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:

  • 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

Par for the Course: FCC Settles With Golf Club Operator Over Unauthorized Transfers

The FCC recently entered into a Consent Decree with a holding company for violating the FCC’s Rules governing transfers of control.  The company admitted to transferring 108 private wireless licenses without prior approval from the FCC in connection with its acquisition of a company that owned or operated over 200 golf clubs, country clubs, and business and alumni clubs.

Section 310 of the Communications Act (“Act”) prohibits the transfer of control of a private wireless license 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 consummating the transfer.

In September 2017, the holding company acquired the golf club operator.  It subsequently realized that the transaction included 108 private wireless licenses for which prior FCC approval had been needed.  As a result, in February 2018, the holding company filed transfer of control applications seeking nunc pro tunc (retroactive) approval.  The Wireless Bureau subsequently referred the matter to the Enforcement Bureau, which opened an investigation.

The clubs in question utilize wireless licenses to control day-to-day operations on their properties.  According to the Consent Decree, the licenses at issue are used to coordinate maintenance, golf shop personnel, and security, among other things.  And while the clubs’ operations and management have not significantly changed since the company’s acquisition, the change in ultimate ownership required prior FCC approval.

To resolve the Enforcement Bureau’s investigation of the transaction, the acquiring holding company entered into a Consent Decree with the FCC.  Under the terms of the Consent Decree, the company agreed to: (1) admit liability for violations of the FCC’s unauthorized transfer rules; (2) implement and adhere to a three-year compliance plan to prevent future violations of the FCC’s Rules; and (3) pay a $24,975 civil penalty to the United States Treasury.

Mean Streets: Traffic Control Company Pulled Over for Unlicensed Radio Operations

A Pennsylvania-based traffic management company received a Warning of Unlicensed Operation (“Warning”) from the FCC for operating radio transmission equipment on various frequencies in the Land Mobile Radio Service, General Mobile Radio Service, and Family Radio Service bands without authorization.

The FCC allocates various frequency bands for particular operations and with different licensing requirements.  For example, users of Land Mobile Radio Service (“LMRS”) frequencies are typically companies, government entities or similar organizations who use these channels to communicate with fleet vehicles and personnel spread out over a wide area.  In contrast, the General Mobile Radio Service (“GMRS”) is available only to individuals (and their families) for short-distance two-way communications.  Both LMRS and GMRS require an FCC license.

A third type of private voice radio service is the Family Radio Service (“FRS”).  Like GMRS, this service is intended for use by individuals, but unlike GMRS, does not require an FCC license.  However, devices used for FRS transmissions must still be approved by the FCC for that use.

The FCC began an investigation when it received information that the company, which dispatches personnel to monitor and control traffic at construction and emergency sites, was operating radio equipment across all three services in the mid-Atlantic region.  According to the Warning, the company did not have licenses to operate LMRS or GMRS equipment, and apparently did not have radios approved for FRS use.

The Warning notes that unauthorized operations subject the responsible party to monetary fines, equipment seizure, and criminal sanctions, including imprisonment.  The company was given ten days to respond with evidence that it was in fact authorized to operate on the various frequencies.  The FCC will then assess that response and any other relevant information to determine what enforcement action it will pursue against the company. 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

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:

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 →

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February 2015

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 Issues $3.36 Million Fine to Company and Its CEO for Selling Toll Free Numbers
  • Antenna Fencing and Public Inspection File Violations Result in $17,000 Fine
  • FCC Reiterates That “Willful Violation” Does Not Require “Intent to Violate the Law”

Hold the Phone: FCC Finds Company and CEO Jointly and Severally Liable for Brokering Toll Free Numbers

The FCC handed down a $3,360,000 fine to a custom connectivity solutions company (the “Company”) and its CEO for violations of the FCC’s rules regarding toll free number administration. Section 251(e)(1) of the Communications Act mandates that telephone numbers, including toll free numbers, be made “available on an equitable basis.” As a general rule, toll free numbers, including “vanity” numbers (e.g., 1-800-BUY-THIS), cannot be transferred, and must be returned to the numbering pool so that they can be made available to others interested in applying for them when the current holder no longer needs them. Section 52.107 of the FCC’s Rules specifically prohibits brokering, which is “the selling of a toll free number by a private entity for a fee.”

