The House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology had members of the FCC in for three hours of grilling a couple of weeks ago under the rubric of “continued oversight,” which is a fancy way of saying “giving members a chance to grandstand on pet issues.”

Subjects like the FCC’s plans to repurpose DTV spectrum for wireless broadband, reform communications subsidy programs, and the protection of net neutrality got the most attention, but questions of the FCC’s enforcement capabilities and how pirate radio fits into the mix did arise.

After members and the Commission’s two witnesses (Chairman Tom Wheeler and Commissioner Ajit Pai) made opening statements, subcommittee chair Greg Walden (R-OR) asked about the FCC’s revised plan to downsize its field enforcement resources. Walden believes the Bureau is overloaded with positions at FCC HQ to the detriment of field staff.

Wheeler disagreed, saying the Bureau’s personnel has been cut some 20% since the days of Bush-era Chairman Kevin Martin, and that includes thinning positions in the home office. Wheeler also confirmed that the Bureau does indeed have more vehicles in the field than actual people to use them – though he says surplus wheels are being rounded up and strategically positioned for the use of the two roving “strike teams” the FCC plans to deploy to the field to beef up its field enforcement efforts.

A couple of hours later, Rep. Chris Collins (R-NY) raised the issue of pirate radio directly. While admitting it’s not a terrible problem on a national level, he notes its prevalence in New York City. And though his district is hundreds of miles from NYC, he expressed “extreme” disappointment over the FCC’s lack of action on the issue.

According to Collins, Chairman Wheeler sent him a letter recently which seems to characterize pirate radio enforcement as “not a priority.” Quoting directly from the letter, “The time and expense of pursuing these cases present particular difficultiies in the curent budget environment where Commission staffing is at its lowest in 30 years.”

As a result, says Collins (via the letter), enforcement efforts are focused on things that represent an “imminent threat” to public safety and consumer harm. Wheeler told Collins that “during my chairmanship we’ve had 200 pirate radio enforcements” (whatever that means) with perhaps 80% of those in New York City. He also noted that an “interagency task force” has been set up to further address the problem, of which the NAB and New York State Broadcasters’ Association are also members.

As it stands right now, according to Wheeler, pirate radio enforcment is a “whack-a-mole” style situation, where field agents might silence a transmitter but the “cabal” behind the station (whatever that means) remains unscathed. He asked Congress to empower the agency to prosecute folks who “aid and abet” unlicensed broadcasters, as well as give them more “enforcement teeth” (again, whatever that means).

Collins told Wheeler to write up the legislative language he thinks is necessary to beef up anti-pirate policing – but any language will be meaningless without adequate resources to follow through. On a purely legal level, the FCC’s authority to enforce the broadcast license requiement has been pretty solid throughout history, but it’s never been imbued with the long arm necessary to meaningfully act on that authority.

About a half hour later, Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) went on a rambling lamentation of the fact that the appropriation process for the FCC’s budget is broken: Congress reduces its funding but issues tons caveats on how to spend it. According to Eshoo, if this trend continues Congress might want to curb its appetite for giving the FCC special assignments if it won’t back them up with fiscal support. “Something’s gonna go,” she repeated.

Wheeler’s only response was that “we are currently at the lowest number of FTEs in modern history for the agency.”

Field enforcement activity against pirate radio, 2005-2015.

Field enforcement activity against pirate radio, 2005-2015.

When I first wrote about the FCC’s revised Enforcement Bureau drawdown, a commenter named “FCC Insider” left this tidbit: “The original downsizing proposal left a total of 50 employees, 33 of them field agents. The ‘new’ proposal. . .adds a mere total of four more field agents for a total of 37 field agents. That’s it. Three of the seven so-called “Tigers” will shift from Columbia, MD to Denver, and four more one agent offices were added back. With an already aging force, destroyed morale, and no competent leadership in sight from current upper management, the field will be gone in 5 years.”

I guess it would be smart to keep en eye on Congress to see if it approves legislation giving the FCC new and improved teeth regarding radio pirates, especially via some underhanded mechanism like a rider to a completely unrelated bill (this is, after all, how the NAB et al. eviscerated LPFM). It would also be nice to know just how much of its actual policing authority the FCC is willing to cede just to let the “private sector” have its way. If any new mandate from Congress doesn’t come with the resources to implement it, then all of this is just one big empty gesture.