Can’t say for sure, but the latest update to the Enforcement Action Database seems to suggest it, as the agency considers drastically cutting their already meager ranks. As of the end of April, there’ve been just 35 enforcement actions against 17 stations in four states. There has been no official report of field activity in May. In 2014, there were 52 enforcement actions in the same time-frame.
2014 saw the lowest level of FCC enforcement activity against unlicensed broadcasters in nearly a decade. Where agents are active, New York continues to lead the way, followed by New Jersey and California. A station in Colorado also got a warning letter this year, but that was a follow-up to a visit last year.
What with all the activity in the NYC area, field agents seem to be focusing primarily on the Bronx, though one station in Queens and another in “Upper Manhattan” have been contacted (the Manhattan pirate for producing a spur that caused the FAA complain). We’re also seeing the New York State Broadcasters Association‘s name appear as a complainant in recent cases: this is part of an organizational effort to put pressure on policymakers to make cracking down on pirates a top priority.
Around here, field agents often turn around warning letters on the same day they scope out a station, though in the rest of the country the NOUO typically follows within 1-4 weeks.
This is not to say that field agents aren’t out there busting on other spectrum users: although no pirate broadcaster has been dinged with a monetary forfeiture this year, three amateur radio operators and a CB guy have, to the tune of $49,500. These cases involved actively interfering with other users (including, in at least two cases, with public safety channels).
The agency’s also been putting its High-Frequency Direction Finding (HFDF) network to use tracking down ships that are using long-distance radio frequencies reserved for aviation; more than a dozen have been assessed Notices of Violation.
This lends credence to an industry contention that the enforcement policies of the FCC may have shifted, taking unlicensed broadasting off a back burner to a spot on the counter adjacent to the stove.
Meanwhile, Commissioner Mike O’Rielly, the self-annointed Mr. Oblivious of the five, has blogged again – this time about the Enforcement Bureau’s abysmal collection-rate when it comes to forfeitures. It’s been long established that the FCC collects on less than 25% of the forfeitures it issues; it’s even lower in cases of unlicensed broadcasting. O’Rielly says the Bureau told him it didn’t even track collection-rates “as a matter of course,” and he blames this on a failure of collaboration between the FCC and Department of Justice, the entity responsible for going to court to collect if a violator doesn’t respond to the FCC’s entreaties.
O’Rielly’s suggestion? “[I]t would be helpful to know the number and types of cases and the circumstances in which the U.S. Justice Department has sought collection over the years for unpaid Commission forfeiture orders. The FCC could use this information to analyze potential procedural improvements to its items that would invite greater DOJ involvement. In other words, are there are a high percentage of cases not being pursued and is there a way can we increase the likelihood that DOJ will seek collection? This needs to be taken into account when determining the most effective enforcement action, including whether to seek settlements at a lower figure or earlier in the process.”
Of course, O’Rielly’s presumption is that the Department of Justice has the available staffing and resources to make violations of communications law a higher priority (it doesn’t), and that DOJ lawyers and federal judges understand the nuances of the cases at hand (they don’t). Austerity’s a bitch, and as its policies continue to dig in the chances for effective collaboration will diminish as well.
Update: The day after this story was published, the Enforcement Bureau announced a $20,000 forfeiture against an unlicensed broadcaster in Queens. Talk about timing, eh?
But if this is to be seen as a muscle-flex, it falls flat: Mr. Ayora has been on the FCC’s radar since 2013, when he was first contacted for allegedly operating a radio station out of his home. This forfeiture formalizes a determination the agency made more than a year ago. If tossing out a fine in a two-year old case that has a less than 1 in 4 chance of being collected demonstrates effectiveness, then by all means, carry on.