The Federal Communications Commission has tendered its budget request to Congress for fiscal year 2013. It’s asking for $346.8 million – a $7 million increase from FY 2012. The trades have highlighted the agency’s request for $2.5 million to replace and upgrade “direction finding and wireless monitoring equipment,” of which $1.1 million will be spent on eight custom field enforcement vehicles.
The Clear Channel-owned publication Inside Radio dubbed this an investment in “pirate-fighting funds.” Such sentiments have no basis in fact.
The Enforcement Bureau‘s proposed budget is $52.1 million, or 15% of the FCC’s total budget. It is the second-largest departmental line item in the agency (its chief administrative arm, the Office of Managing Director, takes the cake with an ask of just over $100 million). The $2.5 million request for new field enforcement gear represents just .7% of the agency’s total budget request.
$1.1 million will be used to purchase eight new field vehicles, which are “very specialized and include industrial computers, touch screen monitors, custom designed antennas, FCC-designed electronics, visual spectrum displays, and radio receivers.” The budget mentions that the vehicles are used to hunt pirate broadcasters, but it is not their primary function.
The FCC says these purchases “will replace existing [vehicles] that will be past their practical lifetime in FY 2013.” It made a similar request three years ago. The agency characterizes much of the gear currently used in the field to analyze and track radio signals as “obsolete,” and while field offices “have obtained the highest priority equipment using allocated equipment funds…those funds have not compensated for the continued aging equipment, equipment that is no longer repairable and the fast-changing emerging technologies” which field agents need to do their jobs.
Ancillary data does not support any move on the FCC’s part to increase its pirate-hunting efforts. The Enforcement Bureau’s halfway through a two-year process of hiring some two dozen new employees, bringing its total workforce up to 299 (of which the vast majority work at headquarters). There’s long been concern about the aging of field staff, so some of this hiring is designed to bring in young blood – not a net growth of the field inspectorate.
Under the budget proposal’s performance goals, there is no specific mention of anti-pirate enforcement activities; the agency simply pledges to “[c]ontinue an aggressive program of inspections and investigations by agents in the field to help maximize compliance with the Commission’s licensing and technical requirements.”
In a nutshell, these are not unreasonable requests. Over the last few years, field enforcement activity has increasingly focused on finding and shutting down cell phone jammers and bi-directional amplifiers, cutting into the already busy schedule kept by field agents dealing with ersatz two-way radio systems run by the private sector, leaky cable TV networks, and the inspection of licensed broadcasters.
Relative to these efforts, pirate-hunting has been and will continue to be a low-priority item, as far as the FCC’s field resources are concerned. It’s been a slow 2012 so far – not as slow as last year, when unlicensed broadcast enforcement efforts plummeted, but certainly far off the pace of previous years.