July was not a good month for the licensee of FM radio stations located in Casper, Wyoming. The FCC issued four separate Notices of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture (“NAL”) against the licensee for a total forfeiture amount of $68,000.
In August 2011, an agent from the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau inspected the main studios of the licensee’s four FM radio stations and the corresponding studio transmitter links (“STL”) for each station. In the first of the four NALs, the agent discovered that although the station’s STL was operating on its authorized frequency, the STL was operating at the site of the station’s main studio, 0.3 miles away from the STL’s authorized location.
In December 2011, the Enforcement Bureau issued a Letter of Inquiry (“LOI”) to investigate. In the licensee’s delayed response to the LOI in April 2012, the licensee admitted that the STL had been the primary delivery mechanism for the FM station’s programming since 2001 and that an application to change the location of the STL “should have been filed” when the station moved its main studio 10 years earlier. Only after the fact (in May 2012) did the licensee file an application to modify the STL’s authorized location. According to Section 1.903(a) of the FCC’s Rules, stations must operate in accordance with applicable rules and with a valid authorization granted by the FCC, and the base forfeiture for operating at an unauthorized location is $4,000. Here, the FCC decided that an upward adjustment of an additional $4,000 was warranted because the STL had been operating at the unauthorized location for 10 years.
For each of the other three NALs issued against the licensee, the agent inspected the stations’ main studios to discover that each FM station had an operational STL for which there was no corresponding FCC authorization. In one instance, the station’s STL had been the primary mechanism for relaying programming for 11 years. In the other two instances, the licensee had been operating the STLs as the primary delivery mechanism for programming for 17 years without an authorization from the FCC.
Section 301 of the Communications Act prohibits operating without proper FCC licenses, and the base forfeiture for operating without a license is $10,000. However, because the licensee admitted it had been continuously operating the STLs without FCC authorizations for periods of 11 to 17 years, the FCC determined that an upward adjustment of $10,000 was warranted for each of the three violations. As a result, the FCC proposed a fine of $60,000 for the operation of the three STLs without a license. When added to the $8,000 fine proposed for operating the authorized STL outside the parameters of its authorization, the licensee found itself on the receiving end of $68,000 in proposed fines.
While operating any type of FCC-licensed facility without the required FCC license invites adverse action by the FCC, the startling amount of the proposed fines in this case seem designed to send a message, particularly to those operating unlicensed STLs, that the FCC will be taking a very harsh view of non-compliant operations. It is also a safe bet that there will be more fines coming from the FCC for such violations. In fact, the FCC just in the past few hours has issued an NAL against a Puerto Rico TV station for $10,000 based upon—you guessed it—operation of an STL without a license.