Last March the FCC put forth what turned out to be a controversial plan to modernize and reduce the Commission’s field enforcement activities, resulting in significant review and comment by industry stakeholders as well as members of the U.S. Congress. In the midst of these discussions about Field Offices, the Commission in June hosted a “Pirate Radio Roundtable” focusing on strategies to combat illegal pirate radio operations. These activities recently culminated in the release of an FCC Order on reorganization of the Enforcement Bureau’s field operations and a letter from NAB to FCC Chairman Wheeler summarizing ideas from the Pirate Radio Roundtable for possible actions to combat Pirate Radio.
The FCC’s Order, released July 16, 2015, outlines several actions to realign the mission and resources of the FCC field offices and Equipment Development Group. Most notably, the Order closes completely eight of the 24 current field offices and closes an additional three offices with plans to still maintain a “local presence” in these cities (Anchorage, Kansas City, and San Juan). The table and map shown here summarize these office closure actions.
More generally, the Order directs the field offices to embark on a program to update equipment and employee skillsets to address the likely issues that will accompany new and expanded uses of spectrum. The Commission wants this program to include the expanded use of remotely operated monitoring equipment to supplement field staff, as well as the identification and use of portable devices capable of assessing interference issues in bands expected to experience heavy spectrum use. The Order also stipulates that:
- all Bureau field agents shall have electrical engineering backgrounds;
- within six weeks of release of the Order, the Bureau will establish procedures for industry and public safety complainants to escalate their complaints within the Field organization;
- the Commission will continue to work with outside stakeholders to develop a comprehensive policy and enforcement approach to the issue of unlicensed radio broadcasting;
the Commission will implement a nationwide outplacement effort to assist all displaced employees to find positions in the public or private sectors, including other vacancies within the Commission for which they are qualified and selected.
In an NAB news release on the FCC Order, NAB Executive Vice President of Communications Dennis Wharton said that “NAB appreciates the work of both the FCC and Congress in forging a compromise FCC field office proposal that keeps open many more enforcement offices than was originally proposed. We also thank both Republican and Democratic commissioners for expressing a need to better enforce prohibition against pirate radio stations. NAB looks forward to working with all stakeholders to police the airwaves against these illegal operations.”
In a separate but related matter, on July 17, 2015, NAB General Counsel and Executive Vice President Rick Kaplan sent a letter to FCC Chairman Wheeler with a list of ideas resulting from the FCC’s “Pirate Radio Roundtable” focusing on strategies to combat illegal pirate radio operations. At the Roundtable discussion it was noted that pirate radio operations erode the advertising and membership base of legitimate broadcast stations (both full- and low-power), and undermine investment in legitimate stations, particularly minority-owned stations. They also threaten the health and safety of radio listeners and local residents. Pirate radio operations disrupt the Emergency Alert System (EAS), interfere with aviation frequencies and often transmit from residential buildings where unchecked RF radiation can cause health problems.
Some of the suggestions generated at the Roundtable discussion are summarized in the NAB letter and include the following:
- Significantly increase the number of enforcement actions, including Notices of Apparent Liability, Forfeitures and equipment seizures issued by the FCC against pirate operators. This effort should begin immediately as the number of pirate radio stations often increases during the summer months. While the Enforcement Bureau has issued hundreds of Notices of Unlicensed Operation, it has issued relatively few fines or equipment seizures;
- Develop a Commission policy statement to share with private and law enforcement groups and help channel Commission resources towards pirate radio enforcement;
- Implement a dual strategy that increases pirate enforcement effort in the short term using all existing enforcement tools while working on changes in the Communications Act and other federal laws to improve enforcement against pirate radio. This will include a legislative strategy for expanding the Commission’s authority to prosecute pirate radio operators, including coordination with the Federal Aviation Authority and the Federal Emergency Management Agency;
- Raise the awareness of entities (e.g., concert venues, building owners and managers, advertisers) that may unknowingly aid and abet pirate radio operators. Develop best practices with representative trade associations and organizations;
- Enlist law enforcement entities that can serve as partners in education efforts;
- Enhance the Commission’s ability to identify and prosecute pirate operators, including the continued assistance of broadcasters in locating illegal radio transmitters and studios;
- Further examine the impact of pirate radio on the nation’s EAS system;
- Create a permanent liaison between the Commission, U.S. Attorney’s Offices, US Marshal’s service, and state and local law enforcement agencies to facilitate pirate radio enforcement;
- Explore using private sector engineers to help FCC offices work with local law enforcement in a more efficient manner.