Sadly enough, the possibility of a governmental shut-down next week looms if Congress is unable to get its act together to keep the government funded. As matters currently stand, it looks like September 30 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 non-broadcast licensees whose licenses are expiring after 11:59 p.m. on September 30.

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.  If the agency is closed for business, licensees would theoretically be unable to file their renewal applications. (It’s not clear whether on-line filing mechanisms – think ULS or CDBS – would remain up and running during a shut-down. And even if they were technically still functioning, it’s equally unclear whether a renewal application uploaded through those systems would trigger the automatic extension of operating authority.)

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, October 10, 2013 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.

Of course, this concern is not as critical for broadcasters as it is for licensees in other services. Because the broadcast license renewal process includes a four-month interval between the filing of the renewal application seeking a new license term and the expiration of the previous license term, it’s more than likely that the government will be back up and running before the expiration date arrives. (And if the government isn’t up and running by then, we’ve all got more problems than getting our licenses renewed.)

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. Historically, though, as shut-down brinksmanship has played itself out on Capitol Hill, the FCC has not been inclined to use blanket STA’s to get ahead of the potential problem. 

While the Commission 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 October 1 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.