Articles Posted in Spectrum

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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:

  • Imprisoned Former Alabama House Speaker’s Felony Convictions Lead to FCC Hearing on Character Issues
  • California Retirement Home Receives Notice of Violation Over Signal Booster Interference
  • Georgia LPFM Station Hit with $10,000 Penalty for Underwriting Violations

Imprisoned Former Alabama House Speaker’s Felony Convictions Raise Questions About FCC Qualifications

The FCC has designated for hearing the question of whether an Alabama radio broadcaster remains qualified to hold Commission licenses.  The licensee’s president and sole shareholder was convicted of six felony charges involving conduct during his time as Speaker of the Alabama House of Representatives.

Section 309 of the Communications Act of 1934 requires the FCC to designate an application for hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) if a “substantial and material question of fact is presented” as to whether grant of an application would serve the public interest, convenience, and necessity.

The character of an applicant is one of several factors examined by the FCC in determining whether a party has the requisite qualifications to become or remain a Commission licensee.  Moreover, an FCC policy (referred to as the Jefferson Radio policy, after a 1964 case) generally prohibits the FCC from granting assignment applications where character questions have been raised regarding the seller.  The theory behind this policy is that a party unqualified to hold an FCC license should not be allowed to profit by selling it.

After a June 2016 trial and multiple appeals, the Alabama Supreme Court upheld six felony convictions against the former Speaker for: (1) soliciting or receiving something of value from a principal; (2) using an official position for personal gain; and (3) representing a business entity before an executive department or agency in exchange for compensation.  Following the court’s decision, and facing a potential four-year prison sentence, the licensee filed an application in September 2020 for consent to assign its FCC authorizations, including AM and FM station licenses, three FM translator licenses, and a construction permit for a new FM translator station.

Prior to filing the assignment application, the licensee had also filed applications for renewal of the AM, FM, and translator station licenses.  In these applications, the licensee disclosed the status of the legal proceedings against the former Speaker.  The FCC considers a felony conviction or misconduct constituting a felony as relevant to its character assessment and ultimately to its determination of whether to grant an application.  The FCC concluded that the former Speaker’s six felony convictions and the actions behind them established a substantial and material question of fact as to whether the licensee, by virtue of the former Speaker’s position as president and sole shareholder, possesses the requisite qualities to hold a Commission license.  As a result, the FCC designated for hearing the questions of whether (1) the licensee has the character to remain a Commission licensee; (2) the licensee’s authorizations should be revoked altogether; and (3) the pending construction permit application should be granted, denied, or dismissed.

Regarding the assignment application, the licensee requested that the FCC apply an exception to its Jefferson Radio policy and grant the application despite the pending character qualification issues.  While the FCC has in limited circumstances found an exception to be warranted, the Commission has generally applied the policy to deter stations from committing violations and then simply selling their assets when faced with potential disqualification.  The FCC found that in the present case, numerous factors weighed against an exception, including the fact that the market is not underserved, as listeners have access to several other broadcast stations, and the lack of any physical or mental disability or other circumstance that would prevent the licensee from fully participating in the hearing.

In light of the pending character concerns, the FCC temporarily set aside consideration of the license renewal and assignment applications until such time as the character questions can be resolved through an administrative hearing before an ALJ.

FCC Investigates California Retirement Community Over Unauthorized Operation of Signal Booster Devices

The FCC’s Enforcement Bureau issued a Notice of Violation to a Bay Area retirement community for interference complaints related to its Private Land Mobile Radio (PLMR) operations.

