FCC Issues "Progress Report"
As new licenses for low power FM (LPFM) stations continue to trickle out of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the agency's Enforcement Bureau continues to wrestle with the "problem" of "pirate" broadcasters.
Unlicensed activity appears to be running high on both the FM and Shortwave bands. Shortwave activity is booming at a level not seen in years. In the past month alone, nearly two dozen shortwave pirates have conducted broadcasts, some broadcasting multiple times per week. The FCC has not conducted an enforcement action against a shortwave pirate since 1998.
The same can not be said for the FM band, where the FCC has been very busy. In January, 2002, four microradio stations were contacted by FCC agents for broadcasting without a license. One was fined $10,000. On a year-by-year basis, enforcement activity of this level for the month of January hasn't been seen since 1999.
The numbers might look unnerving at face value, but the FCC's Enforcement Bureau is facing numerous internal challenges that may hinder its future activity.
According to an Enforcement Bureau Progress Report released on January 17, 2002, retirement of current FCC field agents is a looming concern. The report states that about 20% of its field enforcement staff is eligible for retirement in 2002 (approximately 30 of the nearly 140 agents in the field); this percentage will only increase as the years go by.
In fact, the Enforcement Bureau estimates that by the year 2011, unless it is able to replace retiring agents, its presence in the field will dwindle to less than half of what it is today - and of those remaining in the field, more than 80% could retire in 2011, leaving the FCC with less than 20 field agents by 2012.
According to the FCC's FY 2003 budget, no staffing increases are planned in the Enforcement Bureau.
Another concern facing America's radio police is its aging fleet of vehicles. The Bureau's Progress Report says over 90% of its current fleet is more than 6 years old; of those vehicles, half are more than 10 years old. The Enforcement Bureau believes that the dated technology in its vehicle fleet is hindering its ability to properly police the airwaves. While the agency has spent $900,000 so far to upgrade its vehicle fleet, it's not known just how much it will cost to bring everything up to par.
Pirate Radio = Terrorism?This is not stopping the FCC from becoming more aggressive in its enforcement policies. The Progress Report says the Enforcement Bureau is focusing much of its energy on "homeland security and public safety" issues. This is an area that has direct implications on unlicensed broadcasting.
For example, the Bureau says it's already added new field engineers to "strengthen public safety/homeland security enforcement" with a focus on "public safety-related interference location and resolution: e.g., police and fire departments, FAA and aviation frequencies, [and] federal law enforcement."
In addition, the Enforcement Bureau plans to regularly send field agents for training at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center. This could potentially lead to a militarization of enforcement actions taken against pirate broadcasters.
Finally: "As resources permit, [the Bureau will be] focusing on broader geographic areas; reaching areas that are further away from our Field offices."
While unlicensed broadcasters have not been singled out as a target as they have been in years past, it's seems that the stakes may be getting higher for broadcasting without a license. It's unlikely "the knock" will be replaced by a battering ram anytime soon, but the trend toward a more aggressive enforcement policy under the guise of fighting terrorism may be in the works.
It will be up to the pirates to adapt to these new strategies and tactics; some are already getting a head start. The most notable case so far has been a station in Boulder, Colorado - who's avoided being shut down not once, but twice already.
Boulder Free Radio: Swing-and-a-miss!Boulder Free Radio, aka KBFR, broadcast for three months before getting "the knock" on July 15, 2001. The station was allegedly run by a small group of individuals out of a local Boulder home.
Once KBFR was contacted by the FCC, its operators dismantled the equipment and donated it to another group who vowed to keep the station on the air. Under the modified moniker of "Free Boulder Radio," the station broadcast from a van which moved from location to location around town.
Having tired of the hassles of mobile operation, Free Boulder Radio finally found a place it could call home. The station operators leased a room and a parking space at a local garage, locked the van, and camouflaged the antenna in a nearby tree.
On January 17, 2002 - the same day as the Enforcement Bureau released its "Progress Report" - FCC Field Agent Jon Sprague visited the new location of Free Boulder Radio. He left-empty handed.
The FBR folks had devised an ingenious setup to keep the FCC at bay: while Agent Sprague was able to locate the transmitter inside the van with relative ease, he originally had no idea where the studio was.
After much consternation and head-scratching, Agent Sprague finally figured out that the station studio was inside the garage, housed in a back office. It was feeding the "transmitter van" by way of a 2.4 GHz wireless radio link - the type of equipment often used to create wireless computer networks, and more importantly, completely legal to operate.
Technically-speaking, while the FM transmitter was operating without a license, the studio was in the clear, as it was not directly linked to the transmitter!
Even so, the garage owner denied any knowledge of the Free Boulder Radio operation, and since Agent Sprague didn't have a warrant, he couldn't take anything. After leaving a business card and sending a warning notice to FBR's Yahoo email address, the ball is back firmly in the pirates' court.
According to sources close to the station, a "Plan C" broadcast configuration is in the works - one which is even more elaborate and difficult to find and shut down. After a cooling-off period, Free Boulder Radio plans to return to the air.
It'll be thinking ahead and outside the box like this that will keep the microradio movement alive in "America at War."