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News Archive: October 2012

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10/25/12 - FCC Goes Gangbusters on Jammers [link to this story]

On the heels of admonishing a half-dozen people for hawking cell-phone and GPS jammers on Craigslist earlier this month, the FCC unveiled a new web portal and toll-free hotline for reporting the use of such devices. In doing so it cited another six people for their online sales shenanigans.

Within these documents (sample), the FCC details its planned strategy for enforcement in this domain:

While we previously have issued warnings to operators in the first instance -primarily because non-monetary penalties historically have proven effective in deterring unlawful operation by individuals - we are not required to do so. We are mindful of the serious risks posed by jamming devices and the apparent need to provide greater cease the operation, importation, and sale of jamming devices altogether. Therefore, we caution you and other potential violators that going forward, and as circumstances warrant, we intend to impose substantial monetary penalties, rather than (or in addition to) warnings, on individuals who operate a jammer.

Translation: fines for such activity are forthcoming. They will begin at $16,000 "for each such violation or, in the case of a continuing violation...up to $16,000 for each day of such continuing violation up to a maximum forfeiture of $112,500 for any single act or failure to act."

I can understand the FCC's predicament. Cell-phone and GPS jamming devices are intentional interferers with a legitimate public safety implication. But I'm kind of surprised that the base fine for selling one is but $6,000 more than what the FCC dings unlicensed AM and FM broadcasters for, considering that they (by and large) interfere with nobody and pose a relatively infinitesimal safety risk to the public.

It'll be interesting to see how the agency's chronically understaffed field enforcement adapts to chasing down the people behind Craigslist postings and other online venues for selling jammer devices. The latest Citation and Orders ask the violators to either visit their nearest FCC field office (which could be hundreds of miles away) for an interview OR respond in writing to the C&O within two weeks. No physical jammer-hunting on the menu yet, though the opening of a public tip-line to report their use is likely to lead to that.

The prohibition against jamming devices will only work if the threat of likely penalty makes the sale of them unprofitable. Constrained by the relatively passive nature of administrative tactics, one can't help but wonder how this campaign might affect the time and resources allocated to other enforcement activities.

10/18/12 - A Weekend at the Wave Farm [link to this story]

Last weekend I had the distinct honor and pleasure of attending the first-ever Transmission Arts Colloquium, hosted by free103point9 - a non-profit organization whose mission is devoted to advancing transmission arts (loosely defined as the creative manipulation of the electromagnetic spectrum) and access to the airwaves more broadly.

free103point9 has an interesting history. One of its principals founded 87X, a pirate radio station in Tampa, Florida at the height of the pre-LPFM microradio movement. After moving to the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, free103point9 was born in 1997. This microradio station provided an outlet for lots of programming, but became quite well-known for its sonic experimentation. Following the passage of LPFM, free103point9 evolved from rogue broadcaster to thriving arts organization.

In addition to being the licensee of community radio station WGXC in Hudson, New York, free103point9 also runs the Wave Farm, located on a 30-acre plot of bucolic woodland outside of town where transmission artists reside to work on projects. The Wave Farm not only has a beautiful two-story building with a library, studio-space, and lodging, but there's trails through the property on which artists have built interesting (and functional) installations that creatively blend technology and nature.

The Colloquium brought together about a dozen invited artists and scholars from around the world to explore three broad and intense questions:

1. If we define transmissions arts broadly as encompassing broadcast, installation, communication networks, composition and performance - in public spaces or on airwaves - what is your understanding of the potential of this mode of work for the future? What is your definition of "the contemporary" in transmission arts? Where is it pointing for the future?

2. Transmission art engages with...complex socio-technical conditions and circumstances of transmission, often as direct critique of state and/or corporate communication infrastructure and systems. How [does such art] rethink transmission media in order to engage with the issues of power, ownership, and access to the electromagnetic spectrum? How do transmission artists approach the deep and unavoidable philosophical tension between utopian dreams of union and the status of interference and noise?

3. If we think of artworks as part of an elaborate ecosystem - a community, incorporating artists and the public in cultural, economic, and political interconnectedness - how can we work toward sustainability? What tools do the different species of transmission arts have to develop creatively in this wider network of understanding? How can they evolve in the context of contemporary social and economic systems and the intermingling of art forms?

We spent the better part of a day and a half exploring these questions. Each question was addressed initially by a panel of four who had prepared statements and thoughts, which the rest of the group interrogated and built upon.

I spoke on question #3, and did so from the perspective of building on the collaborations that led to the Colloquium, with an eye toward establishing "transmission arts" as a publicly identifiable field of expression and inquiry, so as to increase the network of participants and evangelize for the use of radio and other "transmission technologies" in broader social, political, and economic contexts.

During the weekend, all of us participated in an afternoon program on WGXC (streamed live from the Wave Farm) in which we got to introduce ourselves and begin the process of processing what we were learning at the Colloquium. All of the event's discussions were taped for later transcription and possible publication.

Being primarily a teacher, journalist, and policy wonk, I often felt way over my head when issues of aesthetics and theory raised their heads (as they did often). I tried to employ policy-knowledge to help us suss out just where points for the fruitful transgression of communications law and regulation exist. Overall, engaging with these aspects of the larger world of transmission was a mind-expanding experience like none I've ever had.