PLMR operations are wireless communications systems used by many local governments and private companies to meet a variety of organizational communications needs.  These systems have been used to support everything from public safety and utilities to manufacturing and certain internal business communications, and often operate on shared frequencies with other PLMR licensees. 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:

  • Idaho Man Behind Racist Robocall Campaigns Fined $9.9 Million for Thousands of Illegally Spoofed Robocalls
  • FCC Affirms $233,000 Fine Against Large Radio Group for Sponsorship ID Violations
  • FCC Proposes a Combined $47 Million in Fines Against EBS Licensees for Failure to Meet Now-Defunct Educational Requirements

Scammer Hit With $9.9 Million Fine for Thousands of Illegally Spoofed Calls
The FCC recently issued a $9.9 million fine against an Idaho man behind a controversial media company linked to various racist and anti-Semitic robocall campaigns across the country.  The man caused thousands of robocalls to display misleading or inaccurate caller ID information—a practice known as “spoofing.”

The Truth in Caller ID Act, codified at Section 227(e) of the Communications Act and Section 64.1604 of the FCC’s Rules, prohibits the use of a caller ID service to transmit or display misleading caller ID information with the intent to knowingly cause harm or wrongfully obtain something of value.

During the summer and fall of 2018, individuals across the country received thousands of robocalls targeting several contested political campaigns and controversial local news events.  In August 2018, for example, Iowa residents received 837 prerecorded messages referring to the arrest of an undocumented immigrant from Mexico charged with the murder of a University of Iowa student.  More than 1,000 residents in Georgia and Florida received calls making racist attacks against the gubernatorial candidates running in those states.  In response to complaints received about the robocalls, the FCC traced 6,455 spoofed calls to the Idaho man and his media company after identifying the dialing platform he used to make the calls.  By matching the platform’s call records with news coverage of the calling campaigns, the Enforcement Bureau identified six specific robocall campaigns in California, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Idaho and Virginia.  Using the platform, the man selected phone numbers that matched the locality of the call recipients to falsely suggest that the calls were local.

In January 2020, the FCC issued a Notice of Apparent Liability (NAL), proposing a $12.9 million fine against the man for violating the Communications Act and the FCC’s Rules by spoofing caller ID information with the intent to cause harm or wrongfully obtain something of value.  In response, the man called for cancellation of the NAL, claiming that: (1) the FCC failed to establish the identity of the caller and prove that the caller was the same person that caused the display of inaccurate caller ID information; (2) some of the caller IDs used were either assigned to him or were non-working numbers and therefore there was no intent to cause harm; (3) the spoofing of unassigned numbers and content of the messages themselves were forms of political speech protected by the First Amendment; (4) the FCC could not verify that each of the 6,455 calls contained the pre-recorded messages at issue; (5) the NAL failed to establish any intent to cause harm to the call recipients; (6) the “wrongfully obtain something of value” factor should only apply to criminal wrongdoing or telemarketing; and (7) the FCC failed to issue a citation before adopting the NAL in accordance with its rules.

The FCC considered and rejected most of these arguments.  In reviewing the dialing platform’s records, the Commission verified that the calls originated from his account and that there was no evidence to support his claim that someone else had selected the call numbers.  Further, although he denied involvement in selecting the caller ID numbers, the man noted that several of the numbers contained patterns that signify neo-Nazi ideology, which the FCC used to support its finding that the Idaho man knowingly chose the numbers at issue.  And despite what the man referred to as the “well established” and “recognized” meanings behind the numbers, the FCC concluded that the use of such numbers did not constitute protected speech because it was not clear the meaning was understood by the call recipients as required by the First Amendment.

The FCC also addressed how it verified the spoofed calls, noting that it relied on the same methodology used in prior spoofing enforcement actions where a sample of all calls made were reviewed, identical statements were confirmed in the recordings, and wrongful intent was identified.  Regarding the argument  that enforcement should only apply to criminal conduct or telemarketing, the FCC concluded that the use of local numbers to deceive call recipients demonstrated the man’s intent to cause harm and wrongfully obtain something of value in the form of avoiding liability and promoting his personal brand.

Finally, the FCC noted that neither the Truth in Caller ID Act nor the Commission’s rules require issuance of a citation prior to an NAL.

