FCC Enforces Regulations Against LED Signs

Those bright, colorful LED signs are up everywhere. They advertise gasoline prices, announce church services, and promote specials at the dry-cleaner. You can program them to say anything you want, with eye-catching animation. And sometimes they cause interference to radio communications.

Wait — LED signs? CommLawBlog readers know all about radio interference from well pumps and fluorescent lights and (of course) bitcoin mining machines. But LED signs are a new one.

Not, though, to the engineers for the wireless phone companies, who put a lot of effort into tracking down interference into their customers’ cell communications. Lately a lot of those searches have ended at a company’s LED sign. Now, the FCC has gotten involved trying to head off the problem at the source: with the companies that market the signs.

Perhaps to the surprise of those companies, the FCC does have authority over the signs, because they incorporate digital devices and produce radio waves as an unwanted byproduct. The FCC regulates those emissions to minimize the risk of interference. Someone in the distribution chain – usually the manufacturer – is supposed to have the device tested for compliance with the FCC’s limits and,  if the device passes, to apply certain labels and provide certain information in the manual.

By our count, six sign companies recently settled with the FCC for failure to follow those rules. They paid substantial fines: Liantronics, LLC ($61,000), Optec Displays, Inc.($54,000), Boyce Industries, Inc. d/b/a VISIONTECH ($39,500), Media Resources, Inc.($19,500), Anthem Displays, LLC ($18,000), and Tradenet Enterprise Inc. d/b/a Vantage LED ($15,000).

Nowadays pretty much anything with a battery or a wall plug contains digital circuitry, which means all of those devices come under FCC regulation (apart from a very small number of exceptions). In addition to paying fines, companies that ignore the rules risk expensive interruptions to production and sales, and possibly an accumulation of un-sellable inventory.

In short, manufacturers and importers can save a lot of money and trouble by complying up front. If you don’t know how, we can help.

Bye Bye Net Neutrality Starting June 11

By Fabio Lanari (Modified by Rock1997 via the Creative Commons License)

Mark your calendars because the time has come: as of June 11 the FCC announced yesterday that its Open Internet rules (better known as “net neutrality”) will cease and new FCC rules governing the Internet will take effect.

This was the latest in a series of procedural milestones in the net neutrality debate. In a contentious December 2017 decision, the FCC voted along party lines to reverse the 2015 Obama-era oversight rules which Chairman Ajit Pai called “heavy-handed.” The effective date of this reversal was tied to approval from the Office of Management and Budget, which occurred on May 2.

For a refresher, the new rules (also called the Restoring Internet Freedom rules) will reclassify broadband Internet access as an “information service” and will largely leave regulation of the Internet to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) (which we talked about here). Chairman Pai said that allowing the FTC to oversee the Internet would “once again protect consumers’ online privacy and promote competition across the entire Internet ecosystem instead of harming innovation and investment with Depression-era rules.” The Restoring Internet Freedom Order eliminates rules against blocking and paid prioritization, a major concern for net neutrality supporters, who say that this will allow Internet service providers to willingly favor the delivery of certain Internet content to users.

In opposition to this measure, Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel yesterday (sitting as the lone opposition after fellow Democratic Commissioner Mignon Clyburn stepped down last month), issued a strong statement calling out the FCC for being “on the wrong side of history, the wrong side of the law, and the wrong side of the American people. It deserves to have its handiwork revisited, reexamined, and ultimately reversed.”

Yesterday’s announcement certainly will not close the books on net neutrality. Senate Democrats have been working since December to overturn the FCC’s decision, and were quick to take to Twitter to voice their opposition in response to Chairman Pai’s announcement of the Order’s effective date. Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who has spearheaded this effort, urged that “the Senate must act NOW and pass my resolution to save the Internet as we know it.” The U.S. Senate is set to vote next week on Senator Markey’s resolution to reject the FCC repeal. Even if this measure passes the Senate (uncertain), and passes the U.S. House (unlikely), President Trump has already said he would veto it. Even that would not be the end of the line, however, as more than 22 state attorneys general have already filed legal challenges to the Commission’s repeal of the net neutrality rules.

Keep an eye on CommLawBlog for continuing developments on this debate.