In 2007, the Enforcement Bureau issued a citation to the Company and CEO for warehousing, hoarding, and brokering toll free numbers. The Bureau warned that if the Company or CEO subsequently violated the Act or Rules in any manner described in the 2007 citation, the FCC would impose monetary forfeitures. A few years later, the Bureau received a complaint alleging that in June and July of 2011, the Company and CEO brokered 15 toll free numbers to a pharmaceutical company for fees ranging from $10,000 to $17,000 per number. In 2013, the FCC found the Company and CEO jointly and severally liable for those violations and issued a $240,000 fine.

Despite the 2007 citation and 2013 fine, the Bureau found evidence that the CEO continued to broker toll free numbers. In early 2013, the Bureau received tips that the CEO sold several toll free numbers to a law firm for substantial fees. An investigation revealed that the CEO, who was the law firm’s main point of contact with the Company, had sold 32 toll free numbers to the firm for fees ranging from $375 to $10,000 per number. On other occasions, the CEO solicited the firm to buy 178 toll free numbers for fees ranging from $575 to $60,000 per number. This, along with his correspondence with the firm–including requests that payments be made to his or his wife’s personal bank accounts–were cited in support of a 2014 Notice of Apparent Liability (“NAL”) finding that the CEO, in his personal capacity and on behalf of the Company, had “yet again, apparently violated the prohibition against brokering.”

As neither the Company nor the CEO timely filed a response to the 2014 NAL, the FCC affirmed the proposed fines: $16,000 for each of the 32 toll free numbers that were sold, combined with a penalty of $16,000 for each of the 178 toll free numbers that the Company and CEO offered to sell, resulting in a total fine of $3.36 million.

FCC Rejects AM Licensee’s “Not My Tower, Not My Problem” Defense

The FCC imposed a penalty of $17,000 against a Michigan radio licensee for failing to make available its issues/program lists in the station’s public file and for failing to enclose the station’s antenna structure within an effective locked fence.
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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:

  • Unenclosed and Unpainted Tower Leads to $30,000 in Fines
  • $20,000 Fine for Missing Issues/Programs Lists at Two Stations
  • Increased Fine for Intentional Interference and Unlicensed Transmitter Use

Multiple Tower Violations Result in Increased Fine

Earlier this month, a Regional Director of the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau (the “Bureau”) issued a Forfeiture Order against the licensee of a New Jersey AM radio station for failing to properly paint its tower and enclose the tower within an effective locked fence or other enclosure.

Section 303(q) of the Communications Act requires that tower owners maintain painting and lighting of their towers as specified by the FCC. Section 17.50(a) of the Commission’s Rules says that towers must be cleaned or repainted as often as necessary to maintain good visibility. Section 73.49 of the FCC’s Rules requires “antenna towers having radio frequency potential at the base [to] be enclosed with effective locked fences or other enclosures.” The base fine for failing to comply with the lighting and marking requirements is $10,000, and the base fine for failing to maintain an effective AM tower fence is $7,000.

In March of 2010, agents from the Bureau’s Philadelphia Office inspected the licensee’s tower in New Jersey. The terms of the Antenna Structure Registration required that this particular tower be painted and lit. During their inspection, the agents noticed that the paint on the tower was faded and chipped, resulting in significantly reduced visibility. During their inspection, the agents also found that an unlocked gate allowed unrestricted access to the tower, which had radio frequency potential at its base. The agents contacted the owner of the tower and locked the gate before leaving the site.

In April of 2010, the Philadelphia Office issued a Notice of Violation (“NOV”) to the licensee for violating Sections 17.50(a) and 73.49 of the FCC’s Rules. The next month, in its response to the NOV, the licensee asserted that it inspects the tower several times each year and had been planning for some time to repair the faded and chipped paint and promised to bring the tower into compliance by August 15, 2010 by repainting the structure or installing white strobe lighting. The licensee also indicated that it had never observed the gate surrounding the tower be unlocked during its own site visits and noted that several tenants, each of whom leased space on the tower, also had keys for the site.