The Idaho man did, however, successfully demonstrate that one of the caller ID numbers displayed was not spoofed.  The FCC found that a May 2018 robocall campaign targeting California residents displayed a contact number that was assigned to the man and was therefore not spoofed.  As a result, the FCC affirmed its original fine but reduced it by $2.9 million to account for the calls that were not spoofed.  The $9.9 million fine must now be paid within 30 calendar days after release of the Order.

FCC Affirms $233,000 Fine Against Large Radio Group for Sponsorship ID Violations

The FCC issued a $233,000 fine against a national radio group for violating the Commission’s Sponsorship Identification rule and the terms of a 2016 Consent Decree by failing to timely notify the FCC of the violations.

Under the Communications Act and the FCC’s rules, broadcast stations must identify on-air any sponsored content, as well as the name of the sponsoring entity, whenever “money, service, or other valuable consideration” is paid or promised to the station for the broadcast.  According to the FCC, identifying sponsors ensures that listeners know who is trying to persuade them, and prevents misleading information from being conveyed without attribution of the source. Continue reading →

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On July 30, 2020, the FCC released a Public Notice and Final Cost Category Schedule for the C-Band Relocation, and established August 31, 2020 as the deadline for C-Band earth station licensees to submit their lump sum election notices.  We discussed the Public Notice and Schedule here.

In response to a request from the Society of Broadcast Engineers, the FCC announced today that the deadline for submitting election notices will be extended until September 14, 2020.  The FCC still has under review a separate request by ACA Connects to stay the deadline entirely while the FCC reviews an Application for Review filed by that organization.

In the meantime, C-Band earth station licensees have an additional two weeks to consider their options.

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On Monday, August 17, 2020, the Department of Justice, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Federal Communications Commission released a joint advisory on the acquisition and use of counter-drone equipment by non-federal public and private entities. In the Advisory, the agencies highlight federal criminal laws and other federal statutes and regulations that may be implicated by the use of such technology, specifically for drone detection and mitigation.

The Advisory comes at a time when the United States is seeing a significant uptick in the use of drones or unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). Last week, the FAA noted that more than 1.6 million commercial and recreational drones are registered with the agency, and that it has certified more than 188,000 remote aircraft pilots. This widespread adoption of drones has heightened security concerns over the risk that they could present to the public, particularly at widely attended outdoor events such as sporting events or concerts. In addition to the use of drones in warfare, high-profile domestic incidents, including this week’s close call between a drone and Air Force One over the Washington area, present a case for the need for effective and widely available counter-UAS measures. As tech companies race to develop solutions, federal agencies are cautioning the public to be mindful of the possible legal restrictions of selling and operating counter-UAS technology.

Continue reading →

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The FCC took another significant step in the C-Band reallocation process, releasing its Final Cost Category Schedule for Relocation Expenses of C-Band (3.7-4.2 GHz) satellite licensees. The Public Notice accompanying the cost schedule also established August 31, 2020 as the deadline for C-Band earth station licensees to elect whether they wish to receive a lump sum reallocation payment.

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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On October 10, 2019, the FCC announced that it will hold a full-power FM Broadcast auction for 130 new construction permits starting on April 28, 2020.  For now, the FCC is seeking comment on the procedures for the auction, although it does not propose any significant changes from past FM broadcast auctions.  In connection with the auction, the FCC also announced a filing freeze prohibiting minor change applications, petitions, or counter-proposals directly affecting or failing to protect the construction permits to be auctioned.

A majority of the construction permits will be for lower-power Class A facilities, but there are 28 new facilities that are authorized to operate at 25 kW or higher.  For example, a Class B facility in Sacramento will be available, along with stations on the outskirts of major cities like Dallas and Seattle.  Overall, Texas is home to the most available permits (32), with numerous opportunities also available in Wyoming (11), California (10), and Arizona (8).

Parties seeking to file comments regarding the list of available construction permits and/or the auction procedures should submit them by November 6, 2019.  Reply comments are due November 20, 2019.  After reviewing the record, the FCC will release the final list of available permits and auction procedures, most likely in early January 2020.

