A one-two punch on Capitol Hill for the FCC’s plan to decimate its field enforcement presence. The chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce chair Fred Upton (R-MI) dropped a letter on FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler April 23rd demanding all agency documentation, “including all drafts, memos, emails analyses, PowerPoint slides, interim reports, and the final report related to your proposal to close FCC field offices,” as well as “all internal communications and internal analyses, related to the Enforcement Bureau and Office of Managing Director joint recommendtion to the commission to close the FCC field offices.”
The FCC has until this Thursday (May 7) to respond. At present, Congress is working on the same stuff leaked to the public earlier this month.
Last week, Wheeler went in for a grilling at a subcommittee hearing on “improving commission transparency.” Over two and a half hours, Wheeler fended off a flurry of political verbal abuse, including darts about the proposed downsizing.
Rep. Michael Pompeo (R-KS), who’s already grandstanded on this issue, did a little more. After a somewhat incoherent and tangential apologia to the Koch brothers, he then asked a series of questions about how the FCC came up with its enforcement plan. Wheeler pledged full disclosure as soon as personally-identifiable information was removed from the documents. He also disclosed that he did not know if the outside consultants (Oceaneast Associates and Censeo Consulting Group) were hired under a competitive bidding process.
Later, Republican Bill Johnson of Ohio gave a skeptical monologue about the effectiveness of an emasculated field presence: “If I were to read behind the lines, aren’t you really talking about a wholesale retreat” from doing on-the-ground work? Wheeler weaved with a response along the lines of, “it’s not like we don’t have enough people, it’s just that we don’t utilize them effectively.” Wheeler claims to have closed more than 8,000 enforcement cases over his tenure and Johnson would like to know how many of those lapsed because the statute of limitations ran out (not an uncommon practice in pirate radio cases involving fines). The Chairman said he’d provide that information as well, but remarked that most of the closed cases dealt with mass-complaints involving broadcast indecency.
Some former FCC employees are also starting to sound off in detail. Walter Gernon, a retired FCC Enforcement Bureau district director, has been an active participant in publicizing the cutback proposal and calls it “delusional and unreasonable.” He’s especially worried about the “Tiger Team” idea, which would dedicate a flying squad of field agents to hopscotching the country to tackle spectrum-enforcement hot spots. If only it were that simple to police the airwaves, Gernon writes: “Whoever is responsible for this proposal has no concept of the difficulty of direction-finding in a marine environment with metal wharves and numerous vessels; or in mountainous regions with canyon walls reflecting the signal; or among skyscrapers on busy streets.” He traces the problem back nearly 20 years, to the last major Bureau cutbacks in 1996; since then, he and his colleagues “were left to twist in the wind under a policy of benign neglect.”
Whereas Gernon’s opposition to the FCC’s proposal is well-reasoned, broadcast engineering consultant Robert Gonsett wins the Chicken Little award. Writing in TV Technology (a sister-publication to Radio World), he claims that the FCC has implemented a “littleknown [sic] brand new policy: Hands-off pirates unless they are causing direct interference to an authorized broadcast station and the FCC isn’t busy with higher priority cases like public safety interference.” To Gonsett, this will inspire “a new generation of jammers and pirates [to] crop up knowing full well that the FCC’s field offices have been emasculated and will do nothing.”
Meanwhile, FCC Enforcement Bureau chief Travis LeBlanc sounds like he’s in la-la land, hoping to someday “get to a world when there are no pirates on the airwaves.” Hard to do under current conditions, when morale among field agents is very low and more than half of them are eligible to retire. Key to making this happen, he says is working closely with the National Associaton of Broadcasters.
I’m sure they’d be willing to help: in 1997, the organization’s Radio Board passed a resolution effectively declaring war on pirate broadcasters and advocating for the federales to launch a campaign to effectively fumigate the AM and FM dials.