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EB Field Consultant Report Revisited


Readers may recall that this blog was the first to provide a leaked version of the consultant's report on Enforcement Bureau field activities that was used to rationalize decimating this organization and reducing it to 54 staffers nationwide.

A recent item hidden on the FCC's website, certainly not on the front page of either the Commission or even EB, was revealed in a post on the blog of the law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP. (Also here). Since EB like to boast about high fines, why was the announcement of a $620,500 fine for a tower violation done in such a low key way? Possibly because it contradicted the above statement in the consultant report that "there is already a high degree of compliance"? Was apparent compliance high because no one was looking for violations? The Pillsbury blog states

In this case, the provider acquired another Alaskan telecommunications company’s cell towers in mid-2013, at which time it conducted an internal inventory of its cell towers. The provider found that 118 cell towers, including many of the recently acquired towers, were not registered in the ASR system in violation of the FCC’s Rules. It also concluded that three of its towers were not properly lit. The company self-reported the apparent violations to the FCC in early 2014, and thereafter began a complete review of its towers.

The provider settled the FCC’s subsequent investigation into the tower violations with a hefty $620,500 payment. In addition, the provider agreed to complete the tower review it commenced in 2014 and to bring all of its towers into compliance by April 30, 2016.

(The low key hidden press release on the fine is here and the more detailed Consent Decree and Order are here)

With the downsizing of the EB field staff and the reducing of field locations from 24 to 13 nationwide towers owners in most of the country can be assured that the likelihood of an inspection or even being noticed by FCC agents traveling outside their office has been reduced to near zero. The report claimed that FAA was consulted. Did they talk to the FAA staff that deals with spectrum management only or did they also speak to the FAA staff responsible for airspace obstruction marking and lighting? Like or not, §303(q) makes FCC responsible for marking and lighting of antennas that intrude into navigable airspace.

It is actually amazing that aviation organizations such as the usually shrill Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association ("Protecting Your Freedom to Fly" although in the case of FCC it is usually protecting the right of AOPA members to have all aircraft radios grandfathered from new rules for higher spectrum efficiency"), Airlines for America, and Helicopter Association International were silent about the field downsizing that will directly affect aviation safety.

In drafting this blog entry I noticed something else strange about the package of leaked documents that included the consultant's report. It also included a memo from EB Chief LeBlanc to the EB field staff dated March 10, 2015. (pdf p. 4-5 of this package.) In that memo was the following statement:


EDG is the field unit based in suburban Atlanta that designs and build receiver and direction finding equipment for field operations including the custom made covert direction finding cars FCC agents use. It also designs and maintains the HF direction finding equipment used by the FCC's Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau that is rarely mentioned. But as we have said in a previous post "The Equipment Development Group in Powder Springs, GA shrinks from 10 positions to 7." So how is EDG going to be able to handle these new functions with a smaller staff?


The EB homepage now has another antenna marking/lighting violation posted, unlike the Alaskan one described above that is hidden somewhere in the bowels of the website. This new one was released on November 3 and deals with Johnson Towers Corp., "an owner-operated company with no employees and three antenna towers" in Pinellas Park, Florida. This action follows an NAL issued in November 2013:

"In response to the NAL, JTC asserted that insufficient finances and lawsuits hindered its ability to install lighting systems on antenna structures 1060088 and 1060090, acknowledged that it did not notify the Commission about the dismantlement of antenna structure 1060089,and stated it would come into compliance as quickly as possible."

Did EB's "Field Modernization" consultant know about this action when he concluded that there was "a high degree of compliance" in tower compliance? Was FCC leadership aware of this as they agreed to implement the report's recommendations? The importance of this issue is clearly stated in the new order: "Critically, conformance with the lighting requirements imposed by the Commission and the FAA ensures that antenna structures do not pose a public safety risk to passing aircraft." Thus tower lighting and marking is a safety of life issue even though it appears to be one of EB's lowest priorities.

The NAL describes how this incident was brought to the FCC's attention by FAA who noticed a paperwork issue. An agent from EB's Tampa office visited the Pinellas Park site and noticed the unauthorized demolition and the lack of lighting on the remaining towers. Now it is only 20 miles from Tampa to Pinellas Park so this was an FAA inquiry that was easy to followup. But post-"Field Modernization" most of the USA will be more than 100 miles from the remaining 13 offices. How are tower lighting and marking rules of Part 17 going to be enforced in this new era? When the broadcasters complained about pirate enforcement issues, EB announced they would develop a plan - not yet finished. How will the downsized EB field organization deal with safety related tower enforcement.

Also, why did it take 2 years and 2 days to resolve an enforcement issue related to a safety of life topic? (Actually 2 years and 5 months if you start from the originally inquiry from FAA on April 14, 2011.)

Of course, another issue is why doesn't the aviation community care? AOPA has traditionally been a total nuisance at FCC trying to avoid having their member spend money to upgrade avionics to meet new spectrum efficiency standards. Don't the lives of their members, as well as the public, matter as much as the wallets of their general aviation aircraft-owning members?
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