 

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Last April, the broadcast industry was abuzz with the need to register previously unlicensed earth stations in order to reduce the chance of future displacement. In April 2018, the deadline for submitting the registrations was announced, and after two extensions, all fixed-satellite service (FSS) earth stations in use prior to April 19, 2018 that operated in the 3.7 to 4.2 GHz band were to be registered with the FCC by October 31, 2018.

Continue reading →

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Originally intended as an “innovation band” for the testing of new wireless broadband services, the Citizen Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) was created in 2015 to permit commercial and federal spectrum users to operate in the same spectrum band. By utilizing smaller geographic areas for licenses, and short-term authorizations lacking an expectation of renewal, the CBRS was seen as a test bed for a variety of different wireless broadband services, including those of rural wireless broadband service providers.

To that end, the FCC created two new classes of licenses, Priority Access Licenses (PALs) and General Authorized Access Licenses (GAAs).  GAAs are permitted to operate anywhere within the CBRS band, so long as incumbent licensees and PALs are protected. PALs are required to protect the incumbent licensees, and will receive protection from GAAs. A key component of the CBRS licensing scheme is the implementation of a central database, the Spectrum Access System (SAS) (had enough acronyms yet?), maintained by third parties who will coordinate among licensees to prevent interference.

At its October meeting, the FCC revised its rules for the service with the stated goal of further encouraging the rapid development of 5G technologies.  The revised rules were adopted in response to petitions filed by CTIA and T-Mobile in 2017 which proposed several changes to the original 2015 rules.  The FCC sought comment on those proposals, which suggested several changes to the Priority Access Licenses, including adjusting the size of the geographic license, expanding the initial and renewal terms for licenses, and adopting performance standards. Although the FCC did not fully adopt the proposals, the revised rules make significant changes before the FCC has even issued the first CBRS authorization.

License Area: Under the 2015 rules, PALs were to be issued based on census tracts. The intent was to encourage local broadband development, especially in rural areas that may not receive service by nationwide carriers. By highlighting the difficulty of managing the licensing and build-out of service in 74,000 separate census tracts, CTIA, T-Mobile and several other parties argued that the FCC should expand the PAL geographic area to the more-manageable Partial Economic Areas. Ultimately, the FCC rejected that proposal, but instead expanded the PAL geographic area to county-based authorizations.

License Terms: In 2015, the FCC was concerned about the warehousing of spectrum, so it limited the license term of PALs in a particular geographic area to two sequential three-year periods, with no option for renewal. Several parties filed comments arguing that the three-year limit for licenses would serve as a roadblock to robust investment by wireless companies. The FCC has now agreed and extended the initial term to ten years. The FCC also modified its rules to permit licensees to renew their PAL authorizations.

Performance Standards: In light of its decision to extend the license term and permit renewals, the FCC imposed a “substantial service” performance standard for services operating in the CBRS band. For mobile and point-to-multipoint services, a licensee must demonstrate that it provides service to at least 50 percent of the licensed service area. For point-to-point service, a licensee must demonstrate that it provides at least four links in areas with a service population of 134,000 people or less, and at least one link per 33,500 people in service areas with a population greater than 134,000 people. This showing will be required when the licensee files its license renewal application.

Competitive Bidding: Finally, the FCC decided to grant PALs in accordance with its competitive bidding auction rules, permitting applicants to claim bidding credits as “small” or “very small business” entities, as a rural service provider, and/or if they propose to serve qualifying Tribal lands.

Support for the proposed rule changes was first signaled by then-Commissioner Pai and Commissioner O’Rielly in their concurring statements when the original rules were adopted in 2015. Because the FCC is still working on approval of the various SAS database proposals, and because there was a change in FCC leadership in January 2017, it was possible for the petitioning parties to seek revision of the 2015 rules before the FCC issued its first CBRS authorization. To date, the FCC has not issued authorizations for PALs or GAAs, but it is possible that new authorizations could be issued in 2019. Thus, while the rule changes will not impact any existing PAL or GAA licensees, these changes will have a significant impact on the operation of the CBRS band in the future.