In November of 2010, agents inspected the tower again to ensure that the violations had been corrected. The agents discovered that the licensee had neither repainted the tower nor installed strobe lights and that now a different gate to the tower was unlocked. The agents immediately informed the licensee’s President and General Manager about the open gate, which they were unable to lock before leaving the site. The following day, the agents returned to the tower and noted that the gate was still unlocked. The agents again contacted the President, who promised that a new lock would be installed later that day, which did occur. At the beginning of December 2010, agents visited the tower with the President and the station’s Chief Engineer. The tower still had not been repainted, nor had strobe lights been installed. On January 7, 2011, the Chief Engineer reported to the FCC that white strobe lighting had been installed.

The Philadelphia Office issued a Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture (“NAL”) on October 31, 2011 for failure to repaint the tower and failure to enclose the tower with an effective locked fence or enclosure. In the NAL, the Philadelphia Office adjusted the base fines upward from the combined base fine of $17,000 because the “repeated warnings regarding the antenna structure’s faded paint and the unlocked gates . . . demonstrate[ed] a deliberate disregard for the Rules.” The Philadelphia Office proposed a fine of $20,000. In its response to the NAL, the licensee requested that the fine be reduced based on its immediate efforts to bring the tower into compliance with the rules and its overall history of compliance.

In response, the FCC declined to reduce the proposed fine because corrective action taken to come into compliance with the Rules is expected and does not mitigate violations. In addition, the FCC rejected the licensee’s argument that it had taken “immediate action” to correct the violations because the licensee was first notified about the chipped paint in March 2010 and did not install the strobe lights until January 2011. Finally, the FCC declined to reduce the fine based on a history of compliance because the licensee had violated the FCC’s Rules twice before. Therefore, the FCC affirmed the imposition of a $20,000 fine.

Fine Reduced to Base Amount for Good Faith Effort to Have Issues/Programs Lists Nearby

The Western Region of the Enforcement Bureau issued a Forfeiture Order against the licensee of two Colorado stations for failing to maintain complete public inspection files.
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The Federal Communications Commission recently adopted a Report and Order to streamline and eliminate outdated provisions of its Part 17 Rules governing the construction, marking, and lighting of antenna structures. According to the Commission, the goal was to “remove barriers to wireless deployment, reduce unnecessary costs, and encourage providers to continue to deploy advanced systems that facilitate safety while preserving the safeguards to protect historic, environmental and local interests.” The question, as Commissioner O’Rielly put it, is “why did it take nine years to get this item before the Commission for a vote?” While it was a long time in coming, the changes the FCC made will be mostly welcomed by tower owners across the country.

The need for changes to the rules was first raised in the FCC’s 2004 Biennial Ownership Review, and the FCC initiated a formal review of the antenna structure rules in 2010 in a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. The FCC’s goal in streamlining Part 17 of its rules was to improve compliance and enforcement while eliminating unnecessary and burdensome requirements for tower owners. The revised rules impact a number of regulations, and the hope is that the changes will also harmonize the FCC’s rules with the safety recommendations and rules of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). That said, in its update, the FCC made a point of removing from its rules references to FAA Circulars that the FCC has determined are out of date.

The primary changes to the rules that tower owners should be aware of are:

Antenna Structure Marking and Lighting Specifications. The Order updated the FCC’s rules to require that tower owners comply with the marking and lighting specifications included in the FAA’s “no hazard” determination for that particular tower, thereby making FCC and FAA regulations consistent in this area. The Order also emphasized that changes to marking and lighting specifications on an Antenna Structure Registration (ASR) require prior approval from both the FAA and the FCC. Importantly, the FCC specifically declined to require existing antenna structures to comply with any new lighting or marking requirements unless mandated to do so by the FAA.

