Sponsorship ID Police Strike Again

$115,000 consent decree for questionable “Special Reports” on Las Vegas TV station

The fake news business appears to have been booming in 2009 – at least as far as we can tell from a couple of FCC enforcement actions. Last February we reported on a $44K fine issued to a Chicago radio station for airing, in 2009, a number of bought-and-paid-for announcements gussied up to sound like newscasts. And now the Enforcement Bureau has announced a consent decree with a Las Vegas TV licensee, the terms of which call for payment of a $115,000 “civil penalty” for the broadcast of some 2009 “Special Reports” that (a) looked a lot like news but (b) were apparently bought-and-paid-for as well.

Don’t let the fact that it took the Bureau five years to lower the boom on these stations distract you: that just demonstrates that the current Commission intends to enforce the sponsorship identification rules aggressively, regardless of when the violations may have occurred.

The sponsorship ID rule (Section 73.1212) is mandated by Section 317 of the Communications Act, which requires that broadcasters identify whoever is paying for the broadcast of any matter. To that end, Section 73.1212 requires that stations “fully and fairly disclose the true identity” of anybody paying to have any particular content broadcast.

Precisely what the Vegas station (KTNV-TV) did is not clear from the consent decree, which summarizes the violations only as follows:

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Update: Comment Deadlines Set in Contest Rule Proceeding

Last month we reported on a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) aimed at dragging the on-air contest rule (i.e., Section 73.1216) into the 21st Century. The NPRM has now made it into the Federal Register, which means that we now know the deadlines for filing comments and reply comments in response to the FCC’s proposal. Comments are due by February 17, 2015, and replies are due by March 19. Comments and replies may be filed electronically through the FCC’s ECFS filing site; refer to Proceeding No. 14-226.

Professional Football Team in Nation's Capital Loses Name, Logo, Colors

A tale of two cities – Washington and Bucharest – and two trademark battles

It’s big news when a storied sports franchise loses its identity. And that’s what’s happened with a prominent professional football team in its nation’s capital, a team with which you’re all doubtless familiar: No, not the Washington, D.C. NFL team, but Steaua (“Star”) Bucharest, the most successful football (or what a small minority of the world refers to as “soccer”) team in Romanian history.

Or should I refer to the team formerly known as “Steaua Bucharest”? More on that below.

You might have thought that I was talking about the Washington, D.C. NFL team with the controversial name. Not today. In fact, the team has just won an indirect victory at the FCC (and trust me, this year the team can use any victory it can get its hands on): the Media Bureau’s Audio Division has dismissed several petitions to deny the license renewals of stations that mentioned the team’s name on the air. The decision is relatively short and sweet and totally right on the money: however offensive the name may be to however many people, there is no basis in the FCC’s rules (or any other law, for that matter) to deny a station’s license because of its use of racial or ethnic epithets. Indeed, as my colleague Steve Lovelady pointed out when the petitions were first filed, the FCC itself has expressly taken that consideration off the table. So stations can continue to play “Hail to the Redskins” without fearing for their next renewal.

All is not so copacetic in Bucharest, however.

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Now Available for Your Review and Comment: Form 2100, Schedule 381

Still a work in progress, but an excellent opportunity both to see what the FCC has in mind  and also to suggest possible improvements to the form before it takes final shape.

A couple of weeks ago we reported on a Federal Register notice announcing the start of a two-month period for the filing of comments about a new FCC form (Form 2100, Schedule 381, to be exact - a/k/a “Certification of TV Broadcast Licensee Technical Information in Advance of Incentive Auction”). We noted then that no copy of the form was included in the Federal Register notice and that our request for a copy (emailed to the Commission) had gone unanswered, so we couldn’t shed much light on what the form might look like.

We got word earlier today that the form is indeed available and, sure enough, when we emailed the Commission again asking for a copy, we got one lickety-split. Here’s a link to what was sent to us. (Actually, we received a Word version, which we have converted to PDF.)

As a quick glance indicates, it’s still something of a work in progress. That’s to be expected when the FCC invites comments on a form: by definition the form is subject to change based on the comments that get submitted. So here’s your chance to take a look at the Commission’s current draft and chip in your two cents’ worth.

