Washington is all abuzz with the possibility of a shut-down next week if Congress is unable to get its act together and approve a continuing resolution to keep the government funded. As matters currently stand, it looks like March 4 would be the last day routine business might get done before the budget impasse closes down the government. Such a shut-down would affect the FCC along with all other federal agencies. This could have a disastrous impact on licensees whose licenses are expiring after 11:59 p.m. on March 4. (The vast majority of licensees likely to be affected would be in the non-broadcast services. That’s because the next routine expiration date for any broadcast license is October 1, 2011 – and if the government is not back in operation by then, we will all have much bigger problems than license renewal to worry about. But heads up: The caveat below could apply to broadcasters who have, for example, an STA which is set to expire shortly after March 4.)

The Administrative Procedure Act provides that licensees continue to have operating authority even after the expiration of their licenses as long as they have a renewal application on file. However, in order to take advantage of that automatic extension of your license, you must have actually filed a renewal application – and there’s the rub. A shut-down would theoretically extend the time for you to file a renewal application until the government re-opens, but it would not automatically extend your operating authority beyond the expiration date. So a licensee whose license expires on, say, March 10, 2011 might not be able to file a renewal application until some later date when the government gets going again. In the meantime, the licensee would not have any authority to be operating.   (At this point we don’t know whether the FCC’s on-line filing systems – e.g., ULS, CDBS – would remain in operation during a shut-down.) 

The FCC could address this problem by granting a blanket special temporary authority to licensees who are caught in that situation, but it would have to do so before the shut-down in order for that order to have effect. While it might also provide after-the-fact relief once the government re-opens, there is no guarantee of that – so there is at least some risk, and possibly a considerable risk, in not taking protective action before a possible shut-down. BOTTOM LINE: licensees with license expiration dates coming up in the next month or two would be well advised to get their renewal applications in BEFORE March 4 to avoid the possibility of losing their operating authority for the duration.

From previous shut-down experience we expect that, should the government close up, the FCC would still retain a skeleton crew of “essential” personnel to be available to respond to any situations that might arise involving public safety. But these individuals tend to interpret “public safety” literally. They are unlikely to help unless your situation is both unforeseeable and involves genuine and imminent threats to people or property, such a tornado taking down a tower needed for critical communications.

If in doubt, act now.