No significant changes from May proposals; look for a September filing window

Sometimes the best surprise is no surprise at all. And the FCC has surprised at least some of us with its release of the final 2011 regulatory fee schedule. The surprise? As it turns out, with one very minor exception, the final fees are identical to the fees the Commission proposed back in May. (The one exception: the fee associated with satellite TV construction permits is $670, which is a whopping $5 less than the fee that was proposed back in May.)

Click here for a handy table listing the final 2011 reg fees. We’ve also included in the table listings of the differences between this year’s fees and last year’s, in case you’re interested in that kind of thing.

If you wade into the fine print of the Report and Order accompanying the new fee schedule, you find some routine caveats. For instance, you’ll be expected to use the FCC’s Fee Filer system to pay your reg fees (no real surprise there), and the Commission will not be sending out hard copy “pre-bills” to let everybody know what they’re on the hook for (ditto). (Helpful tip: the information that you would have received in a paper pre-bill will be available at Fee Filer, but don’t forget to doublecheck that information – the Commission has been known to make mistakes, and its calculations have historically not included fees for any auxiliary licenses you might have.)

The Report and Order does include an interesting statement relative to low power TV/Class A/TV translator fees.

Because of the on-going transition to digital operation in that particular sector, LPTV/Class A/Translator licensees may be operating a single analog station, or a single digital station, or two companion stations (one analog, one digital). Regardless of the mode you’re in (i.e., digital or analog), the FCC will be looking for a reg fee from you. That’s not unreasonable. But then the Commission adds: “In instances in which a licensee is operating in both an analog and digital mode as a simulcast, a single regulatory fee will be assessed for this analog facility that has a digital companion channel.” Note, in particular, the phrase “as a simulcast”. It’s not clear exactly what that is intended to mean. 

Presumably, if you have two companion channels, each broadcasting identical programming (one in analog, one in digital), you’d only owe a single reg fee. And if you have two such channels but provide completely different programming on each, we’re guessing that the Commission expects you to pay two separate fees, one for each.

But what if you’re using the digital station to provide not only a digital version of the analog’s programming, but also streams of other, completely separate programming? Arguably you’d be operating the two stations as a simulcast, meaning you’d only be stuck with a single fee. But the fact that you’re providing additional programming on the digital station might mean that it’s not a “simulcast” as the Commission means it.  We don’t know what the answer to this seeming conundrum is, but if you’re in this situation, it would probably be a good idea to get the answer tied down before you pay.

And speaking of paying, heads up. The Commission cautions that the fees are due when they are due, payable in full, thank you very much. (Late filers get hit with a 25% late fee.) If you think you’re entitled to a full waiver, or even just a reduction, you’re supposed to tender the full amount by the deadline, along with your request for waiver/reduction. If you’d rather not tender any payment at all with your request, you’ve got to request a deferral of the deadline – and that request must be accompanied by a showing of financial hardship. In other words, you can’t just plead poverty and expect to avoid having to pay by the deadline; rather, you have to document your hardship at the time you request the waiver/reduction.

Which brings us to the question of deadlines. When are this year’s fees due? The Commission hasn’t announced that yet, but it does allude in passing to a “September 2011 filing window”. Looks like we may not have to forfeit the deposit on that August beach house rental after all. (Check back here for updates on the deadline front.)

Finally, the Commission wraps up its Report and Order with a commitment to revisit “the nature and extent of all changes that need to be made to our regulatory fee schedule and calculations”. That inquiry – which the FCC assures us will be initiated before the end of 2011 – may lead to a “re-assess[ment of] the regulatory fee burden of all fee categories” as well as a “rebalancing of regulatory fees among existing service providers”. The Commission has been toying with the notion of such a proceeding for years, but this time it seems to be serious about it. We’ll see.