Changes Are Coming for the Key Frequency Band at 4 GHz

Photo courtesy of George Kizer

Radio spectrum and real estate have a lot in common. They’re not making any more of either; and for both, location really does matter. “Location,” for spectrum, means frequency. Much as different real estate locations best serve different purposes, different technological applications work best in different frequency ranges. Like prime downtown addresses, though, all the best frequencies are taken. If you want to build something new, you’ll first have to acquire an existing piece of property, whose present occupants will have to go somewhere else. The same is true with spectrum. Part of the FCC’s job is to make sure the spectrum incumbents can find suitable new homes.
A lot of the impetus for spectrum redevelopment comes from the growing demand for mobile bandwidth, which in turn comes from people streaming movies and videos on their phones and tablets. The FCC keeps making more spectrum available to the wireless carriers, but it can’t keep up. The recent incentive auction freed up another 70 MHz for licensed wireless broadband, which sounds like a lot, but still not enough. And it’s peanuts compared to the next possible target: 3.7-4.2 GHz. That’s a full 500 MHz of prime real estate, by far the biggest block ever considered that can carry the 4G-type wireless services we all rely on.

Needless to say, the 3.7-4.2 GHz band is in use.

The band formed a major part of the early transcontinental microwave systems built in the 1950s and 60s to carry long-distance telephone calls and network TV programs. Microwave links at these frequencies can span many tens of miles with antennas of manageable size, making it ideal for this use. The same properties also make it suitable for communication satellites’ space-to-Earth downlinks, starting with the very first commercial satellite launched in 1965. The growth of TV and cable over the following decades relied on growing numbers of satellites that used 3.7-4.2 GHz for program distribution. Many Americans found they could bypass the TV stations and cable companies by installing those big backyard dishes that receive the cable and network signals directly.

Much of the former microwave traffic has since migrated to fiber optic cable. But 3.7-4.2 GHz remains a workhorse band for satellites, particularly for video distribution.

That may soon change.

Continue Reading

FCC Grants Puerto Rico Broadcasters Recovery Relief Request for FM Translator Applicants Impacted by Hurricanes Maria and Irma

On May 1, the FCC’s Media and Wireless Bureaus granted a request filed by Fletcher, Heald & Hildreth attorneys Frank Montero and Keenan Adamchak on behalf of the Puerto Rico Broadcasters Association (PRBA) to waive the FCC’s rules limiting the scope of settlements involving mutually exclusive (MX) FM translator applications filed in the Auction 100 MX filing window. The Bureaus had opened a settlement window running through June 14, 2018, during which Auction 100 MX applicants (that is applications that conflict with each other and cannot both be granted without some modification to remove the technical conflict) can file technical amendments to resolve their mutual exclusivities.

The FCC rules place limits on the settlements that can be negotiated by MX applicants for FM translator frequencies. Specifically, Section 74.1233(a) of the FCC’s rules limit the resolution of such conflicts to “minor” amendments which are changes to first, second, or third adjacent channels, or to an intermediate frequency channel.

In its filed request on behalf of the Puerto Rico Broadcasters, Montero and Adamchak argued that the damage caused by Hurricanes Maria and Irma resulted in broadcasters expending considerable resources in restoring broadcast services. Accordingly, the broadcasters in Puerto Rico lacked the resources to settle these conflicted applications within the current “minor” amendment confines of the rule. As such, they requested that the FCC permit Puerto Rico applicants to be allowed to settle conflicts with amendments to any available channel even if not “minor,” provided such amendments did not cause interference to existing or proposed FM stations and complied with the FCC’s coverage requirements for FM translators.

The FCC’s Public Notice states that such waiver requests serve the public interest “by assisting the broadcasting industry to rebuild following the hurricanes and by ensuring that robust radio coverage is provided in areas prone to severe hurricanes.”

Applicants granted waivers of Section 74.1233(a), however, must still comply with all other requirements for technical amendments, and must file their technical amendments by the end of the MX settlement window on June 14.



Upcoming FCC Broadcast Deadlines May – June 2018

Photo used courtesy of the Creative Commons Licence

Do you know what FCC filing deadlines are in the coming months? We do. Time to mark up your calendars so you’re not late on these important deadlines. Call FHH if you have trouble meeting these deadlines or need assistance.

May 15, 2018 – Elimination of the Requirement to File EEO Mid-Term Reports – Reply Comments are due regarding the FCC’s requesting comments on a proposal to eliminate the requirement in Section 73.2080 that TV stations with five or more full-time employees and radio stations with 11 or more full-time employees file mid-term reports on FCC Form 397 with the two most recent public file reports attached.

June 1, 2018 –

EEO Public File Reports – All radio and television station employment units with five (5) or more full-time employees located in Arizona, the District of Columbia, Idaho, Maryland, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wyoming must place EEO Public File Reports in their public inspection files. For all stations this placement now means uploading the reports to the online public file.  For all stations with websites, the report must be posted there as well. Per announced FCC policy, the reporting period may end ten days before the report is due, and the reporting period for the next year will begin on the following day.

