As Field Offices are shuttered, Enforcement Bureau touts improved “transparency, consistency, and predictability” in complaint responses.

switchboard-2As we reported in July, the FCC is saying sayonara to 11 of its 24 Field Offices. Also as we reported, when it announced that cut-back on July 16, the Commission committed to issuing, within six weeks, “new procedures addressing how complaints can be ‘escalated through the field offices’.” Let’s see – six weeks from July 16 would be, um, August 27. And sure enough, just like clock-work, on August 27 the Enforcement Bureau issued a public notice touting “enhance[d] procedures for public safety and industry interference complaints.”

While the Bureau’s adherence to its Commission-imposed deadline is admirable, its public notice leaves (a) many questions unanswered and (b) us less than impressed (favorably, at least).

According to the Bureau, under the new procedures, complaints will be submitted through an Internet portal on the FCC’s website. Incoming complaints will be categorized as either “high,” “medium,” and “low” – but the notice doesn’t shed much light on how any particular complaint will be assigned to one or another category. Complaints involving public safety will be treated as “high” priority, but we can all agree that “public safety” is a broad and non-specific concept. (Query: Would shutting down an FM pirate operation be “high” priority? What if the pirate is causing interference to FM service just as a hurricane is bearing down on the community – does that transform it to a “public safety” situation?) So that’s not especially helpful. The categorization of other complaints will depend on such similarly imprecise considerations as the frequencies affected or the severity or frequency of the alleged interference.

The category to which a complaint is assigned will determine the Bureau’s response time. Field office representatives will respond to high priority issues within one calendar day of filing, medium priority complaints within two business days, and low priority complaints within five business days. But “response” in this sense should not be mistaken for “resolution”. The initial complaint response will include only: (i) the contact information for the field agent assigned to the matter; (ii) the expected nature and timeframe for investigation or other response; and (iii) a request for additional information, if necessary. Nowhere does the Bureau indicate anticipated follow-up times, an omission that naturally leaves us a bit wary. Thanks to the elimination of so many Field Offices, the availability of Bureau personnel to address complaints can logically be expected to be significantly reduced.

No problem. The Bureau has added an “escalation procedure” – sort of like asking to speak to a manager. Once you’ve filed a complaint through the portal, you’ll be able to move up the line, first to the Regional Director (RD), and next to the Field Director (FD). But you’ve got to wait at least one week after the complaint is filed before you can get to the RD, and two weeks before you can get to the FD. And there’s no time frame for hearing back from these higher-ups, much less any indication of whether, how and – perhaps most importantly, when – the complaint might be resolved.

The Bureau effusively claims that the new system will “improve the transparency, consistency, and predictability of its responses to such complaints and help complainants stay informed of the status of their complaint”. Perhaps. But the new system seems to amount to little more than the equivalent of that annoying message while you’re on hold, assuring you that your call is important and that an operator will get to you shortly. Again, being able to determine that your complaint is somewhere in the process isn’t the same as knowing when your complaint is going to be resolved. With far fewer boots on the ground (in 13 fewer field offices) to respond to the complaints generated by this improved intake system, significantly longer resolution times can be expected.

And complaint resolution is more important here than mere complaint status. After all, while the Commission is cutting back on Field Offices and field personnel, it’s simultaneously encouraging spectrum sharing, a concept that brings with it (among other things) the dramatically increased potential for unintended, unexpected interference. And what about radio piracy? Many fear that pirates will become more of a problem to licensed broadcasters in the wake of the Field Office closures. Common sense would suggest that the fewer the agents, the greater will be the opportunity for outlaws.

With these serious substantive concerns on the table, the announcement of a complaint process that appears to provide no assurance of prompt complaint resolution rings a bit hollow. Whether the new process will prove to be anything more than a cosmetic step that creates the illusion – but not the reality – of actual responsiveness remains to be seen.

[Blogmeister’s Note: The Commission order reducing the number of Field Offices has made it into the Federal Register and is now in effect.]