Articles Posted in Transmission Towers

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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:

  • Arkansas University’s Underwriting Violations Lead to $76,000 Consent Decree
  • Large TV Broadcaster Agrees to Pay $1.3 Million Over Predecessor’s Tower Compliance Problems
  • Recent Fine Cancellations Prompt Broadcasters to Double-Check Fees and Fines

A Word From Our Sponsors: Arkansas University Settles With FCC Over Underwriting Violations

The FCC recently entered into a Consent Decree with an Arkansas university for violating the FCC’s underwriting rules for noncommercial stations.  The university admitted that two of its FM stations aired announcements over several days in 2016 that impermissibly promoted the products or services of its financial contributors.  The two stations are operated by a community college under the University’s control.

Noncommercial educational (“NCE”) broadcast stations are prohibited from airing promotional announcements on behalf of for-profit entities in exchange for any benefit or payment.  Instead, NCE stations may broadcast announcements that identify but do not “promote” station benefactors.  Such messages may not, among other things, include product descriptions, price comparisons, or calls to action on behalf of a for-profit donor.  According to the FCC, these limitations “protect the public’s use and enjoyment of commercial-free broadcasts” and “provide a level playing field for the noncommercial broadcasters that obey the law and for the commercial broadcasters that are entitled to seek revenue from advertising.”

The FCC was tipped off to the violations when the licensees of several nearby commonly-owned stations filed a Formal Complaint outlining over a dozen announcements broadcast on the University’s stations.  The complainants alleged that these messages, which were aired on an ongoing basis in 2016, violated the underwriting rules by either including promotional statements or promoting specific products for sale.  Most of the announcements were sponsored by local businesses, including an announcement for a nearby car dealership described as “impressive with a very clean pre-owned model or program unit,” a furniture store that has a “good deal … going there” where listeners can get “pretty stuff,” and a local insurance agent offering services that he had “never done on radio before.”

The Enforcement Bureau responded to the Formal Complaint by issuing multiple Letters of Inquiry to the University seeking additional information about the announcements and the University’s underwriting compliance efforts.  In its response, the University admitted that the announcements had been simulcast on both stations, but emphasized that the stations’ staff had received “extensive” training on underwriting issues, and that it believed that the stations had complied with the underwriting rules.

To resolve the years-long investigation, the University agreed to enter into a Consent Decree under which the University agreed to: (1) pay a $76,000 civil penalty; (2) admit to violating the FCC’s underwriting rules; and (3) implement a five-year compliance plan to ensure there will be no future violations.

Tower Records: Predecessor’s Lax Oversight of Antenna Structures Leads to $1.3 Million Settlement for Large Broadcast Company

A large television broadcast company has agreed to settle an FCC investigation into whether the prior owner of several of the company’s towers failed to sufficiently monitor and maintain records regarding them.

Part 17 of the FCC’s Rules requires a tower owner to comply with various registration, lighting and painting requirements.  Tower marking and lighting is a vital component of air traffic safety, and noncompliant structures pose serious hazards to air navigation.  To this end, a tower owner is responsible for observing the tower at least once every day for any lighting failures or to have in place an automatic monitoring system to detect such failures.  The tower owner must also maintain a record of any extinguished or improperly functioning lights.  The FCC’s rules also require a tower owner to notify the FCC within 5 days of a change in a tower’s ownership.

In September 2018, a small plane crashed into a southern Louisiana broadcast tower, prompting an FCC investigation into the tower and its owner.  The FCC determined that the tower was registered to a subsidiary of a national broadcaster which at the time controlled over a dozen television stations and related antenna structures.  Following up on the crash, the Enforcement Bureau issued the company a Letter of Inquiry seeking information about its compliance with the FCC’s tower rules.  The company responded by disclosing numerous “irregularities” in its monitoring of the lighting systems of the toppled tower and nine other towers.  It also disclosed that it had failed to keep complete records of a dozen lighting failures at several of its towers, and that it had not notified the Commission of its acquisition of two other towers. 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 Station’s “Shenanigans” in Connection With Tower Violations Lead to $25,000 Fine
  • Georgia and North Carolina Radio Station Licenses at Risk Due to Unpaid Fees
  • FCC Cites New Jersey Vehicle Equipment Vendor for Programming Transmitters with Unauthorized Frequencies

Pennsylvania Station’s Tower “Shenanigans” Lead to $25,000 Fine

In a recent Forfeiture Order, the FCC fined a Pennsylvania AM radio licensee for various tower-related violations after the licensee failed to sufficiently respond to a 2016 Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture (NAL).