As we noted previously, Schedule 381 is designed to provide the Commission assurance that the technical profile of the television industry as reflected in the FCC’s database is accurate. That’s obviously important because that profile will be used both to identify the facilities to be sold in the reverse auction and to form the starting point for the spectrum repacking effort which is the ultimate goal of the auction. Secondarily, the completed forms will provide the FCC with a comprehensive database of all the specific transmission equipment (transmitters, antennas, transmission line) currently in use. The detailed information about equipment will be used in determining relocation reimbursements.

All full-power and Class A TV licensees entitled to mandatory protection in the auction – and those with Commission-afforded discretionary protection – will have to complete and submit Schedule 381. Those folks all presumably have an idea of who they are, but they will know for sure when the FCC issues its “Eligibility Public Notice” spelling out the facilities that the Commission believes to be entitled to protection. The notice will specify a deadline by which protected licensees will have to submit Schedule 381. (We’re guessing that that won’t happen before the late summer of 2015, but you never know.) Completion of the form will entail a number of separate and distinct chores.

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FCC Reminder (Redux): Cell Phone Jammers Are STILL Illegal

Wi-Fi jammers, too!

Having recently spanked Marriott for $600K for interrupting private Wi-Fi use at one of its hotel properties – concern about which presumably prompted Marriott to seek formal guidance about just how far they can go in managing Wi-Fi use at their venues – the Commission has issued another of its ever-popular “Enforcement Advisories” warning against the use of jammers to interfere with cellphone, Wi-Fi or GPS devices. (Similar advisories were issued in 1999, 2005, 2011 and 2012, along with Spanish and Mandarin versions of the 2012 notice.)

The use of jammers is, of course, a very tempting way to control disruptive uses of wireless devices. Prison officials have long wanted to use jammers in prisons, where illegal cellphones are in widespread use by (among others) cell-bound prisoners managing illegal enterprises on the outside. And we have previously reported about one enterprising commuter in Philadelphia who used a pocket-sized jamming device when fellow bus passengers disturbed his ride by talking on their phones too loudly.

There are many other venues where a jammer would come in handy for the average Joe: theaters and concert halls, for instance, where standard pleas at the beginning of a performance to turn cellphones off are often ignored, leading to an annoying cellphone jingle in the middle of a performance. And how about restaurants, which are noisy enough without the person at the next table yapping away on the phone?  

But guess what?

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Ah, Wilderness! Forest Service Re-examining Standards for Media Access to Wilderness Areas

Agency looks to tighten up vague standards that have led to inconsistent access decisions.

If you as a broadcaster, producer, or artist want to head into a congressionally-designated wilderness area to create some programming (both newsgathering and other programming), you will likely have to get a permit to do so from the National Forest Service (NFS). And yes, the power to require a permit also encompasses the power to require a fee for that permit, so you can expect to have to pay for the privilege.

For years the standards imposed by the NFS on requests for such permits have been considerably subjective, which is never a good thing: the First Amendment frowns on governmentally-imposed limitations on freedom of expression and the press, especially when those limitations can be arbitrarily applied. To its credit, though, the NFS is considering tightening up its criteria. Whether the end result will assure broadcasters a constitutionally acceptable set of standards remains to be seen. But any broadcaster operating near a federal wilderness area – or who might at some point want to send a crew into such an area – should be aware of the NFS’s proceeding.

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Mitchell Lazarus to Retire - Mostly

Mitch came to the law the long way around and relatively late in life.

Mitchell Lazarus, FHH veteran and CommLawBlog regular, has announced he will retire at the end of this year. But not completely. Mitch will stay on the FHH letterhead as Of Counsel, will keep an office in our suite, and can still be reached through his FHH phone number and email address. We will, of course, also keep his suite in the CommLawBlog bunker ready for him.

IMPORTANT: Mitch’s active clients should have received an email about this transition. If you did not, please contact him at lazarus@fhhlaw.com.

