FCC Enforcement Cuts: The Fine(ish) Print

More details are trickling out about the proposal to dramatically slash the FCC’s enforcement presence in the field. To recap: two-thirds of the FCC’s 24 field offices would be closed, and staffing would be cut in half. To make up for the cuts, the FCC would establish a “tiger team” to descend on enforcement hot-spots, using pre-positioned equipment. Where the FCC cedes the field entirely, it seeks to establish relationships with private-sector interests to help with its job.
At a hearing on Capitol Hill last week on the FCC budget, Chairman Tom Wheeler attempted to explain the cuts. He said this is the first time the agency’s examined its enforcement activities in such depth in more than 20 years. They found the FCC’s “field footprint” to be “too large and inefficient.” His prepared testimony casts this as dispassionate math: simply put, the cost-per-employee out in the field is much higher than it is back at headquarters.
The tiger-team concept is a prime example of this. Wheeler noted that it would be based “in the Maryland suburbs” and boasted that this approach would provide more effective enforcement than the current field configuration. Rep. Jaime Herrera Butler (R-WA) worried that the lack of any field presence in the Pacific Northwest would result in major lapses in spectrum enforcement. No big deal, replied Wheeler: the one-man band presently based in Seattle only does one RF-related case per week (the second-fewest of any field office), at a cost of $190,000 a year in salary, infrastructure and support services. By nature, the job involves travel, and according to Wheeler it’s more cost-efficient to centralize that travel among one group than let local folks wander about.
Radio World spoke with Walter Gernon, recently-retired director of the New Orleans FCC field office, “I don’t think people have thought this out,” he said. Though the FCC suggests its enforcement SWAT-unit could “reach 80% of the population in a day, if all goes according to plan,” Gernon says the loss of a local perspective — and especially knowledge of those conditions which can affect signal propagation and density — could negate many of its perceived advantages.
It’s increasingly likely that the actual contours of drawdown will be achieved through a mixture of pressure and horse-trading, as stakeholders in various geographical markets (including, but not limited to, broadcasters) start to sound off on the FCC’s proposal. It’s somewhat surprising that the proposal hasn’t drawn more fire as of yet.