This week the FCC imposed a fine of $63,000 on a company that, it said, marketed Class A digital devices without first having them "verified" for compliance, as the FCC rules require.
The action is unusual in two respects.
First, Class A devices rarely become enforcement targets. These are devices marketed for commercial or industrial use, and which by their nature are unsuited to consumer applications. Here the offending products were rack-mounted computer gear — not sleek high-end audio racks, but the kind used in back-room installations. These have all the esthetic appeal of the back of a refrigerator. They don’t go with anyone’s living-room furniture.
Verification of a Class A device, like these, has three steps: (1) Test the product for compliance with FCC rules. (2) Put the test results and certain design data in a drawer. (3) Close the drawer. That’s it. No submission to the FCC; no special labeling; no paperwork to the customer.
Class A enforcement is unusual because compliance is easy and violations are hard to spot. An un-verified device looks just the same as one that has been verified. Here the FCC tells us it launched an investigation because it "received a complaint," which usually means a phone call from a competitor. Without those phone calls, the FCC has no practical way to enforce the verification rules.
The second reason this case raises eyebrows is an FCC rule mandating that most violators receive a citation — a formal warning — and then commit the same offense again, before they can be fined. There are exceptions for FCC licensees and the like, who can be fined outright, on the theory that they should know better. And no citation is necessary if the offending activity is one for which a license, permit, or certificate is required. Here, though, the defendant was not (and need not have been) a licensee; and the offense was a lack of verification, which does not entail a license, permit, or anything of the kind. A prior citation and re-offense seem to have been necessary prerequisites to a fine; yet the FCC skipped those steps entirely.
Companies that manufacture or market Class A equipment can easily avoid becoming featured in one of these emails. All it takes is having your products tested, and keeping your records in good order. True, there are costs involved. But compliance is a lot cheaper than paying fines to the FCC. Or paying a lawyer to bail you out.
The FCC order is available here.