The FCC has banned importation and interstate shipment of analog-only TV receivers.  Anything that picks up TV has to pick up digital TV.  The rules cover not only conventional receivers with screens, but anything with a TV tuner (such as off-the-air video recorders).  The aim is to minimize the number of consumers caught short when analog TV goes off the air early next year.

A year ago, the FCC sent a "Letter of Inquiry" (LOI) to a company suspected of violating this rule.  The letter asked for information about seventeen products the FCC thought might be analog-only.  It wanted the quantities of each that were imported or shipped interstate, the relevant dates, and the entities to whom the devices were shipped.

The company admitted that some of the products specified in fact were analog-only.  But these were not stand-alone devices, it said — they were plug-in boards for personal computers.  The company expressed its view that plug-in boards were not covered by the analog-only rules.  And it came up with creative and interesting arguments on why consumers benefit from having analog-only boards available.  Perhaps thinking it had adequately disposed of the inquiry, the company did not provide the requested particulars.  And we can guess why.  Responding to these LOIs often takes several person-days of digging through records — a major disruption for a small business.

At this point the FCC had three choices.  It could have accepted the company’s arguments (not likely).  Or it could have used the company’s admission of having shipped analog-only products  to assess a fine.  But the FCC picked option no. 3.  Apparently without ruling either way on whether plug-in boards are covered, the FCC reiterated its demand for data on the seventeen products, on a 15-day deadline.  The company asked for more time, and then seems to have gone silent.  The FCC imposed a fine of $11,000 — but not for the analog-only shipments.  The fine was for not having fully answered the LOI.

The base fine for failing to respond to FCC communications is a lot less:  $4,000.  The FCC almost tripled the amount here because, it said, the company’s failure to respond inhibits the FCC’s ability to enforce its rules.  Yet virtually any LOI in the enforcement area could support the same argument.  If Congress meant the higher fine to be the standard for enforcement LOIs, it presumably would have said so.  Of the three cases the FCC cites as precedent for jacking up fines for a failure to respond, all involved common carriers, which are held to a higher standard of conduct before the FCC than are ordinary businesses.

Even after paying the $11,000, the company still has to answer the LOI on threat of still more fines.  If it does answer, and the response shows possible violations of the rules, it will probably be assessed fines on those, too.

As a general rule — your case may be different — the surest way to get in trouble with the FCC is to ignore their letters.  Or even parts of their letters.  After all, everybody likes to get mail.  Especially the folks at the FCC.