EEO Mid-Term Reports – All television stations with five or more full-time employees and located in Arizona, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, or Wyoming must electronically file a mid-term EEO report on FCC Form 397, with the last two EEO public file reports attached.

FCC Issues Temporary Freeze on Application Filings for Fixed-Satellite Earth Station Licenses and Other Satellites in the 3.7-4.2 GHz “C”- Band

Effective as of April 19, the Commission last week issued a Public Notice announcing a temporary freeze on the filing of new or modification applications for fixed-satellite (FSS) earth station licenses, receive-only earth station registrations, and fixed microwave licenses in the 3.7-4.2 GHz frequency band, known as the C-Band. Currently, the Commission has an ongoing inquiry into the possibility of permitting mobile broadband use in this band and therefore wants to preserve the current authorized operations in the band and have a record of those operations. Exceptions to the freeze are applications for renewal or cancellation, modification to correct location or other data for earth stations and applications for renewal, cancellation, minor modifications, or data corrections for fixed microwave licenses.

An exception to the freeze is a 90-day filing window to file applications for FSS earth stations in the 3.7-4.2 GHz frequency band by entities that own or operate existing FSS earth stations if it isn’t currently registered or licensed. Entities operating such FSS earth stations may file an application to register or license the earth station, or they may file an application to modify a current registration or license. The filing window closes on July 18, 2018

Typically applications for earth station licenses, or registration in the 3.7-4.2 GHz band, would require a frequency coordination report demonstrating coordination with terrestrial stations. The coordination results entitle the FSS earth station to the interference protection levels agreed to during coordination, including against subsequent fixed services licenses. During this filing window the FCC has waived the frequency coordination requirement for the applications. However, if you file the application without a frequency coordination report, the earth station is not afforded protection from fixed service transmissions, but presumably will be protected from any new mobile services the Commission is considering for this band.

If you would like assistance in filing your application for license or registration, please call us.

CBRS: The Path Ahead

The Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) was originally envisioned as a true people’s broadband radio service – one that would be either free or highly affordable for small, locally-based operations of limited breadth and duration. The paradigm was a conscious break from the Metropolitan Statistical Area – or- larger sized service areas with 10-year renewable terms that have dominated regulatory thinking for the last few decades, effectively limiting the licensees of most new spectrum to billion-dollar companies with plenty of cash to acquire licenses. Those companies have pushed strongly to rearrange at least some portion of the CBRS band into the standard Big Company-favoring model.

There appears to be the strong sentiment on the FCC’s eighth floor for a movement in that direction, so the service has been treading water while the FCC considers whether to increase the size, term, and length of licensed Priority Access Licensees (PAL) operations in the 3550-3700 MHz band. I expect FCC action in the relatively near future since the pace of ex parte contacts has accelerated in the last month. While much remains up in the air as I type, current and potential General Authorized Access (GAA) Citizens Band Radio Service users can nevertheless be thinking ahead about how and whether they can sustain uninterrupted operations under the new CBRS licensing and usage program already adopted by the FCC.

Current system. Under the rules that have governed the use of the 3650-3700 MHz band for the last ten years or so, all users were nationally licensed on a non-exclusive basis. While users were required to cooperate with other licensed users with registered sites and make every effort to avoid interfering with other users, no one is guaranteed interference-free operation. Since usage of this band has not been heavy, it has usually been possible for multiple non-exclusive users to avoid interfering with each other in the same geographic areas. The new regulatory paradigm makes things more complicated.

CBRS. Under the CBRS plan, there will be:

  • Incumbent Users: generally federal government users near the coasts and around certain government facilities, but also Grandfathered Users for a period of time;
  • Priority Access Licensees (PAL): people who acquire priority usage rights through an FCC auction;
  • GAA users: those users who are the equivalent of unlicensed users since they have few rights vis a vis other categories of users or each other.

Federal incumbents will always have the highest priority to use the spectrum and may bump all other users if they need access. Grandfathered incumbents – existing licensees who registered their transmitter sites as of April 16, 2016 and who have kept those stations operational since then – have priority over other PAL and GAA licensees for the duration of their grandfathered term, which will not exceed five years from 2015.*

PAL users have a higher priority than GAA users, have first access to available spectrum, and can bump GAA users if they need spectrum to accommodate what they bought in the auction and no other spectrum is available.

Finally, GAA users register in the system and are assigned spectrum on an “as available” basis. The SAS entity which assigns spectrum to competing users according to the prioritization scheme established by the FCC will try to accommodate all users so they can operate without interference, but no GAA user is entitled by right to interference protection from other users. Here is the FCC rule:

96.35 – General Authorized Access Use

(a) General Authorized Access Users shall be permitted to use frequencies assigned to PALs when such frequencies are not in use, as determined by the SAS.

