Republican FCC Commissioner Mike O’Rielly has made the persecution of pirate radio one of his hobby horses. He’s been blogging about it all year, lamenting the fact that his agency has no muscle with which to silence most stations and suggesting some cockamamie ideas for trying to tackle the problem. Although the agency’s Enforcement Bureau is currently going through a painful downisizing, O’Rielly’s an impatient man who wants heads on sticks.
He convened a task force of the broadcast industry earlier this summer which put forth a litany of suggestions for improving unlicensed broadcast enforcement. A month later, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler acknowledged that while unlicensed broadcasting is very much alive and well, tackling the phenomenon will not succeed using traditional enforcement methods.
In hopes of prodding things along, O’Rielly offered up a draft “policy statement” on pirate radio on his blog last week. In it, he reiterates the fallacy that unlicensed AM and FM broadcasting causes “harmful interference” that puts the “valuable public safety contributions” of licensed broadcasters “in jeopardy to the detriment of the American people who count on them, including diverse and underserved populations.”
He commits the FCC to pursuing “a vigorous campaign of enforcement activities to disrupt and potentially terminate all pirate radio stations that are in operation today and prevent those that may attempt to come online in the future.” He urges closer collaboration with “federal and state law enforcement authorities” and would like to see the creation of an “education component” reaching out to “building owners and managers, national and local campaigns for political office, media advertisers, radio programming suppliers, concert promoters and venue operators, and equipment manufacturers and importers” making sure that they know pirate radio is a Very Bad Thing.
O’Rielly also advocates “full cooperation” with any outside entities who want to help “identify, locate, and take action against the operators and owners of pirate radio stations.”
Nice words with little practical application. Why O’Rielly continues to hound pirate radio as some sort of public-safety threat is beyond logic. The fact that he claims unlicensed broadcasting is a threat to “diverse and underserved populations” shows just how far out of touch he is with how many pirate stations actually operate, which is in service to those very populations.
O’Reilly also reiterates, as Chairman Wheeler has, the need for third parties to get involved in enforcement activities. In fact, O’Rielly seems to encourage vigilantism: the last sentence of his “policy statement” seems to suggest that he’d be completely fine with deputizing everybody to bird-dog and generally harass pirate stations, being responsible for everything up to busting them directly.
The “policy statement” has already attracted some interesting comments. Spectrum-guru Michael Marcus thinks O’Rielly’s on crack: “Unless a pirate radio [station] is one [sic] 24/7 – a rare event – finding them using existing technology possessed by EB requires overtime and possibly travel costs. Such funds have been rare in EB in recent years and it is unclear if the remaining 44 staffers will have access to such funding. No travel and overtime funds; no pirate catching. It is that simple.”
Furthermore, Marcus notes that without the proper tools in the field, the agents that remain after the Bureau’s downiszing will be further hobbled. The Enforcement Bureau has an “Equipment Development Group” based in Georgia which works to develop and build “special equipment” for field enforcement and other efforts. This group, too, has been decimated by budget cuts, both in staffing and in research/development funding: “So without new resources for technical equipment, overtime, and travel, and keeping staff at EDG, there is little the remaining field staff can do to be more productive in addressing ALL types of illegal activity including radio pirates.”
On the flip side is Charles Lelievre, a broadcaster in the NYC area who claims that he and a committed group of amateur radio operators “have designed and built our own radio direction finding equipement and have set off into the wilds of Brooklyn and Queens to track down the over 40+ illegal broadcasters in that area,” including some “that are operating via mobile units!” Lelievre thinks righteous hams should volunteer to be the FCC’s “feet on the street,” and that “we are ready for the task.”
Clearly, the call for vigilantism resonates – but is O’Rielly and the FCC, ostensibly working to serve the public interest, really willing to sic some members of the public on others to make up for its own operational shortfalls? This has the real potential to catapult pirate radio beyond the realm of victimless crimes.
In related news, last week the National Association of Broadcasters tried and failed to engage the services of one of the FCC’s public/private advisory committees as a stalking horse on the pirate problem. The Technological Advisory Council “is comprised of a diverse array of leading experts that helps the FCC identify important areas of innovation and develop informed technology policies supporting America’s competitiveness and job creation in the global economy.” Its members include FCC staff, representatives from the broadcast and telecommunications industries, and academics; its purview covers everything from spectrum management to device standards.
The NAB’s representative, senior VP of technology Lynn Claudy, proposed (starts at 117:30) creating an ad-hoc committee on “spectrum noise.” This committee would examine spectrum ranging from 500 KHz to 2GHz with an eye toward mapping out problem areas. The NAB’s plan was to put this committee to work quantifying levels of interference generated by unlicensed broadcasters, ostensibly in target markets like NYC, Boston, and Miami.
The Technological Advisory Council did not take the bait. While there’s theoretical value in such a study, there’s little interest in pursuing such a project beyond the broadcasters (even though Claudy’s proposal promised to inventory interference far behond the broadcast bands). It also doesn’t help that the Council, much like the FCC itself, already has an overflowing agenda and not enough time and energy for a project like this.
Interestingly, the member who spoke most forcefully against was the FCC’s Walter Johnston, who cautioned the committee that the NAB’s proposal stood to open up a potential can of worms: “People are afraid this is a ‘heating the ocean’ sort of problem, that it cascades into so many different areas with so many different issues, that it’s a very big challenge.”
As has been the trend this year, the alternatingly tough and conciliatory talk from the FCC on the issue of unlicensed broadcasting generates much more heat than light. We can expect more of it this week when Commissioner O’Rielly addresses the annual NAB Radio Show. But so long as the dominant regulary paradigm reamains wedded to a prohibitionist approach, this is unlikely to change.