I'd been dying to visit and collaborate with the Wave Farm for years and feel extremely lucky that I got the chance. There's a perception among communications researchers that radio studies is a dead field because nothing interesting happens in the medium anymore; this Colloquium positively exploded that myth. Here's hoping that such gatherings become a regular thing and grow in both participation and expressivity.

10/11/12 - FCC Agents Expand Online Prowling [link to this story]

It's already well-established that FCC field enforcement agents use the internet to collect information for busting pirate radio stations - visiting station web sites, Facebook pages, and the like looking for information to beef up their cases.

FCC agents have also gone after the sellers of non-certified AM and FM transmitters, illegal CB amplifiers, and signal jamming devices. In the past, this has included scouring eBay looking for scofflaws.

This week the Enforcement Bureau broke new cyber-ground by issuing two citations against people for advertising cell phone jamming devices on Craigslist.

In both cases, a field agent e-mailed the sellers asking for more information on the device (likely, as with many Craigslist buyer-inquiries, not revealing their true identity at first blush). In a case originating in Orlando, Florida, the citation was issued just after the seller responded to the inquiry; but in Washington, D.C., an "undercover Enforcement Bureau agent" actually went through with a purchase.

The citations direct the sellers to "confirm within fifteen (15) calendar days...that you have ceased marketing and operating any jamming device; provide information concerning the source(s) from which you purchased or received the jamming device you advertised on Craigslist as well as any other jamming devices you may have, or previously may have had, in your possession; and provide information concerning any jammer sales that you may have made."

Failure to comply, says the FCC, may result in "substantial monetary penalties, seizure of equipment, and criminal sanctions."

Interestingly, the FCC does not seem to have any actual information about the sellers beyond their names and e-mail addresses, which opens up the question of just exactly how it will physically track down the culprits should it choose to do more than admonish them.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of postings exist on Craigslist advertising jammers for sale, so this should keep field agents busy for quite a while. The FCC calls this sort of enforcement "market surveillance," which is a fancy term for what is effectively desk-work. Your tax dollars in action!

10/4/12 - Diverging Perspectives on the Future of AM [link to this story]

Nobody really quite knows what the National Association of Broadcasters' AM Task Force is up to, but speculation surrounding their work has sparked some interesting discussion about the state and future of the oldest of the broadcast radio bands.

The Task Force seems to be considering two primary ideas for "revitalizing" AM broadcasting. One is to phase it out completely and migrate all AM stations to new spots on the FM dial. The other involves a wholesale conversion of AM broadcasting from analog to digital, using AM-HD as the mechanism.

Neither of these proposals are optimal. Both would necessitate listeners buying new receivers to take advantage of any changes, and they would be expensive and disruptive to all AM broadcasters - many of whom are on shaky financial footing already.

The NAB, as the handmaiden of the largest broadcast conglomerates (and with the close cooperation of National Public Radio) seems to be leaning toward the digitalization route. Either will be a tough sell.

AM Task Force Chairman Ben Downs, the vice president of Texas-based Bryan Broadcasting, recently articulated his views on potential changes to the AM dial. But even he played coy: "I can’t speak for the NAB, but the sense I get is that people would like to do more study on some pieces, like the HD-only, in the hope that the further study would make the solutions more clear. Maybe by doing some more research...suddenly an option will pop out and be clear to everyone that this is what should be done. "

However, there are those who are not looking at new or modified technology to revitalize AM broadcasting. Saul Levine, the owner of Mt. Wilson Broadcasters - the only independent commercial broadcasting company left in Los Angeles - thinks the solution is relatively simple.

"First, get over this belief that everything must be digital, and that analog is a bad word," he says. "There are immediately available technical improvements that can bolster the analog AM signal. AM operators should dump the ancient RF and audio equipment...and replace with state-of-the-art new transmitters, antenna phasing systems, new ground systems, new audio equipment, new processing equipment and anything else...producing a negative impact on the signal."

Engineer extraordinaire Paul Thurst agrees. "How many of us have seen AM transmitter site dumps? Deferred maintenance, malfunctioning directional arrays, trees growing up on the ground system, flooded buildings and ATU’s, rusty towers, transmitters not at full power, ground system deteriorated or missing all together, just to list a few problems. Many AM transmitter sites are technical disasters."

Thurst also suggests AM broadcasters shy away from HD ("This dubious technology has proved itself a non-starter and should be discontinued") and should advocate for improvements in AM receiver technology.

Perhaps most importantly, both Levine and Thurst believe AM stations would perform better if broadcasters actually put some care into what they program. Levine's AM station plays classical music, which is nearly unheard of today. (It's also broadcast as an HD-2 channel on one of Levine's FM outlets.) Thurst is more explicit: "Expecting that mediocre satellite syndicated news talk will garner great ratings and huge revenues is silly. For years and years, station owners have put minimal effort into AM radio and expected big returns. It is not working. AM stations that go against that trend; those with unique formats (Gasp! Music, on AM?), local content, and community oriented programming can and do succeed."

The sad thing is, such content-driven solutions are unlikely to be seriously considered, especially when the political and economic heft of the industry resides with those who think that gadgetry might magically fix all woes.