A very interesting memorandum was leaked last week to two trade publications detailing a plan to severely reduce the FCC’s enforcement presence in the field. Presently, the agency’s Enforcement Bureau has two dozen field offices scattered throughout 17 states and Puerto Rico. However, not every field office is created equal: there are Regional Offices (many employees), District Offices (a handful of employees) and Resident Agent Offices (one or two people).
According to the American Radio Relay League, two-thirds of all FCC Enforcement Bureau offices would be closed, leaving just half the staff (33 people total) in the field. And their management is positively evicerated: reduced from 21 positions to just five.
The only offices slated to remain open are in Atlanta, Chicago, Columbia (MD), Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami, New York City, and San Francisco. To compensate, the FCC plans to create a “Tiger Team” of field agents who will respond like some sort of special operations force to locales where enforcement needs are particularly pressing. The Enforcement Bureau will pre-position field equipment in eight other states/territories (Alaska, Arizona, Hawaii, Missouri, Montana, Puerto Rico, Utah, and Washington) to supplement this reaction-force.
Like all FCC initiatives, though, the devil is in the details. The memorandum reportedly suggests that field agents will focus nearly exclusively on enforcing spectrum integrity, and all remaining agents will be required to have some background in electrical engineering. The Bureau also plans to standardize “investigatory and sanctioning processes.” Furthermore, it’s open to outsourcing some enforcement initatives, as the memo believes there are “beneficial partnerships between the Field and other organizations that may support increasing our effectiveness.”
The writing’s been on the wall regarding the toothless nature of FCC field enforcement, especially with regard to unlicensed broadcasting, for more than a decade now. Though the timing of the memorandum is a little surprising: less than two weeks ago, FCC Managing Director Jon Wilkins was pressed directly on this issue at a Congressional hearing regarding the FCC’s budget. Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-NY) spoke of a visit she recently received from NYC-area broadcasters about the rampancy of pirate stations. Was there specific funding in the FCC’s budget for anti-pirate policing? “The only way we can manage is to find out where is the highest density of need and how can we deploy the people and the resources that we have against that,” Wilkins non-answered.
Rep. Michael Pompeo (R-KS) followed up on Clarke’s line of inquiry: can you give any specifics on what might be happening with field offices? The FCC is examining “how we can look at the people we have, the real estate costs we have, and deliver the mission better,” Wilkins tried first. Pompeo was not buying it: “I asked a direct question, you gave a generic response. Is their recommendation to close field offices for the FCC and relocate people to your headquarters?” No final recommendation on that, Wilkins replied.
Radio industry reaction to this news was predictable. Broadcasters are concerned that with the FCC ceding the field, pirates have the run of the dials; Radio Ink goes so far as to say that this just might inspire a “perfect storm” of unlicensed broadcasting like nothing the country’s ever seen.
But I’m more worried about the unleashing of vigilante-style justice against pirate stations by frustrated broadcast engineers and righteous hams. Pirate stations aren’t difficult to track down, and these folks already make a hobby out of it. Some have even forcibly removed stations from the air by vandalizing or stealing their transmission equipment. Now, with no FCC presence to fall back on, what’s to stop some overzealous engineer or ham from going even further? Despite the illicit nature of radio piracy, breaking/entering, vandalism, and assault are also crimes, and those who commit them have no more of a legal justification to do so than pirates have to be on the air. But in states like New York, New Jersey, and Florida, where pirate radio’s been criminalized at the state level, calling the cops to stop such an attack amounts to self-incrimination.
Good stewards of the spectrum should work to conserve its utility, not assemble hunting-parties. The broadcast lobby is expected to make quite a stink over this proposal, but if these cuts do take place you can bet that the NAB et. al. will be spit-shining their own sheriff’s deputy badges before long.