O’Rielly Encourages War on Pirates

When FCC Commisioner Mike O’Rielly spoke last week to the summer conference of the New York State Broadcasters Assocaiation, he made pirate radio the lead-off topic, sending a clear signal that the Commission is responding to recent Congressional pressure and industry lobbying on the issue. How that response will manifest itself is yet to be determined, but any viable effort will have to involve thinking outside the box about how to be better spectrum-cops.

“Far from being cute, insignificant, or even somehow useful in the broadcasting ecosystem,” said O’Rielly, “pirate radio represents a criminal attack on the integrity of our airwaves, at a time when spectrum has become more scarce and precious than ever before.” He compared unlicensed broadcasters to “poison ivy in a neglected garden” and estimated that nearly one-quarter of all pirates in the country reside in the New York area (data, please!). Read More

New HD Radio Applications Seek to Fix System Flaws

There’ve been a couple of interesting developments out of the HD Radio trenches over the last few months. Both are touted as advanced “applications” for utilizing the HD Radio system — but in reality they’re band-aids that seek to fix fundamental flaws with the technology itself.

The first involves transmitter-manufacturer Nautel and its experiments with FM-HD multiplexing. This practice is inherent to the DAB/DAB+ radio systems adopted in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere: instead of every station having its own transmission infrastructure, stations send a stream to a multiplex transmitter where it’s combined with other stations and broadcast as a unifed signal. Instead of tuning to a particular frequency, DAB/DAB+ receivers look for the data-flags of the desired station and, once found, decode only that stream. In this configuration, DAB/DAB+ multiplexes can broadcast 10 or more channels of programming on a single unified digital radio signal. Read More

FCC Radically Revises Enforcement Drawdown

Three months ago, the FCC announced it was preparing to decimate its Enforcement Bureau by removing half its existing staff from the field and closing two-thirds of its field offices. The proposal, based on a $700,000 study prepared by outside consultants, did not sit well with anybody, and was popularly seen as the FCC effectively abdicating its role as police on the public airwaves.

That is, until last Tuesday, when the FCC announced it was abandoning that plan. There will still be enforcement cuts, but nearly not as draconian. Nine field offices are slated to close (instead of 16) and the agency has pledged to concentrate its field staff in markets where maintaining spectrum integrity is of primary importance. To make up for the offices that will be closed, the FCC will have not one, but two “Tiger Teams” ready for deployment on a short fuse. Even though it was brief, Chairman Tom Wheeler’s statement on the revised plan sounds contrite: “This updated plan represents the best of both worlds: rigorous management analysis combined with extensive stakeholder and Congressional input.”

In simple terms, the broadcast industry lit a fire under Congress about the importance of having something akin to recognizable (if not robust) enforcement activity by the FCC. This is the fruit of a carefully-coordinated lobbying campaign by the National Association of Broadcasters, New York State Broadcasters Association, and New Jersey Broadcasters Association, and the hook they used to make their counterattack on the FCC’s downsizing plan was pirate radio. The subject was mentioned repeatedly in Congressional hearings during which the reduction-in-force came up. And on the day that the FCC announced it was stepping back from eviscerating enforcement, a letter co-signed by more than 30 members of Congress to the FCC was released highlighting “Unauthorized FM Radio Operations in New York City.” Read More

CBRS: A Foray Into Spectrum Sharing

Earlier this spring the FCC announced the creation of what it calls the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) — a swath of spectrum between 3.5-3.7 GHz that will be opened to both licensed and unlicensed services. This spectrum has traditionally been reserved for military radar and satellite uplinks; now it may become a sandbox for dynamic use of the public airwaves.

This particular slice of spectrum falls between two established Wi-Fi allocations, so one obvious potential use is for the provision of last-mile (or last-foot) broadband access. Incumbent users (the Navy and satellite ground stations) will remain on the band, but they’re so geographically sparse that for all intents and purposes this spectrum has been fallow in the majority of the United States. Under CBRS, instead of licensing devices to work on a particular channel within a band, they will be effectively permitted to use the entire band. The devices themselves will be programmed to sniff the local airwaves to find and utilize non-congested channels in its immediate area. Google is developing a database of CBRS users and devices that will be updated in real-time based on operating feedback from the devices themselves — the Internet of Things coming to life. Read More

In Face of Downsizing, Are FCC Agents Pulling Back?

Can’t say for sure, but the latest update to the Enforcement Action Database seems to suggest it, as the agency considers drastically cutting their already meager ranks. As of the end of April, there’ve been just 35 enforcement actions against 17 stations in four states. There has been no official report of field activity in May. In 2014, there were 52 enforcement actions in the same time-frame.

2014 saw the lowest level of FCC enforcement activity against unlicensed broadcasters in nearly a decade. Where agents are active, New York continues to lead the way, followed by New Jersey and California. A station in Colorado also got a warning letter this year, but that was a follow-up to a visit last year. Read More