Document-Dump Details FCC Enforcement Cutbacks

All hail Michael Marcus: one of the policy-fathers of wi-fi and Bluetooth (and a man with unimpeachable FCC bona-fides) has released a compendium of documents regarding plans for the FCC’s radical shrinking of its Enforcement Bureau.
The cache has three parts: a letter from FCC Chair Tom Wheeler to Greg Walden (R-OR), a member of the House’s Committee on Energy and Commerce; a memorandum to FCC field staff from Enforcement Bureau Chief Travis LeBlanc and FCC Managing Director Jon Wilkins; and a PowerPoint slide summary of the outside consultant’s work, conducted by Oceaneast Associates and Censeo Consulting Group.
Here’s what it tells us:
The seeds for this plan were hatched only last year, with consultants brought into the mix in October. Wheeler’s letter to Walden is a straight business exercise: this is why what we do is too costly, and here’s how we can cut costs. But his kicker is the Bureau’s “overall activity metrics”: “less than half of total field personnel time today is spent on any kind of spectrum enforcement activity, and a much smaller amount is spent on the most critical spectrum priorities such as public safety interference.”
This is the fatal flaw in Wheeler’s ledger-like argument: the fact that current field staff spend less than half their time on “spectrum enforcement activity” has absolutely no representational bearing on the amount of activity that actually exists for them to keep track of. In the context of pirate radio, this means that the FCC’s enforcement efforts illumninate only a fraction of the stations that are actually on the air. Nor does “overall activity metrics” support the assumption that spectrum enforcement may somehow be less necessary going forward. It’s a prime example of how viewing the world through an economic lens alone blinds regulators to reality.
Wheeler does promise that “the two most significant hubs for pirate radio,” New York and Miami, “will see a 30 percent increase [in] agents with electrical engineering training, capable of responding to the most complex technical issues.” Again, because he’s ignorant of the conditions as they exist today on the actual airwaves, he doesn’t understand that a 30% increase in a woefully-understaffed office just makes the situation only slightly less woeful. And in the rest of the country, where post-LPFM pirate radio continues to simmer quite healthily, the between-the-lines admission here is no change in the status quo — which is no meaningful field presence to speak of.
Finally, Wheeler notes that the Federal Aviation Administration already employs a similar “tiger team” approach, in which “7 people distributed across 7 cities across the country…cover the entire United States; in 2014 alone this team investigated 2,700 interference cases.” Why can’t the FCC follow in its footsteps? Good question, but considering the amount of spectrum the FCC is tasked with keeping clean relative to the FAA, it’s pretty weak sauce.
LeBlanc and Wilkins’ memo to the field staff is fairly brusque. In summary: we have to change, we’ll do it as best as we can – the words of yes-men. The only nuggets of worth are their promise to standardize “both our investigation and sanction proceses” to make them more meaningful, and plans to focus the EB’s in-house gear laboratory on “developing agent mobility and equipment portability solutions to increase our response time capability.” That means lighter, faster, and quicker: goodbye FCC Van, hello FCC tablet with portable antennae ensemble and Zipcar/Uber expense account.
Then come the consultant’s 30+ slides. We learn that among the constituencies consulted on this study were the trade associations for the wireless industry, cable industry, and broadcast industry, as well as “Wireless carriers,” “equipment manufacturers,” and “Other outside experts.”
FCC only spends 7 percent of field time on pirate radioFor me, the first interesting slide came ~10 pages in (at right), in which we learn that the FCC spends as much time on pirate radio as it does on cellular network interference, both of which get slightly less time than tower inspections.
The FCC also has more mobile direction-finding vehicles than agents it has to drive them (74 to 63). They cost between $90-115,000 each, “including vehicle, electronics, and outside services.” Agents by and large are demoralized; one told the consultants, “I have no idea what HQ defines as success.”
Interestingly, one of the “mission scenarios” that the consultants considered was making “unauthorized use of spectrum” one of the Bureau’s ultimate priorities, but this was discarded as “too restrictive,” and there are “several non-RF spectrum matters” that it would be politically expedient for the FCC to remain involved in. The consultants also considered a range of field-office configurations, including none, two, four, six, eight (the one chosen), and 11.
All remaining field offices will police a 250-mile jurisdiction, with supplemental travel/personnel to handle distances beyond that. On the list of spectrum-enforcement priorities, pirate radio falls into the second category — in which field agents need to be “Close Enough” to respond effectively, whatever that means.
Proposed map of FCC field agent deployment post-downsizingIn the end, the final body-count in any given field office (at right) is pretty unintimidating: for the admitted hot-spots, that’s 5 agents in New York and 3 in Miami, with a 7-person “tiger team” to back them up.
Marcus’ take on this is that the Enforcement Bureau is being gutted for no good reason, and that the entire idea of downsizing its field presence has been a colossal waste of time and money, at a time when the agency itself needs to develop new ways of managing spectrum. That is why he’s filed a Freedom of Information Act request to get the entire 300-page report. Was it worth, when all is said and done, a million bucks — a sum Marcus notes is “much more than EB has spent in technical equipment in any year for the past several decades”?
The (not so) saucy raw read below:
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4 thoughts on “Document-Dump Details FCC Enforcement Cutbacks”

  1. Thanks for your kind words.
    On the issue of tower lighting and its high level of compliance: It is an odd jurisdiction for FCC. In most countries the FAA-counterpart has this jurisdiction. However, while the report just downplays enforcement in this area as unimportant, it misses a key difference between pirate radio and tower lighting: when there is a tower lighting violation, there is a real risk of DEATH!!! It has happened and sadly continues to happen. (Coinjock, NC)
    While the report mentions that FCC enforcers continue to investigate FM/LTE interference, it neglects to mention that this policy needs the commissioners to act to resolve a policy conflict between FM broadcasting and cellular rules in order to resolve this conflict.
    Thus the commissioners seem more interested in voting to eliminate the messenger than in giving the policy guidance to resolve this mess.

  2. According to Managing Director Jon Wilkins there is no 300 page report. Who says there is one? Wilkins says the slide deck was the only deliverable.

  3. If you want more inside-baseball about this, I’d strongly suggest you check out Marcus’ original blog post, where the 300-page/$700,000 report is mentioned. If the consultants did receive close to a mil to do this study, I’d HOPE there’s an actual study and not just a presentation!

  4. If there is no actual study, just a slide deck, that’s reminiscent of what happened with the Challenger disaster. If memory serves correctly, investigators found that technical staff familiar with the weakness that led to the disaster submitted it only in the form of a minor bullet point on a PowerPoint summary, with no substantive paper produced.
    How much of the reconfigured enforcement time will be spent chasing shortwave pirates?

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