Defanging a Paper Tiger

Every broadcaster dreads a visit by a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) inspector, but broadcasters also know that the presence of the “Highway Patrol of the Airwaves” helps keep the playing field level and the participants honest. Violators of the FCC’s rules risk detection and know that a fine (or worse) may result.

For longer than the FCC itself has existed, a network of field offices has been key to maintaining order on the airwaves by resolving interference disputes, shutting down unlicensed operators and providing valuable and dispassionate advice on the FCC’s rules and policies that help minimize ongoing spectrum conflicts. The FCC’s own website observes that its field offices are its “eyes and ears” on the ground. Unfortunately, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler is now circulating an order that effectively leaves the FCC in the dark.

Earlier this month, Chairman Wheeler proposed to his colleagues to close more than half of the FCC’s field offices and cut field enforcement staff by almost two-thirds. New York City, Atlanta, Miami, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Dallas and Columbia, Maryland: that’s the entire list of offices that would remain open. Slated for closure are offices near major cities like Seattle, Denver, Boston, Philadelphia and Houston.

GPS outage in Honolulu? Chairman Wheeler says he’ll send a “Tiger Team” from Columbia, Maryland, to work on it. Sheriff department radios getting jammed in Tampa? Someone will be there within 24 hours, he told Rep. Gus Bilirakis (FL-12). All technical enforcement for the entire nation will be handled by a cadre of just 33 FCC agents spread across only eight offices.

As it stands today, most of the field offices already operate with only a skeleton crew. In 1995, the FCC automated its monitoring station operations, resulting in the closure of more than a dozen field offices with a commensurate reduction in staffing. Some of the remaining offices were converted to “Resident Agencies,” a euphemism for a one- or two-person office with no support staff. At that time, the FCC offered early retirement and a humane personnel relocation program. Increased training, improved technology and a reasonable travel budget were offered as assurances that no reduction in enforcement effectiveness would result.

In the past couple of weeks, the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau informed stakeholders that there would be no reduction in enforcement effectiveness because there would be increased training for the remaining agents, improved technology and an increase in travel funds. Do those assurances sound familiar? Even if all of the promises are kept about new training and new equipment and more money for gasoline, and even if the FCC continues to largely ignore all complaints except for interference to public safety (as they do today), the proposed staffing numbers just don’t add up. People take leave, training takes time, on-scene investigations mean in-office paperwork. So, the actual number of field agents available for assignment on a typical day might be half the total, or 16. Sixteen pairs of boots on the ground, doing field investigations for the FCC for the entire country. Think about that.

In 1935, shortly after the FCC was established, there were about 50,000 FCC-licensed stations, including two-way, broadcast, amateur and marine. Unlicensed devices, such as WiFi, microwave ovens and garage door openers did not exist. Today, there are hundreds of thousands of licensed stations and hundreds of millions of unlicensed devices. How can the FCC reasonably expect to keep on top of all these transmitters and ensure the safety of Americans with a day-to-day crew of perhaps 16 field agents nationwide?

The problems with the FCC’s spectrum enforcement plan will only be compounded by its intention to promote additional spectrum sharing. NAB supports the concept of spectrum sharing, but a robust mechanism for enforcement is critical to ensure that devices operate only on the frequencies they are authorized. Even if a fraction of a percent of devices have incorrect data or malfunction, widespread interference – including interference to safety-of-life services – will result. That means disrupted emergency and AMBER Alerts, unreliable police and fire communications, riskier air travel and a host of other scary possibilities.

Just last week, NAB filed an emergency petition for rulemaking asking the FCC to fix its broken white space database. One-third or more of the database entries contain errors, many of them serious enough to obscure the location and/or ownership of the actual transmitters, which are required to register in a database so that they can be shut down if interference occurs. The FCC is now proposing to expand use of white spaces in part because of the purported sparkling quality and wild success of the database system. Further, the agency proposes to use the white space database system as a model for frequency-sharing in other bands, including some used by Department of Defense radars and weak-signal satellite downlinks.

The unauthorized use of devices can, and has in the past, caused widespread interference – including interference to safety-of-life services. FCC field staff are uniquely qualified with training, equipment and authority to locate and shut down such devices. Even if the affected user is able to identify the source of the problem, there is no right of private action in the Communications Act that could force the source shut down. State and local law enforcement are reluctant to take on interference or unauthorized transmitter cases due, understandably, to lack of expertise. FCC field staff possess the expertise and have sole authority to investigate and enforce laws relating to radio.

Fortunately, there is still time for the FCC to reverse course and rethink its proposal to gut the field offices. Perhaps it took the proposal itself to help the agency realize just how valuable those who use radio frequencies believe the field offices to be. Most of all, at a time when it the FCC is pursuing policies that will inevitably create an environment where interference is more likely to occur, it must not devastate its field enforcement resources.