Broadcasters must comply with various FCC and FAA rules relating to registration, lighting and painting requirements.  In particular, they must be lit and painted 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.  The FCC’s Rules require lighting repairs to be made “as soon as practicable.”

In 2015, FCC Enforcement Bureau agents responded to an anonymous complaint regarding a pair of radio towers.  Over multiple site visits, the agents determined that multiple mandatory tower lights and beacons were unlit and that the towers’ paint was chipping and faded to such a degree that the towers did not have good visibility.  In connection with the lighting problems, the licensee had also failed to timely file the required “Notice to Airmen” with the FAA, which informs aircraft pilots of potential hazards along their flight route.  The FCC cited these issues in a February 2016 Notice of Violation sent to the station.  The licensee responded by assuring the FCC that it would immediately undertake remedial actions.  However, a site visit from the FCC several months later revealed continuing violations, and the FCC subsequently issued the $25,000 NAL along with directions on how to respond.

At that point, the licensee’s woes expanded from substantive to procedural.  According to a Forfeiture Order, the licensee failed to file a “proper response” to the NAL.  Instead, in a bizarre series of events that the FCC chalked up to “shenanigans,” it noted that the licensee submitted a Petition for Reconsideration of the NAL, as well as a response to the NAL to the Office of Managing Director (OMD), instead of to the Enforcement Bureau.  OMD is a separate department within the FCC that deals with agency administrative matters, such as budgets, human resources, scheduling, and document distribution.  OMD subsequently returned the Petition and the NAL response to the licensee with a letter noting the licensee’s procedural misstep.

The licensee’s “shenanigans” were still far from over, however.  More than a month after OMD returned the licensee’s submissions, the licensee sent a letter to the Enforcement Bureau seeking to arrange an installment plan for the $25,000 proposed fine.  This, too, was procedurally flawed, as the NAL specifically explained that any requests for payment plans must be directed to the FCC’s Chief Financial Officer, not to the Enforcement Bureau.  Though the Enforcement Bureau itself forwarded the request to the CFO’s office, no plan was ever put in place.

According to the Forfeiture Order, despite the licensee’s various filings, it failed to successfully submit a response to the NAL to the Enforcement Bureau.  The Forfeiture Order also noted that even had the licensee’s NAL response been sent to the Enforcement Bureau (instead of OMD), it would have been defective for being late-filed.  The Enforcement Bureau therefore affirmed the proposed fine and ordered the licensee to pay the $25,000 fine within 30 days.

Pay to Play: FCC Initiates Proceedings Against North Carolina and Georgia Radio Stations Over Delinquent Fees

In a pair of Orders to Pay or to Show Cause released on the same day, the FCC began proceedings to potentially revoke the AM radio license of a Georgia station and the FM radio license of a North Carolina station. 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 Golf Club Operator Over Unauthorized Transfer of 108 Private Wireless Licenses
  • FCC Warns Traffic Management Company Over Unlicensed Radio Operations
  • Months-Long Tower Lighting Outage Leads to Warning

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 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

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:

  • 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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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.

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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:

  • Alaskan Licensee Faces Fines Over FM Station Silences
  • Enforcement Bureau Issues Consent Decrees for LED Billboard Violations
  • Tower Owner Hit for Unlit Structure

Cold Justice: Media Bureau Responds to Alaska Licensee’s Applications With Multiple Fines

The FCC’s Media Bureau issued two Notices of Apparent Liability (“NAL”) to an Alaskan licensee for repeated unauthorized silences and reduced power operations on its FM station and FM translator stations.  At the same time, the Media Bureau found an assignment application for one of the translators to be defective, and renewed the FM station’s license for only an abbreviated two-year term.

