If you’ve ever had the FCC inspect one of your facilities, you know what it’s like to have the federales come callin’. It usually begins with a telephone call from an FCC field agent who tells you that they will meet you at your site in a few hours.
“Please have copies of your licenses and your station logs ready for our review,” the syrupy voice states with faux politeness.
You, of course, drop what you’re doing and rush to the filing cabinet, where you’re sure the licenses have been neatly filed. Rifling through the copies, you notice that one of your licenses is missing, and another one doesn’t list the right coordinates. Ah-no-that’s the one you meant to renew last month.
“What’s the expiration date?” you ask aloud of no one in particular. “Darn it! How many mobiles does that say? No! NO! This isn’t fair. … I know-I’ll tell them that my old office manager died and took the records with her. Yeah! No-wait! That’s no good. ‘My dog ate it’? No good. Uh, uh, ‘The ERP’s so high because I don’t know a gain antenna from a granola bar’? Holy moley, this ain’t going well already, and they’re not even here yet.”
A couple of dozen operators enjoyed this thrill last year when the FCC sent inspectors around the Denver area to see how people were using that stuff called “spectrum.” What the inspectors were after was evidence of stations that were providing commercial service on private-licensed channels. Did they find evidence? Yes. Did some operators get caught with their proverbial drawers around trembling ankles? Yes. Could this happen to you? Oh, yes.
There are many signs that the FCC is beefing up its enforcement efforts across the board. New people have been hired to process complaints. The FCC’s Gettysburg office now has enforcement folks in residence. Formal complaints against common carriers and cable TV licensees are actually being processed in less time than it takes to build a battleship out of Popsicle sticks.
So, what should you do? How about … looking in the darn file drawer before the FCC inspects your facilities? What a concept! You would be surprised at the change in attitude the FCC has when you keep your licensing up to speed so that there is some quaint resemblance between the technical parameters on your license and the equipment you are operating.
As for shared facilities (those that are used by more than one private radio licensee and that operate on private spectrum in accord with 47 CFR Part 90 rules [section 90.179]), it would be really keen if your records reflected those sharing agreements. Without the deal committed to paper, it just falls apart. The FCC is going to figure that if the sharing licensees don’t have a contract, then they aren’t sharing. They’re just getting commercial service from the two-way shop’s repeater.
In general, the FCC is issuing more and more fines, notices of apparent liability (NALs), orders to show cause and letter inquiries under Section 308(b) of the Communications Act. Licensing with exactitude is being demanded, and failure to keep it current is resulting in fines paid for all transgressions. For example, a local government was fined a few thousand dollars for letting its special temporary authorization (STA) lapse for seven days. Think zero tolerance-and get it together.
Bordering on madness Of course, no matter how well you prepare yourself, “no one expects the Spanish Inquisition.” That is, no one expects a call from the U.S. Department of State. One operator, Kwik-Page Communications, Los Angeles, got such a call.
Kwik-Page is licensed to operate a number of 931MHz paging facilit-ies along the West Coast, with a system that stretches from Southern California to Washington on 931.6625MHz. Three of its licensed facilities serve the San Diego area. Unfortunately, the FCC’s database only showed one of the licenses when the FCC entered into an agreement, called a protocol, with the Secretaria de Communicaciones y Transportes of the United Mexican States to decide how this spectrum would be used within 120km of the border.
When the protocol was announced, the FCC did grandfather the use of all licensed facilities using the channels on the U.S. side of the border. So, the one facility shown as licensed to Kwik-Page was allowed to continue to operate. What about the other two transmitters? Well, according to the State Department, they’re not supposed to be operating.
Now we’ve got a problem that is more exciting than trying to explain to a diplomat what power flux density is. The Mexican government wants the U.S. government to honor the protocol (translation: get Kwik-Page off the frequency). However, Kwik-Page has licenses for its two non-grandfathered stations. The Mexican operators are complaining about interference from Kwik-Page’s system. The Communications Act does not allow the FCC to cancel licenses without a hearing and other due-process protections. The local San Diego FCC field agent is pulling his hair out trying to find a technical solution. The Wireless Telecommunications Bureau is trying to figure out a solution. The State Department is trying to avoid appearing stupid to the Mexican government. The Mexican government is getting heat from its licensees, who thought the channel would be clean near the border. And Kwik-Page … is trying to serve its customers.
Kwik-Page is getting fed up with the constant assault on its operations by the FCC, the Mexican government and the State Department. It has tried to accommodate the FCC by configuring one of its stations to direct the signal north, but the efforts have not netted the beleaguered operator any good will. Instead, Kwik-Page is being invited to round after round of discussions to address the problem, even though the solution is simple.
The FCC should simply: (1) admit that it made a mistake in failing to list two facilities in its grandfathering language within the protocol; (2) amend the protocol to protect its licensees’ lawful use of the spectrum; (3) provide Kwik-Page with its rights as a commission licensee; (4) respect due process; and (5) stop trying to make Kwik-Page provide the solution to the FCC’s own mistake. This method of “We blew it, you fix it” is just not working.
The Kwik-Page situation is not wholly unique. My sources tell me that the FCC has similarly messed up with other 900MHz paging licensees along the border. Are these other licensees playing along, or digging in?
It’s a long road that has no turning Here’s the irony: The FCC itself clearly states in its auction orders that persons using the FCC database should recognize that the FCC does not warrant the accuracy of the information contained therein, which may, indeed, be incomplete or simply wrong. So, the FCC cannot say it wasn’t warned. The FCC also entered into the protocol without public notice or even individual notice to affected licensees. If the agency had asked the licensees affected, it would have been told about errors in the database.
Guessing how this one is going to turn out is kinda’ fun. It’s as though the affected licensees asked the FCC to show them the agency’s station logs for entering into the protocol, and the agency is rifling through its file drawers, saying “We’ll just tell the Mexicans that our dog ate it. No, wait! That won’t work! How about ….”