(b) Frequencies that are available for General Authorized Access Use shall be made available on a shared basis.

(c) General Authorized Access Users shall have no expectation of interference protection from other General Authorized Access Users operating in accordance with this part.

(d) General Authorized Access Users must not cause harmful interference to and must accept interference from Priority Access Licensees and Incumbent Users in accordance with this part.

(e) General Authorized Access Users operating Category B CBSDs [higher powered stations] must make every effort to cooperate in the selection and use of available frequencies provided by an SAS (the System Administrator) to minimize the potential for interference and make the most effective use of the authorized facilities.  Such users shall coordinate with an SAS before seeking station authorization, and make every effort to ensure that their CBSDs operate at a location, and with technical  parameters, that will minimize the potential to cause and receive interference among CBSDs. Operators of CBSDs suffering from or causing harmful interference are expected to cooperate and resolve interference problems through technological solutions or by other mutually satisfactory arrangements.

As with the current system, there is an obligation on the part of all licensees to cooperate to resolve interference problems and there is no right to “hog” a particular spectrum band or even any particular amount of spectrum.

The FCC has expanded the original 3650 – 3700 band by an extra 100 MHz. It has at the same time reserved the 50 MHz from 3650 to 3700 for GAA operations. This means the GAA operators in this band can be bumped by Federal or Grandfathered incumbents, but will not have to worry about PALs demanding access to this band. PALs will be licensed in up to seven 10 MHz channels in the 3550 – 3650 MHz part of the CBRS band. GAA licensees can also operate in that part of the band, but they will be subject to bumping by PALs there. So GAA operators will have 50 MHz to themselves plus an additional 30 MHz that should be available in the band shared with PALs. Continue Reading

The FCC Looks Toward the Further Commercialization of the Educational Broadband Service

On the books for the FCC’s May Open Meeting will be a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) regarding rule changes to establish commercial eligibility for Educational Broadband Service (EBS) licenses and to “rationalize” the EBS service areas. EBS is not a well-known radio service, so to appreciate the significance of these changes, a little history is in order.

If there is one radio service epitomized by change, it is the EBS. EBS was first conceived in the 1960s as a means for schools to transmit video educational programming to off-campus locations. It was first called the Instructional Television Fixed Service (ITFS), and could be licensed only to accredited schools and nonprofit companies who used the channels to offer formal educational programming to accredited schools. At that time, the ITFS allocation was 168 MHz within the 2.5 GHz, which was a huge allocation, but no one at that time saw any other value in such a “high” frequency.

In the 1980s, Microband Corporation conceived of the concept of “wireless cable” and was able to convince the FCC to allow ITFS licensees to lease their “excess capacity” to wireless cable companies. With 168 MHz, there was considerable excess capacity. In addition, the FCC sawed off 48 MHz of that spectrum and created the MMDS which could be licensed to commercial entities.

As more and more companies went into the wireless cable business and leased ITFS “excess capacity,” the FCC was convinced that these ITFS stations needed protected service areas, not for their core educational transmissions, but to protect wireless cable receivers. So, the FCC gave them 710-mile protected service areas which would correspond to the directionality of the antenna system, but provide a 15-mile radius service area for an omnidirectional antenna system. Eventually, the wireless cable industry convinced the FCC to enlarge the protected service area to 35-mile radius, again to protect wireless cable reception at more remote points. Then the wireless cable industry convinced the FCC to allow digital transmissions over ITFS channels, again for the benefit of the wireless cable industry. Continue Reading

The FCC Moves to Accommodate Small Satellites

Photo courtesy of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center via the Creative Commons License.

Satellites – even small ones – need radio spectrum. Without radios to communicate, a satellite is just a hunk of metal and plastic in the sky.

The first man-made satellite, the Russian Sputnik in 1957, carried nothing but a radio transmitter. It sent a sequence of beeps that said: I am here.

Early communications satellites soon followed. These too are basically just radios in orbit; receivers to pick up signals from the ground and transmitters to send the same signals to somewhere else on the ground. With commercialization looming, the FCC allocated hundreds of megahertz of prime spectrum and set up licensing regimes for both satellite space stations and earth stations. Satellite launches needed an A-OK from the FCC.

The next few decades saw communications satellites grow in both physical size and transmission capacity. Some were the size of a school bus and weighed 6 tons. Joining them were satellites that photographed the ground from orbit and sent pictures down by radio: for espionage, weather forecasting, crop management, and checking out your house on Google Earth. Some of these applications needed a lot of spectrum and the FCC kept allocating more and more of it.