The FCC sets minimum operating schedule requirements for broadcast stations, and requires a station to transmit according to the “modes and power” specified by its license.  A station that expects to remain off-air for more than 30 days must request permission from the FCC.  However, Section 312(g) of the Communications Act of 1934 (“Act”), provides that a station’s license automatically expires if the station “fails to transmit broadcast signals for any consecutive 12-month period.”

In this case, the licensee originally applied for renewal of an FM license and three FM translator licenses in 2013.  The licensee also filed an assignment application to sell one of the translators up for renewal.

Several months later, another Alaskan broadcaster filed informal objections against all of the applications, alleging, among other things, that: (1) the applicant was delinquent on a debt from a previous enforcement action; (2) the applicant had failed to pay application fees for the translator license renewal applications; (3) all of the stations had been operating at low power or were off-air for extended periods of time (some for as long as 12 consecutive months); and (4) the assignment application was defective.  The objecting broadcaster also claimed the applicant lacked the character qualifications to hold a license.

The Media Bureau quickly dismissed various other claims made by the objecting broadcaster, including that (1) the licensee had not complied with the Emergency Alert System rules; (2) the licensee had violated the main studio rule; (3) the licensee had engaged in an unauthorized transfer of control; and (4) the proposed assignee did not actually exist.

In sorting out the remaining objections, the Media Bureau first determined that the applicant was not delinquent in its payments to the FCC.  Though the licensee had an unpaid Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture from 2009, a licensee is not indebted to the FCC until (1) the fine has been partially paid, or (2) a court has ordered payment.  According to the FCC, the forfeiture never became payable because the license at the heart of the enforcement action had been cancelled shortly after issuance of the NAL and the Media Bureau therefore never issued a Forfeiture Order.

The Media Bureau did, however, find that the licensee had failed to pay license renewal application fees for the translator stations.  Though the applicant claimed that the translators in question were noncommercial educational (“NCE”) broadcast stations and thus exempt from the fee, the Media Bureau determined that the stations being retransmitted by the translators were commercial stations at the time of filing, and thus required a fee.  The Media Bureau also dismissed the assignment application, finding it procedurally defective because a single individual signed for both the assignor and assignee, in contravention of the FCC’s Rules.  Finally, the Media Bureau rejected the character claims, determining that the objecting licensee had failed to make a prima facie case for its claims of false certifications and false statements to the FCC.

Regarding the issue of whether the stations were silent or operated at variance from their licenses, the Media Bureau found that all of the stations were repeatedly silent without authorization for extended periods of time.  Although several of these silent periods lasted 364 days, none of the stations remained silent for the continuous 12-month period required for automatic expiration.  The Media Bureau did, however, find that the FM station had operated at reduced power for much of the most recent license period and beyond without authorization to do so.

Section 309(k) of the Act provides several criteria the FCC must consider when reviewing license renewal applications. The FCC will grant such an application if: (1) “the station has served the public interest, convenience, and necessity;” (2) the licensee has not committed any serious violations of the Act or the FCC’s Rules; and (3) the licensee has not committed any other violations of the Act or the FCC’s Rules that, taken together, would indicate a pattern of abuse.

Though the Media Bureau granted all of the translator license renewal applications, it proposed a $10,000 fine for discontinuing operations on the translator stations on five different occasions, a $20,000 fine for the FM station’s operation at reduced power without authorization, and mandated that the licensee pay the translator stations’ missing application fees along with a 25% late payment penalty.

The Media Bureau proceeded to note that the licensee’s failure to seek or maintain authorization for many of the FM station’s silent and reduced power periods constituted a “pattern of abuse” of the FCC’s Rules and that the FM station’s operational record failed to serve the “public interest, convenience, and necessity” during the most recent license term.  As a result, the Media Bureau granted a short-term renewal of the FM station’s license, providing only a two-year renewal rather than the standard eight year license term.

LED Astray: FCC Settles Multiple Investigations into Noncompliant Digital Billboards

The FCC entered into four separate consent decrees with LED sign manufacturers and marketers in the course of a single week after investigating whether the companies violated its equipment authorization rules.

