$202k fine reduced to $40k … but there’s a catch.

Three years ago – doesn’t the time just fly? – we told you about Towerstream, a wireless Internet service provider (WISP) whose transmitters had caused interference to airport weather radars. The FCC proposed a fine of $202,000, apparently in keeping with its rumored policy of “jacking up the fines till we get their attention.”

Towerstream has since negotiated a consent decree with the FCC that knocked the fine down to a more manageable $40,000. The company has also committed itself to a compliance monitoring program. Case closed … we hope.

Towerstream hopes so, too. Because the FCC put a spring-loaded trap into the consent decree. The $162,000 the FCC took off the original fine did not go away. It became a “suspended penalty” that Towerstream will owe if it causes the same kind of interference within three years – in addition, no doubt, to whatever separate fine the FCC will impose for the new interference.

The FCC has applied these suspended penalties only a few times before, all of them this year. (See one such case here.) We are guessing they are now a standard feature of the FCC’s consent decree template, along with another recent change that eliminated the defendant’s chance to pay the fine – then dubbed a “voluntary contribution” – without admitting guilt. Now the fine is a “civil penalty,” the defendant has to admit the violation, and a large balance remains as an overhanging threat for years.

Old-timers like to talk about the days when the FCC’s enforcement goal was not to make money, but to quickly fix potentially dangerous violations and avoid new ones. Things were different then, they say – companies voluntarily came forward to disclose their mistakes and seek the FCC’s help in making them right, knowing their public-spirited behavior was unlikely to incur a penalty. Some say that companies now have become more concerned about hiding problems from the FCC than in rectifying them.

Of course the old-timers all generalize too much, and love to romanticize the past with made-up stories about the times when they were young, Except the part about walking five miles to school through the snow, uphill both ways – that’s all true.