The online public file requirement has been applicable to broadcast TV stations only. At its open meeting today, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) unanimously agreed to expand the requirement to keep public and political files online at an FCC-hosted website to cable TV systems, DBS satellite operators, broadcast radio stations, and satellite radio stations, on a phased-in basis.  

The measure was defended as both a way to increase public access to the public and political files and as a way to maintain the security of radio stations and cable systems that will no longer have to allow public access to paper files in local offices.

The online public file requirement will be phased in similar to the phase-in requirement that was applied to TV stations in 2012.  Specifically, only radio stations in the top 50 markets with five or more full-time employees will be required to upload their public files to the FCC this year.  Other radio stations will have two years or until March 1, 2018 to comply with this requirement.  

Similarly, only cable systems with more than 5000 subscribers will have to upload public files this year.  Systems with 1000-5000 subscribers will have a two year phase-in period and systems with fewer than 1000 subscribers will be exempt from complying with the new rule.  The Commission did not discuss any phase-in period for DBS or satellite radio operators.

None of the affected entities will have to upload materials that are already on file at the FCC, as those documents will be placed in the entity’s online public file by the FCC.  The Commission also decided that political files will only have to be uploaded prospectively, avoiding the need to upload any pre-existing political files.  As currently applies to TV stations, the affected entities will have to maintain back-up copies only of the political file so that if the FCC website goes down, political candidates will not lose access to time-sensitive documents.

The Commission made clear that it is not expanding any of the substantive public file requirements, but only requiring that the existing files be posted online.  Waivers will be available to those entities that have a demonstrated hardship in complying with this requirement.  Waivers will also be available to noncommercial educational (NCE) radio stations that want to avoid placing donor lists online so as not to chill donations.

Letters and emails from the public are not required to be placed in the online public files by either TV or radio stations but must be kept available for inspection in a local public file.  Commissioner O’Rielly questioned whether there is a continued need to keep such correspondence publicly available, but any decision on that issue was left for a future proceeding.