummated a few days later, the licensee failed to report the existence of the trust to the FCC and did not subsequently report it until earlier this year.

In 2010, the trust was divided into sub-trusts for each of the father’s six children—each of whom was then unaware that they were to serve as trustee of their respective sub-trust.  Shortly before their father’s passing in 2013, the children assumed control of the overall trust (as trustees of the individual sub-trusts).  They converted the trust’s stock in the licensee to voting shares and cancelled all other shares of licensee stock, resulting in a transfer of control of the licensee to the children as trustees of the trust. Continue reading →