Accuracy of Height and Location Data. The FCC noted in the Order that its prior rules did not define what kinds of “alterations” to an existing tower required a new registration and FCC approval prior to making those changes. The new rules are clear that FCC approval is required for any change or correction to a structure of one foot or greater in height, or one second or greater in location, relative to the existing information in the structure’s ASR form. The new criteria is the same as that used by the FAA for requiring a new aeronautical study and determination of “no hazard”.

Notification of Construction or Dismantlement. Tower owners are now required to notify the FCC within five days of “when a construction or alteration of a structure reaches its greatest height, when a construction or alteration is dismantled or destroyed, and when there are changes in structure height or ownership.” Under the prior rules, structure owners were given only 24 hours to provide notification to the FCC.

Voluntary Antenna Structure Registration. Under the FCC’s prior rules, tower owners were given the option to voluntarily register structures even when the FCC’s rules did not require registration. The new rules will still allow voluntary registration, but parties will be allowed to indicate that the registration is indeed voluntary, and they will not be subject to the Part 17 rules that apply to towers that are required to be registered (i.e., towers that exceed 200 feet or, for those located in close proximity to an airport, lower heights).

Posting of Antenna Structure Registrations. The new ASR posting requirement gives tower owners greater latitude regarding where they must post their Antenna Structure Registration numbers. The old rule required that the ASR number be displayed “in a conspicuous place so that it is readily visible near the base of the antenna structure.” As a result of the rule change, registration numbers can now be posted at the “closest publicly accessible” location near the tower base.

Providing Antenna Structure Registration to Tower Tenants. Tenant copies of ASRs will no longer need to be given to tenants in paper. Under the new rules, a link to the FCC’s website can be provided by mail or email.

Inspection of Structure Lights and Associated Control Equipment. The Order established a process allowing qualifying network operations center-based monitoring systems to be exempted from the existing quarterly inspection requirements that apply to automatic or mechanical control devices, indicators, and alarm systems used to ensure tower lighting systems are functioning properly. Specifically, systems with advanced self-diagnostic functions, an operations center staffed with “trained personnel capable of responding to alarms 24 hours per day, 365 days per year”, and a backup network operations center that can monitor systems in the event of failure, may be eligible for the exemption.

Notification of Extinguishment or Improper Functioning of Lights. The FCC’s rules require that when tower lights do go out, tower owners immediately notify the FAA so that the FAA can issue a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) to make aircraft aware of the outage. Parties are also required to notify the FAA when repairs have been completed so that the FAA can cancel the NOTAM. Under the new rules, tower owners are required to keep the FAA up to date and let the FAA know when repairs are expected to be complete at the expiration of each NOTAM (which last 15 days each). The good news is that the FCC clarified its rules somewhat, stating that lighting repairs must be completed “as soon as practicable”. Instead of adopting a fixed deadline for repairs to be made, the FCC will consider whether the tower owner has exercised due diligence and made good faith efforts to complete repairs in a timely manner.

Recordkeeping Requirements. Under the FCC’s prior rules, there was no specification regarding how long records of improper functioning needed to be kept. Under the newly adopted rules, the FCC requires antenna structure owners to maintain records of observed or otherwise known outages or improper functioning of structure lights for two years, and the records must be provided to inspectors upon request.

Maintenance of Painting. With regard to painting, the FCC adopted the FAA’s “In-Service Aviation Orange Tolerance Chart” as the standard for determining whether an antenna structure needs to be cleaned or repainted. The FCC did not say how often towers should be repainted or how close someone has to be to compare the colors on the chart with those on the tower. The FCC did say that placing the chart over a portion of the top half of the tower would give the best results, as that is where most of the wear and tear typically occurs.

The new rules will take effect thirty days after notice of the Order is published in the Federal Register (except for those provisions requiring Office of Management and Budget approval), which has not yet occurred. Despite the time it took to adopt new rules, the rule changes themselves are relatively straightforward, and tower owners should be sure to take advantage of the new rules when they take effect. It’s not every day we see less regulation from the FCC.