Mitch came to the law the long way around and relatively late in life. Holding advanced degrees from M.I.T. and Georgetown University in three different fields, he has earned his living as an electrical engineer, psychology professor, education reformer, educational TV developer, free-lance writer, and (until now) telecommunications lawyer. His legal specialty, in addition to fixed microwave communications, has been securing regulatory approvals for new technologies. Most of this work involves behind-the-scenes industrial and commercial devices, but CommLawBlog readers will be familiar with at least two of his successes: contemporary Wi-Fi and the “millimeter wave” body scanners used at U.S. airports.

Mitch is a frequent speaker on issues at the intersection of law and engineering. He has published several articles in the widely-read IEEE Spectrum magazine, and authored the widely-ignored “Government Warning” on U.S. alcohol beverage labeling. In his off hours, he is finishing a book about the Manhattan Project and tells us he has another book in the pipeline.

Mitch has promised to continue to post items of interest here, and we intend to hold him to that. We here in the bunker are incredibly grateful to Mitch for his central role in getting CommLawBlog off the drawing board and onto your screen, and for making it what it has become. We hope our readers are equally grateful. They have reason to be.

And with that, a final Blogmeister’s note to Mitch as he embarks on his next adventure: Godspeed.

ECFS Now Available for Non-Docketed Filings

New “Submit a Non-Docketed Filing” module allows some filers to eschew paper.

In a move presumably designed to make everybody’s lives easier, the Commission has expanded its Electronic Comment Filing System (ECFS) to accept a wide range of filings that previously could be filed only on paper. That’s good news. But before you take advantage of this new opportunity, be sure you’re familiar with the fine print.

Historically, ECFS has been available only for materials being submitted in docketed proceedings. Since many FCC activities don’t involve such proceedings, paper filings have continued to be the order of the day in many areas. (Two years ago the Media Bureau opened up its CDBS system for pleadings directed at particular applications, but that still left many filings plodding the paper trail.)

Now the Commission has included a new “module” (dubbed, not surprisingly, the “Submit a Non-Docketed Filing” module) in ECFS to accept, electronically, certain non-docketed submissions.

The new module is currently up and running and ready to receive your non-docketed filings, so feel free to use it for the any of the types of filings listed below starting now. Use of the module is voluntary for the time being – so if you want to burn through those last couple of toner cartridges and boxes of copy paper, feel free to stick with hard-copy filings – but note that electronic filing for items so identified in our list below will be mandatory in the near future. (The dates when voluntary turns to mandatory have been set for some types, but remain To Be Determined for others, as indicated below.)

Filings accepted by “Submit a Non-Docketed Filing” module in ECFS: 

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JSA Update: Compliance Deadline Extension Confirmed

As we reported just before Thanksgiving, Congress passed the STELA Reauthorization Act of 2014 (STELAR), which the President promptly signed just after Thanksgiving (also as we reported). STELAR is a law with lots of provisions affecting lots of different areas of the video universe, as Paul Feldman’s pre-Thanksgiving post revealed. Attentive readers may have noticed the following, tucked in toward the end of that post:

Delayed Application of JSA Attribution Rule. Also as we reported in April, the Commission has determined that certain TV joint sales agreements (JSAs) will now give rise to attributable interests under the multiple ownership rules. As a result, in many markets, longstanding arrangements that had been viewed as consistent with the multiple ownership rules will have to be modified or unwound in order to bring them into compliance. The FCC has given affected parties until June 19, 2016 to take care of that. STELAR extends that compliance deadline by six months. (While the FCC will presumably issue a notice specifying the new deadline, we calculate it to be December 19, 2016.)

Sure enough, as predicted, the Media Bureau has issued a notice confirming that the deadline for bringing JSA arrangements into compliance with the revised rules adopted by the Commission last spring has been extended for six months to December 19, 2016. Mark your calendars!