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The FCC will take a number of significant actions in the final months of 2018 to facilitate the development of 5G, the fifth generation of wireless cellular technology. First, at its October meeting tomorrow, it will vote on making a portion of mid-band spectrum (2.5 to 4.2 GHz) available for 5G use.  Second, it will launch in November the first of two high-band 5G spectrum auctions scheduled for 2018.  Now is therefore a good time to take a look at what 5G is, and what impact it promises to have.

Looking back, the primary benefit of the transition from 3G to 4G was a significant speed boost, which allowed users to, among other things, stream YouTube and upload videos to social media platforms like Instagram without much waiting.  Once implemented, 5G is expected to deliver download speeds anywhere from 10-100 times faster than 4G, with speeds of up to 20 gigabits per second.  5G users will also experience significantly less latency, i.e., the time between when you click on a link and when the network responds.  While 4G latency is about 9 milliseconds, mature 5G systems will reduce latency to around 1 millisecond.

Mature 5G networks will use high-band spectrum (24 GHz and above), which is capable of transmitting significantly more data than 4G, but is limited to much shorter distances.  4G towers currently deliver service for up to 10 miles, while high-band 5G towers will only deliver service for up to 1,000 feet (about 3 football fields).

In addition, high-band 5G spectrum has a shorter wavelength than spectrum used for 4G, making it more difficult for these signals to penetrate solid objects such as walls and windows.  To overcome the distance and signal penetration challenges, 5G will require vast networks of small-cell sites located on a diverse array of real estate platforms, with the small-cells anchored by larger cell towers.  To streamline the deployment of small-cells, the FCC in March adopted new rules to reduce regulatory impediments to building out small-cell infrastructure, and in September adopted rules requiring state and local governments to approve or deny small-cell applications within prescribed time periods.  Not surprisingly, the new rules are unpopular with local governments, who object to any federal interference with their local site review processes.

There are numerous potential innovations and business models that can utilize 5G’s faster speeds, lower latency, and increased connection capacity.  Most agree that 5G will deliver seamless 4K video streaming and instant downloads of large files, but it could also dramatically change how users, including machines, access the Internet.  Currently, the primary option for residential and enterprise broadband customers is cable or fiber.  With speeds of up to 20 gigabits per second (and no need for wire infrastructure), 5G could disrupt the delivery of fixed Internet access as we know it.

5G will also allow the Internet of Things to flourish.  Specifically, it will allow vastly more “things” to connect to cell sites and remain connected to the Internet without the need to connect through smartphones or Wi-Fi.  4G can connect about 2,000 devices per square kilometer, while 5G will connect about one million over the same area.  For example, 5G could facilitate thousands of driverless cars in the same city talking to each other to coordinate efficient traffic flow without the need for passengers to open an app on their phone, or even to have a phone.

Another potentially transformative use of 5G is remote medicine.  For example, given the high speed and low latency of 5G, medical procedures could be performed using robot arms controlled by doctors in a different part of the country or world, harnessing almost instantaneous data transmission and lowering geographic barriers to treatment.  Similarly, augmented and virtual reality gaming, shopping, and other experiences should blossom under 5G.

Rollout of 5G will be gradual.  Following pilot programs in 2018 in select cities, wireless carriers are expected to launch the first iterations of widespread 5G networks in the United States in 2019.  5G-enabled smartphones are also expected to be released in 2019.  The first 5G networks will likely use low (600 to 900 MHz) and mid-band (2.5 to 4.2 GHz) spectrum already possessed by wireless carriers, rather than the high-band spectrum that will make up the majority of spectrum auctioned by the FCC for 5G use.  As a result, initial 5G networks will only scratch the surface of 5G’s potential, delivering speeds ranging from 10% faster than 4G to three times as fast.  Mature iterations of 5G networks that use high-band spectrum are expected to arrive in 2-4 years.