Moving to “refocus” and “update” field office operations, FCC preserves more offices than originally anticipated, but some field personnel will lose jobs.

A few months ago, we reported on Chairman Wheeler’s then-rumored plan to eliminate 16 of the Commission’s 24 Field Offices. (The plan, as described by Wheeler himself in testimony on Capitol Hill, would have replaced the decommissioned offices with “Tiger Teams” that would fly around the country to respond to unlawful interference.) Reports of the plan triggered considerable controversy which in turn triggered some old-fashioned D.C. lobbying (by both regulatees and field office employees) which then prompted Congressional intervention.

The result? In a terse order long on bureaucratese and short on detail, the FCC has announced that 11 of the 24 Field Offices (down from the 16 originally proposed) will be shuttered.

Surviving the cuts will be the offices in NYC, LA, San Francisco, Chicago, Atlanta, Miami, Dallas, and Columbia, MD – all of which were previously said to have been on the safe list. The five saved from the anticipated elimination are Boston, Denver, Honolulu, New Orleans and Portland. (The Atlanta, San Francisco and Columbia offices will be moved to different FCC-owned properties in or near their respective cities.)

Which means that you can kiss good-bye to the offices in Anchorage, Buffalo, Detroit, Houston, Kansas City (MO), Norfolk, Philadelphia, San Diego, San Juan, Seattle and Tampa. All is not lost for Alaska and Puerto Rico, though: the Commission has committed to “maintain[ing] a field presence” there by “contract[ing] with local personnel”. The FCC assures that it “will also periodically dispatch field agents to Kansas City”. What’s not clear is when and why such “dispatches” will occur – or who might be included in them, or why Kansas City gets them but no other cities apparently do.

According to the FCC’s Order, the goal here is to “refocus[ ]” the Field Offices on “enforcement of our radio frequency spectrum rules and other key regulations in a high impact and cost effective manner that is better aligned with the priorities of the Commission and the Bureau as a whole.” While that whizbang elocution may seem impressive at first glance, on closer inspection it fails to indicate precisely how the offices had become unfocused, what other “key regulations” might be on the field offices’ new watch list, or what “priorities” will affect the “align[ment]” of things. Thus, for example, we can’t say for sure whether broadcasters and tower owners may rest a little easier thinking that there will be fewer inspections and fines for any facility violations.

Also among the FCC’s goals here: “updat[ing] [the Field Offices’] equipment and employee skillset to address the likely issues that will accompany new and expanded uses of spectrum.” On the equipment side, we can apparently look for “the expanded use of remotely operated monitoring equipment” as well as the “identification and use of portable devices capable of assessing interference issues in bands expected to experience heavy spectrum use”. Again, we’re left wondering what frequency bands in the FCC’s view are in need of better interference monitoring.

While it’s not certain what aspects of the “employee skillset” need to be updated, one somewhat specific change adopted by the FCC involves the qualifications for Field Office agents: they must now all have “electrical engineering backgrounds”. Precisely what might qualify as such a “background” is left unstated. However, according to Commissioner O’Rielly, as a result of this new requirement six current field agents will find themselves without a job. (Though the Order does provide for outplacement assistance for these and other downsized employees, Commissioner O’Reilly laments that these six were not grandfathered into their positions.)

The FCC did commit to a quick time frame – six short weeks (happy summer plans to the staff assigned to that project!) – within which it will issue new procedures addressing how complaints can be “escalated through the field offices”. But wait a minute – what does “escalating complaints through the field offices” mean, anyway? And if “escalating” here is just a fancy way of saying “speeding up disposition of”, why does it take a reorganization of the Field Offices to get that done? In any event, check back here in, say, seven weeks and we may be able to shed some more light on this.

The order includes two other specific commitments. First, the net savings derived from the reorganization will first be applied to the upgrading of Field Office equipment and employee skillsets before any of that cash is applied to the FCC’s general fund. And second, “net savings [from the reorganization] will not be used to increase the number of full-time non-field-related employees in the headquarters office of the Enforcement Bureau.” This is presumably a provision designed to address concerns that the Field Office shut-down is simply a means by which the Commission can expand the “front office” in the Bureau’s Washington office. In recent months that office has attracted attention for imposing multiple headline-making multi-million dollar fines. Some observers speculated that, by closing down field offices (which don’t generate that kind of forfeiture), the Bureau could fund more full-time slots in D.C. to beef up its already beefy activities there.

The mere fact that these terms were included at all suggests that they were the subject of some internal debate leading up to the Order.

One thing we can say with some confidence: the reorganization will almost certainly herald a new era for outside the Beltway spectrum bandits. Time will tell whether FCC can maintain control of what is happening out there.