PIRATE Act Sets Sail in House

In May, Rep. Leonard Lance (R-NJ) introduced the “Preventing Illegal Radio Abuse Through Enforcement Act,” otherwise known by the acronym PIRATE Act. The bill makes several changes to existing FCC regulations regarding unlicensed broadcasting:

1. The maximum monetary penalty that can be assessed for unlicensed broadcasting on the AM and FM bands is increased from an aggregate maximum of $100,000 to $2 million, and can be doled out in increments of $100,000 per day. These fines can be issued against the pirate broadcaster directly, or against any entity that “knowingly and intentionally facilitates pirate radio broadcasting.”

“Facilitates” is defined as “providing access to property (and improvements thereon) or providing physical goods or services, including providing housing, facilities, or financing, that directly aid pirate radio broadcasting.” This hearkens back to a historical precedent set by European laws in the 1960s that attempted to outlaw offshore pirate radio by making it illegal to supply and advertise on the station-ships and platforms operating in international waters. Read More

FCC and Pirates: A War of Words

The rhetoric’s heated up, for sure. Commissioner Mike O’Rielly, who’s made cracking down on unlicensed stations one of his signature issues, calls them infectious squatters, casting the phenomenon as a cancer preparing to metastisize. And he’s gotten much more critical about his own agency’s handling of the problem: when the FCC proposed to fine a Kentucky couple more than $144,000 last month for operating a low-power TV station for nearly twenty years after its original license had expired, he likened FCC enforcement to “a sometimes annoying, sometimes sleepy, but ultimately harmless Chihuahua when it came to protecting broadcast spectrum licenses.”

That makes “paper tiger” sound almost tame.

Industry trade-press has taken the cue and upped their coverage of the FCC’s anti-pirate broadcast enforcement. Radio World trumpets warning lettters, fines, and threats of fines issued by the Enforcement Bureau as if they’re landing knockout blows. It even got Chairman Ajit Pai to concede in a March interview that pirates are a “serious concern.” Read More

O’Rielly Outlines Anti-Pirate Agenda for 2016

Speaking at the Country Radio Seminar last week, FCC Commissioner Mike O’Rielly laid out several items he’d like to make part of radio’s regulatory agenda this year. And true to form, the man who’s made pirate radio a personal crusade has big plans to try and wipe out what he calls “poison ivy in the garden of the radio spectrum.”

O’Rielly acknowledged that the largest concentrations of unlicensed broadcasters are in America’s cities, such as New York, Boston, and Miami, but claims that “the problem is expanding rapidly,” and it represents “an attack on the integrity of our airwaves – an attack that must be confronted and defeated on no uncertain terms, lest it continue to push forward.” Read More

FCC Enforcement Cuts: The Fine(ish) Print

More details are trickling out about the proposal to dramatically slash the FCC’s enforcement presence in the field. To recap: two-thirds of the FCC’s 24 field offices would be closed, and staffing would be cut in half. To make up for the cuts, the FCC would establish a “tiger team” to descend on enforcement hot-spots, using pre-positioned equipment. Where the FCC cedes the field entirely, it seeks to establish relationships with private-sector interests to help with its job.

At a hearing on Capitol Hill last week on the FCC budget, Chairman Tom Wheeler attempted to explain the cuts. He said this is the first time the agency’s examined its enforcement activities in such depth in more than 20 years. They found the FCC’s “field footprint” to be “too large and inefficient.” His prepared testimony casts this as dispassionate math: simply put, the cost-per-employee out in the field is much higher than it is back at headquarters. Read More

FCC Budget Request: Dollars Up, Staff Down

The Federal Communications Commission has submitted its budget request for fiscal year 2016, and on its face it’s pretty vanilla. The agency seeks the authority to spend some $536 million — nearly $80 million more than last year. The tax burden for FCC operations for the average citizen is effectively nil, as the agency funds itself through spectrum auction/license income and other regulatory fees, with any surpluses sent to the U.S. Treasury.

The vast majority of the FCC’s increased ask relates to money it would like to earmark to administer more spectrum auctions (including one to repack the digital TV service to make more spectrum available for wireless broadband), continue the overhaul of its subsidy programs for public telecommunications, and prepare for a reorganization of the FCC’s headquarters. That last one is perhaps the most notable for its direct effect on agency operations, as the FCC leases its space and the contract is coming due. Options include moving FCC HQ in its entirety (a process last done in the late ’90s) or “restacking” the existing office complex to “substantially reduce our square footage and lower our rental expense.” Read More