An FCC order requires the resident either to find and fix the source of interference in his house, or else allow FCC staff to come in and do it.

police-warning.kozolMr. Edward R. Kozol of Lemont, Illinois, you have our sympathy. That cell tower south of where you live, over by I-395, is picking up interference. The FCC thinks it’s coming from your residence, so they stopped by to see you about it last April. Maybe you weren’t home – they left a notice on your front door. They came back, but they say you ignored numerous requests to let the agents in to track down where the interference was coming from. They followed up with a second notice, this one delivered by UPS in October. You acknowledged getting the first notice back in May, but they haven’t heard from you since.

The FCC does not like being ignored. So they have now issued an order that requires you to do certain things. (This one coming by regular old First Class U.S. mail, but it’s certified and will require your signature, so it’ll be hard to miss.)

You may not know this – most people don’t – but a lot of non-radio equipment emits radio signals that can cause interference. The FCC has in recent years addressed three such incidents due to lighting fixtures – here, here, and here – and, of all things, a well pump. The FCC has equipment that could locate your problem device, but you declined to let the agents in. Now they are giving you two options.

One option is to go through the house yourself and examine every “Part 15” device. These come in three kinds: (1) low-power, unlicensed transmitters like Wi-Fi in your tablet and the thing on your keychain that unlocks your car; (2) digital devices and radio receivers, all of which throw off radio signals as a by-product; and (3) anything else that might produce radio waves. The FCC thinks your problem is in this last category. It can include pretty much anything that plugs into the wall or is wired into the house electrical system: lighting fixtures, all large appliances, some small appliances (especially those having a motor), heating and A/C systems, hot-water heaters, floor and desk lamps … Even finding them all could take a while. Just glancing around our ultramodern workstation here in the CommLawBlog bunker, we see dozens of devices in all three categories. Plus the pinball machine.

Under Option 1, the FCC orders you to identify the offending device and turn it off until you can have it repaired or replaced, and then give FCC a complete report. Unfortunately they don’t say how to identify that offending device, perhaps because doing so takes special equipment and training in how to use it. The FCC does say that you’re supposed to have this all taken care of within 30 days of the order – that is, by December 24, which could definitely put a damper on your holiday spirit.

Or you can go to Option 2, which is back where you started: you can invite the FCC to come back and let them in to find the problem for you.

There is technically a third option: you can respond to the order by challenging the FCC’s factual and legal claims. (You can also request a sit-down meeting with the FCC agents at the Field Office nearest to your place of business – even though the supposedly faulty device is supposedly at your residence, not your place of business.) The trouble is that going that route – i.e., not correcting the interference right away, if it is indeed coming from your house – can get expensive. The FCC warns that if you don’t solve the problem one way or another, it can fine you up to $16,000 per day, up to a maximum of $122,500, can seize the equipment causing the trouble, and can bring criminal charges possibly leading to imprisonment.

We’re not your lawyer and you don’t have to listen to what we say. But frankly, if we were in your situation, we would let the FCC people come in to do their job, after making sure they wipe their feet. Yes, it’s intrusive and no, we wouldn’t let them play with the pinball machine. But the people communicating through that cell tower have a right to the service they’re paying for, and which they may need in an emergency. We all have to share the one spectrum, and sometimes – rarely, but sometimes – that means putting up with federal personnel tramping through the house.