FCC Chairman on offensive for proposed Field Office closures – but will “tiger teams” really do the trick?

Word on the street (first reported last month by our friends at Radio World, as far as we can tell) is that the FCC’s Field Offices are on the budgetary chopping block: according to a memo reportedly circulating within the Commission (and co-authored by the Chief of the Enforcement Bureau and the Managing Director), the number of Field Offices would be sliced by two-thirds (from 24 to 8), and staffing would be cut almost in half (from 63 to 33). Field Offices in major cities – think Seattle, Denver, Boston, Philadelphia, Houston – would all be gone.

Ding Dong, the (Enforcement) Witch is Dead! Good news, right?

Not really.

Sure, visions of surprise inspections and write-ups for hypertechnical violations may plague the fevered imaginations of some, but the fact is that Field Offices are, and have long been, the friend of the licensed, street-legal operator. As a practical matter, voluntary inspection programs have largely removed the threat of drive-by, “gotcha” inspections. And while we may all chafe a bit at the occasional citation for a broken tower fence lock or unmown grass at the transmitter, such things tend to be rare, at least for licensees who are reasonably attentive to regulatory compliance.

More common are the situations when a licensed station encounters interference from some other source, often one it can’t identify on its own. Maybe it’s somebody suffering inadvertent frequency drift; maybe it’s intentional, malicious interference; maybe it’s a pirate; maybe it’s an unlicensed transmitting device working where or how it shouldn’t be. Whatever the case, your friendly local FCC official has just the right combination of technical expertise and regulatory muscle to resolve the problem.

Recently, a client called about a problem with what the FCC field agents term a “malicious interferer”, one of those regrettably troubled individuals who choose to use transmitters (legally obtained or otherwise) to spew obnoxious content on licensed radio frequencies. In this instance, the interferer was broadcasting racial slurs and obscenities on frequencies used by universities and others, forcing them to cease (at least temporarily) using the equipment they were lawfully licensed to use. We reached out to the nearby FCC Field Office, which began an investigation that brought an agent to the location several times. Working with local law enforcement, the Field Office succeeded in scaring off the interferer. We suspect that this happens a lot more often than gets reported.

In a recent post on the FCC’s blog, Commissioner O’Rielly acknowledged the continuing problem of radio piracy in no uncertain terms. (Sample quote: “If broadcasting were a garden, pirate radio would be poisonous crabgrass.”) And who does a legitimate broadcaster call to spray regulatory Roundup on that crabgrass? The local Field Office, of course. Which is one very good reason why slashing the availability of conveniently located field operatives is NOT a reason for celebration. (Unfortunately, while bemoaning the insidiousness of radio piracy, O’Rielly declined to take a position on the possible closure of Field Offices.)

The persistent pirate plague is not the only concern. As the Commission encourages spectrum sharing, particularly where mobile, unlicensed transmitters are involved, the potential for unintended, unexpected interference will soar. What’s worse, the folks likely to be operating the interfering devices will probably not be communications professionals savvy in the art of spectrum use. Rather, increasingly they will be folks taking advantage, innocently or otherwise, of the vast array of equipment available on the legitimate open market or from less legitimate sources – think jammers, boosters and the like. These are not people likely to respond favorably when your chief engineer calls over to ask for some friendly cooperation in identifying and correcting incoming interference. Is this really the time to shrink the available governmental enforcement capability?

Testifying on Capitol Hill, Chairman Wheeler (who thinks RIF-ing field offices is a good idea) described how effective enforcement could be accomplished with just a small handful of field offices. According to Wheeler, the Commission is contemplating use of a “tiger team” approach. Field agents assigned to the eight surviving field offices would be on call, ready to hop a plane at the drop of a hat and swoop in to respond to interference SOS calls. How would they schlep their gear? Why, “prepositioned equipment” would be cached at various sites around the country, based (apparently) on “population/spectrum use density”. On their way to a distress call, the tiger teams would apparently make a pit stop at the closest “prepositioned equipment” depot to pick up what they might need. Radio World reports that those sites would include Kansas City, Denver, Salt Lake City, Phoenix, Seattle, San Juan, Puerto Rico, Anchorage, Alaska, Honolulu and Billings, Montana.

Now bear in mind that the eight remaining field offices would (again according Radio World) be in NYC, LA, San Francisco, Chicago, Atlanta, Miami, Dallas and Columbia, Maryland. Wheeler apparently believes that field agents can be expected to arrive on-site responding to calls for assistance anywhere in the country within 24 hours. It appears, though, that they would have to get there by flying commercial – no FCC-dedicated Globemaster (like S.H.I.E.L.D.’s “Bus”) or Invisible Jet (like Wonder Woman’s) is in the budget. Whether or not 24 hours is a reasonable expectation remains to be seen. But if a tiger team has to fly, commercial, to an equipment depot site and then somehow get to the place where the interference is occurring, 24 hours seems a bit optimistic.

Both Chairman Wheeler and Enforcement Bureau Chief Travis LeBlanc delivered sales pitches for the anticipated down-sizing at the recent NAB Convention. They noted that: it has been some 20 years since a management evaluation has been made of FCC Field Offices; most of the employees at those offices are eligible for retirement, not all the employees are busy all the time; and FCC inspectors are operating with outdated equipment that the FCC plans to replace with funds saved from closing offices. They argued that deploying up-to-date equipment will more than offset the reduction in Field Office locations and personnel.

One broadcaster in the audience at the NAB told LeBlanc that most stations around the country see local Field Office inspectors, not Washington headquarters, as the presence and personality of the FCC in their lives. When field inspectors visit, station staffs jump to attention, and the staffs know that they need to be able to demonstrate compliance with the agency’s requirements. A “tiger team” dispatched from afar just won’t have the same impact.

Some are speculating that this proposal isn’t motivated solely by concern for efficiency and modernization. Rather, the suggestion goes, it’s designed to enable the Chairman to add more FTEs (that’s government-speak for budgeted positions) to the FCC headquarters staff to work on net neutrality complaints while avoiding a budget fight with a Republican Congress that is loath to support the net neutrality efforts. That seems an odd trade-off for an agency whose raison d’être since its inception has been the preservation of order and the prevention of chaos in spectrum use.

The plan to down-size the Field Office operation has not formally surfaced. To the extent that reports about it have emerged, they have been met with considerable skepticism. As an example, Bob Weller of the NAB posted a strong piece (“Defanging a Paper Tiger”) on the NAB’s blog. It’s possible that such opposition may give Chairman Wheeler and Bureau Chief LeBlanc some pause … or not, as they seemed to stand their ground at the NAB convention. Check back here for updates.