The FCC recently issued a combined Memorandum Opinion and Order and Notice of Apparent Liability (the “Order”) fining a West Virginia FM broadcaster for unauthorized operation and failure to file a required form. The base fines associated with these types of rule violations total $13,000. However, based on the circumstances detailed below, the FCC decided to reduce the overall fine to $7000.
The licensing process begins with the grant of a construction permit and concludes with the grant of a station license authorizing permanent operation of the newly-constructed facilities. Pursuant to Section 73.3598(a) of the FCC’s Rules, construction must be completed within three years and a license application must be promptly filed with the FCC when construction is completed. Subsection (e) of this rule provides that a construction permit will be automatically forfeited upon its expiration if construction is not completed and a license to cover application has not been filed within the allotted three year period.
In the instant case, the FM broadcaster was forced to utilize an emergency antenna as a consequence of a 2002 tower collapse. In June 2004, the FM broadcaster sought to modify its station to relocate its authorized tower site to a location less than two miles away. As part of this process, the FM broadcaster filed an application for a construction permit. The FCC granted the application in July 2004 and issued a construction permit slated to expire in July 2007.
According to the Order, the FM broadcaster filed its license application in May 2011, almost four years beyond the expiration of the 2004 construction permit. The license application included a request for a waiver of Section 73.3598(e), indicating that the authorized construction had been completed by April 2006, well in advance of the three year expiration date, but that due to an “inadvertent error”, the license application was not filed prior to the construction permit’s July 2007 expiration. In support of its waiver request, the FM broadcaster cited a May 2011 case in which the FCC had “affirmed the staff’s practice of waiving Section 73.3598(e) of the Rules in situations where the applicant conclusively demonstrates that it completed construction prior to the expiration of the construction permit, notwithstanding the tardy filing of the license to cover application.” In response, the FCC’s Order noted that the prior waivers occurred where the delay in meeting the deadline was “relatively minor”, as was the case in the cited May 2011 decision, where a license application was filed three days after the expiration of the construction permit. The FCC concluded that a four year delay could not be considered minor. Ultimately, the FCC rejected the FM broadcaster’s waiver request, dismissed the license application, and on its own motion, granted the station special temporary authority to operate while it reapplied for a new construction permit. The FCC levied the full $3,000 fine for failure to timely file a license application, but reduced the unauthorized operation fine (for the period the station operated with modified but unlicensed facilities) from $10,000 to $4,000 since the station had previously held a valid license.