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Two Recent FCC Actions Highlight Chronic Concerns That Spectrum Policy Resources at FCC Are Too Low

Two recent news items from FCC confirm your blogger's concerns about long term underfunding of FCC Title III technical activities in spectrum. One of these concerned field spectrum enforcement, the subject of the "Field Modernization" controversy/field staff downsizing in 2015. The other was the very long time needed for implementation for the Part 5 Experimental License "Program Experiment" program that was supposed to stimulate technical innovation in wireless technology.

Field Enforcement

NYPD headline
The news item at left from the FCC home page shows the agency crowing about a large fine/NAL for an individual in New York City who " maliciously interfer(ed) with NYPD officers’ communications, and transmitt(ed) false distress calls." This is a horrendous crime and is the type of activities FCC enforcement should without a doubt be acting on. But reading the FCC NAL carefully reveals some odd details in para. 3:


  • "On August 1, 2016, the Commission was alerted by a posting on Twitter about an unlawful intrusion on the NYPD’s radio system, whereupon the Enforcement Bureau dispatched an agent from its New York Field Office (New York Office) to confirm the intrusion and offer assistance."
  • "On September 30, 2016, the NYPD contacted the New York Office and advised that it had arrested two individuals, Mr. Peralta and an accomplice, in connection with unauthorized transmissions made on the NYPD’s radio system."
So while FCC did issue a $404,166 NAL almost 7 months after the perp confessed to NYPD the newly downsized EB field operations seems to have had no role in the solution of this case. Even worse, the NYPD apparently did not view the FCC field office as credible enough to even tell them about the problem! FCC heard about the problem through a Twitter post! (We previously described the Coast Guard as being so frustrated about a radio false distress case in Annapolis that they issued a press release without consulting FCC. There are indications that FCC was at least aware of that string of incidents but unaware of how frustrated Coast Guard had become.)

Does the downsized New York FCC field office have the resources today to have helped NYPD to solve this case had they been asked?

When I was in EB's predecessor, FOB, one of the top priorities of field officer managers was to maintain good relations with local public safety officials so that they could help quickly with public safety interference issues that were of the highest priority then and well as now. So why didn't NYPD tell FCC about this case? Perhaps top FCC officials should ask why! (I suppose the FCC IG could look into to it, but we all know that unlike Curious George he is not at all curious about FCC operations that risk discovering something embarrassing to agency leaders. He is a great team player though!)

Should we look forward to this $404,166 NAL helping to reduce the national debt? Don't count on it. EB is rather evasive about how many NALs are actually paid and this type of fine against an individual has little likelihood of a substantial recovery. Perhaps a more relevant question is why this didn't result in a § 333 criminal prosecution? Now US Attorneys are reluctant to get involved in Communications Act cases involving interference to TV reception or amateur radio shenanigans, but this sounds like what § 333 was intended for and was also a criminal violation of § 301. When I worked in the old FOB, I was personally involved in 4 different successful criminal prosecutions for radio violations (2 satellite jamming cases, 1 aviation air traffic control intrusion case, and 1 maritime false distress case) during a 5 year period. It is unclear when EB was last able to ask and convince DOJ to prosecute any case, perhaps 20+ years ago? Does EB even know how to make such a request to DOJ? Does it even have the files on the old successful FOB referrals to DOJ?

Part 5 Experimental Program Licenses

On April 14th FCC's blog had a new post from OET Chief Julius Knapp entitled "Open for business: FCC's New Experimental Licensing System Accepting New Applications". It failed to mention the origins of this new program, probably because the timing might be embarrassing. On January 31, 2013 FCC adopted the Report and Order in Docket 10-236 updating the Part 5 Experimental License Program. (Note this was 26 months after the NPRM had been adopted — indicating that this docket was not exactly on the fast track. However, both the NPRM and the R&O were released on the day the Commission adopted them indicating FCC leadership was trying to maximize PR since this is treatment only PR-worthy decisions get due to perennial FCC "back office " problems. )

The R&O said about the new types of licenses:Program-lic

These are all commendable goals but the 4+ years delay between the adoption of the R&O and the opening of the updated application web site that accepts applications is unexplained. There are some plausible issues dealing with a reconsideration of the R&O which was itself on the "slow track" and was slowed further by a 2 month delay in publishing the R&O in the Federal Register. OMB approval was needed for some details of the new website since it gathered information. But the most likely explanation for much of the years of delay was the lack of resources in FCC to modify the website that handles experimental applications. Indeed what was actually done was to add a new section/dashboard so that the basic experimental license website created in the 1990s remains unchanged. (It was state of the art 1990s technology in how it implemented the FCC Form 442 of the era but is a now real pain to use for even simple applications for anyone who doesn't use it on a regular basis due to design quirks and poor instructions.)

So both of these problems are probably cause by chronic low FCC funding for spectrum policy issues other than auctions and 5G. While certain FCC Title II activities are controversial, Title III activities generally are not. Indeed, Title III is both a profit center for the Treasury and a major growth enabler for the GDP. Why far the resources for FCC in this area so low that key activities are not adequately funded. Note that this is a bipartisan issue and both parties are responsible!

The WTB Auction Division is adequately funding because it can "skim" off auction proceeds. (When I was working at FCC many people noted that all the staff in the Auction Division had large displays on their PCs because their were supposedly needed for auctions - even for time clerks?) Ofcom is not funded by an appropriation from the UK Parliament, it is funded by the fees it collects subject to limits set by the agency that supervises it. Perhaps it is time to try to remove the spectrum regulation of FCC from regular politicized appropriations process since it is already supported by various spectrum fees? Recall that Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and many other unlicensed marvels all started with a $55,652 FCC-funded study at MITRE Corporation in 1980 and today's reality is that FCC can not afford studies of new technology options and can't even afford its own spectrum enforcement activities and implementation of new rules!
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