Update: Two Wireless Mic Proceedings, One Set of Comment Deadline Extensions

A couple of months ago we reported on two proceedings, initiated simultaneously, looking into possible solutions to the problems that the upcoming repack of the spectrum will cause to wireless microphone users and manufacturers as well as various other users of the TV spectrum. While technically separate and distinct dockets, the two proceedings have obviously been linked from Day One. And now the FCC has announced, in a single consolidated order, that the comment deadlines for both proceedings have been extended. As a result, comments in either or both of the dockets may be filed by February 4, 2015; reply comments will be due by February 25. Use Proceeding Numbers 14-166 and 12-268 for the comments in the proceeding dealing primarily with wireless mics; use Proceeding Number 14-165 for the proceeding dealing more generally with unlicensed uses.

FAA to Ease (a little) Its System for Reporting Tower Light Outages

But the FCC isn’t planning to give tower owners much slack as a result.

If you’re responsible for a tower subject to lighting requirements imposed by the Federal Aviation Administration, your life may be getting a bit easier early next year. According to an advisory issued by the FCC’s Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, the FAA is modifying its notification process to allow folks reporting lighting outages to specify, in their initial notices, the amount of time they expect to need to get the outage fixed.

We all know that the FAA imposes lighting requirements on certain tower structures, and the FCC adds extra muscle to those requirements when it comes to FCC regulatees responsible for such structures. Under the Commission’s rules, folks with a tower subject to FAA lighting requirements must monitor the tower lights at least once every day, either by directly eyeballing the tower or by observing “an automatic properly maintained indicator designed to register any failure of such lights”.

And when there’s an outage, things are supposed to happen.

The FCC requires that a record be made of the nature of the outage, the date and time the outage was noticed, the date and the outage is corrected (and the nature of the corrections) … and the date and time the FAA is notified.

Wait – notify the FAA?

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Rural Call Completion Update: Further Tweaks to Take Effect in January

Last month we reported on the FCC’s disposition of a number of petitions for reconsideration in the rural call completion proceeding. In taking care of those petitions, the Commission tweaked its rules a bit, mainly in response to suggestions from USTelecom and ITTA. That action has now been published in the Federal Register, which means that those tweaks will become effective as of January 9, 2015. Note, however, that the “information collections” that the FCC has adopted in this proceeding – including both those adopted in the Report and Order a year ago and the changes in the recent order on reconsideration – apparently have still not received the big thumbs up from OMB (as required by the Paperwork Reduction Act). As a result, we still don't know when the record retention and quarterly rural call completion statistics reporting requirements will take effect.

Update: Comment Deadlines Extended in 24 GHz Proceeding

Back in October we reported on a Notice of Inquiry seeking comments on the possible use of frequencies above 24 GHz for mobile services. According to a notice in the Federal Register, the deadlines for those comments have been extended. Comments are now due by January 15, 2015, and replies are due by February 17.

STELAR - It's the Law!

Five more years of DBS, coming up!

We recently reported on the passage of the STELA Reauthorization Act of 2014, affectionately referred to by the cognoscenti as “STELAR”. As expected, it didn’t take long for the President to sign off on it. According to the White House website, STELAR was signed into law on December 4.

The IP Transition: FCC Asks Practical Questions About Copper Retirement

NPRM seeks to address effects of discontinuance of copper-based services on consumers, competition.

As many readers doubtless know (and as we have previously reported), the IP transition is underway: telecom carriers are shifting away from time division multiplex (TDM) technology using traditional copper wires; instead, they are embracing Internet protocol (IP) technology using optical fiber and coaxial cable facilities. This shift will implicate a wide range of regulatory considerations which the FCC is already looking into. It will also affect consumers and competitive telecommunications providers who are used to the TDM/copper wire way of life.

In a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking and Declaratory Order (NPRM/DO), the Commission has requested comments on three particular ways in which the transition will affect consumers and competitive providers.

Back-up Power. The legacy copper network is powered from the telephone company central office, where back-up generators are usually available when commercial power fails. Because consumers don’t need to provide their own electricity to power their landline phones, the phones usually work during a power outage as long as the phone wires on the street haven’t been knocked down. But when phone service is Internet-based and provided by cable or fiber, power does not come from the central office – meaning that, if a household relying on IP/non-copper telephone service loses power, its phones go dead unless some back-up power system is in place in the consumer’s home or office.

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