But even as the commercial satellites got bigger, a countertrend appeared. Hobbyists, researchers, and amateur radio operators saw value in much smaller satellites that could launch inexpensively by piggy-backing on the rockets that lifted the big ones. The smallest of these in regular use are CubeSats: standardized cubes measuring inches on a side. (A company recently got in trouble for launching something smaller, after the FCC told them not to.) Some satellites take the form of two, three, or six CubeSats piled on top of each other, like cubical Lego blocks.

It has been relatively easy to license small satellites for experimental or amateur-radio use. But innovators who wanted to try commercial applications have been stymied. All commercial satellites, even the really small ones, are subject to the same licensing regime, which includes a lot of sophisticated paperwork. The application filing fees run well into six figures. The FCC uses a “processing round” procedure that adds complexity and delay. A successful applicant must post a seven-figure surety bond to ensure that its satellites actually launch and become operational within specified timeframes. These rules work for large commercial satellites, and for large fleets of small satellites expected to function for years. But they effectively rule out small commercial satellites in smaller numbers, and those designed for short lives in orbit. Continue Reading

Multi-Line Telephone Systems and Enterprise Communications Systems; Kari’s Law and Other 911-Related Developments

Earlier this year, the President signed into federal law the Kari’s Law Act of 2017, a measure aimed at ensuring multi-line telephone systems (MLTS) users can directly access emergency personnel by dialing 911 without first dialing an access code. As you’ve probably observed, the passage of this new federal law was somewhat bittersweet, as the efforts to pass the law stemmed from a tragic event in 2013 where the inability to directly dial 911 from a hotel room resulted in a potentially preventable homicide. You’ve also probably observed that it took over four years for the federal government to adopt basic, uncontroversial, and seemingly common-sense requirements for how 911 calls from MLTS should work. Putting all that aside, Kari’s Law is now the law of the land when it comes to direct access to 911 from MLTS. But that’s not the end of it.

While progress in this area seems slow, lawmakers (and the industry as a whole) have been attempting to tackle, in addition to Kari’s Law, other MLTS/911-related issues that have been percolating for a while. This means more changes may be on the horizon, including some that might eventually result from a proceeding at the FCC involving 911 and Enterprise Communications Systems (ECS), a new term the FCC used to include both legacy MLTS and more advanced systems such as those using Internet Protocol or cloud-based services. For the companies that are involved with MLTS or ECS and 911, it’s a good time to take note of the landscape to implement necessary changes and to be prepared for other requirements that might be coming down the pipe.

Since Kari’s Law has been at the forefront of the discussion in the past few years, we’ll start there before circling back to other developments, including those at the state-level and at the FCC.

As you probably know, many telephone systems (in offices and hotels, for example) require an access code, or dialing prefix, to initiate calls outside of its system. This practice has proved problematic for users attempting to dial 911 who may be unfamiliar with the telephone system (e.g., children who have never worked in an office environment or made calls from hotels). Kari’s Law responded to this problem by mandating a new technical capability for MLTS, which is defined as “a system comprised of common control units, telephone sets, control hardware and software and adjunct systems.” Network and premises based systems, such as Centrex and VoIP, as well as PBX, Hybrid, and Key Telephone System, are included within this definition (which makes it more or less equivalent to the FCC’s ECS nomenclature, which is intended to refer to “the full range of networked communications systems that serve enterprises” – so we may use MLTS and ECS interchangeably).

Specifically, Kari’s Law, effective as of February 16, 2018, mandates that MLTS are preconfigured such that a user may dial 911 without first dialing any additional digit, code, prefix, or post-fix, even if the MLTS otherwise requires it for other calls outside its system. This means that nobody, including telephone companies selling MLTS services, may install, manage, or operate MLTS that lack that capability. To tackle the issue from another angle, Kari’s Law also prohibits the manufacture, importation, sale, and lease of MLTS without this capability, but that requirement has a two-year grace period and won’t take effect until February 16, 2020. Lastly, whenever 911 is dialed from an MLTS, the system must be configured to provide a notification to a central location at the facility where the MLTS is installed, or to a different location of the system operator’s choosing. These notifications are intended to alert the person or organization responsible for security that a potential emergency exists. This requirement does not have a grace period, taking effect immediately. However, it will only apply if the system can be so configured without an improvement to the hardware or software of the system.

While Kari’s Law just took effect in 2018, that doesn’t mean it’s been a lawless MLTS/911 landscape or that the issues haven’t been deliberated at many levels. Continue Reading