Section 302(b) of the Communications Act restricts the manufacture, import, sale, or shipment of devices capable of causing harmful interference to radio communications.  To this end, the FCC regulates devices that emit radio frequency energy (“RF device”), including those that unintentionally generate signals that can interfere with other spectrum users.  RF devices must adhere to strict technical standards and various labeling and marketing 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:

  • FCC Proposes $235,668 Fine for Filing Untruthful Information
  • Major Phone Carrier Settles Dispute With FCC Over Rural Call Completion Issues for $40 Million
  • Repeat Pirate Nets $25,000 Fine

Tower Records: FCC Proposes Large Fine for Dozens of Falsified Tower Registrations

After a bizarre string of events involving unlit towers, falsified applications, and alleged theft, the FCC proposed a penalty of $235,668 against a Wisconsin holding company for providing false and misleading information on dozens of Antenna Structure Registration (“ASR”) applications and misleading an Enforcement Bureau agent.

Section 1.17 of the FCC’s Rules requires a party that is either (A) applying for an FCC authorization; or (B) engaging in activities that require such authorizations, to be truthful and accurate in all its interactions with the FCC.  Specifically, Section 1.17(a)(2) states that no person shall “provide material factual information that is incorrect or omit material information that is necessary to prevent any material factual statement that is made from being incorrect or misleading….”

In December 2016, the Enforcement Bureau began investigating an unlit tower in Wisconsin after the Federal Aviation Authority (the “FAA”) forwarded a complaint from a pilot who had noticed the structure.  Unlit towers pose a serious danger to air navigation.  In the midst of the investigation, the tower’s ASR information was changed to show a new company had taken control of the tower.  When an FCC investigator reached out to the newly registered owner, the company’s CEO stated that his company had recently acquired the tower, knew of the lighting problem, and would make repairs as soon as the weather permitted.  In the meantime, the company also began changing the registration information for other towers, requested flight hazard review from the FAA for some of these towers, and filed an ASR application for construction of a new tower in Florida.

Several months later, the original owner of the unlit tower informed the FCC that the other company was not actually the owner and that the imposter company’s “CEO” had improperly changed the ownership information for several sites in the ASR system.  The true owner also claimed that the alleged fraudster had changed locks and stolen equipment from several of the real owner’s towers—including the new lighting equipment that the original owner bought to repair the extinguished tower lighting.

In response, the Enforcement Bureau sent a Letter of Inquiry (“LOI”) to the claimed CEO’s physical and email addresses seeking more information about his various applications.  To date, the Bureau has not received any response.

In a Notice of Apparent Liability (“NAL”), the Enforcement Bureau determined that the CEO’s company became subject to Section 1.17 when it applied for the Florida tower registration, and also that the CEO was engaging in activities that require FCC authorization.  According to the NAL, the CEO apparently provided false and misleading information on 42 separate change in ownership applications and communicated false information to the investigating agent.  According to the Enforcement Bureau, the company also violated Section 403 of the Communications Act (the “Act”) by failing to respond to the LOI.

Under its statutory authority to penalize any party that “willfully or repeatedly fails to comply” with the Act or the FCC’s Rules, the FCC may issue up to a $19,639 forfeiture for each violation or each day of a continuing violation.  Accordingly, the FCC proposed a fine of $19,639 for each of the 10 apparently false applications filed in the past year, $19,639 for the company’s alleged misleading statements to the investigating agent, and an additional $19,639 for its failure to respond to the FCC’s questions, for a total of $235,688.

Missed Connections: Major Phone Carrier Agrees to Pay $40 Million After Investigation Into Rural Call Completion Issues

The FCC entered into a Consent Decree with a major phone carrier after an investigation into whether the carrier violated the Commission’s Rural Call Completion Rules.

According to the FCC, consumers in low-population areas face problems with long-distance and wireless call quality.  In an effort to address these problems, the FCC has promulgated a series of directives that prohibit certain practices it deems unreasonable and require carriers to address complaints about rural calling (“Rural Call Completion Rules”).

In 2012, the FCC’s Wireline Competition Bureau determined that a carrier may be liable under Section 201 of the Act for unjust or unreasonable practices if it “knows or should know that calls are not being completed to certain areas” and engages in practices (or omissions) that allow these problems to continue.  This includes (1) failure to ensure that intermediate providers (companies that connect calls from the caller’s carrier to the recipient’s carrier) are performing adequately; and (2) not taking corrective action when the carrier is aware of call completion problems. Continue reading →