Saturday, 12 May 2018

FCC's Pirate Purge Continues

For some reason, the FCC continues to pour money into its hell-bent roundup of FM pirate broadcasters! I suspect much of this 'tough stance' is more politically motivated than for the reasons that they state, but the FCC seems to have plenty of will-power and the necessary funding ... it's too bad that they couldn't put the same zeal into getting on top of or making a start on the huge growing noise problem throughout the radio spectrum. I guess rounding up pirates is much easier than tackling the far more important noise issues, now growing so rapidly that many radio amateurs just throw up their hands in surrender and close up shop for good. Even commercial users of the spectrum are being negatively affected by the growing noise floor, as the growing Internet of Things connected devices produce even more radio crud.

It now seems that the FCC may get a further boost in its crackdown if a new bipartisan proposed federal law becomes reality. A May 9, 2018, article in Radio World reports the tabling of the new bill in the US Congress called the PIRATE Act or "Preventing Illegal Radio Abuse Through Enforcement Act". It would also be nice to see the PAIN Act (Preventing All Illegal Noise) in the RF spectrum but I see no Washington appetite for this much-needed FCC oversight.

The continued obsession for rounding up FM pirate broadcasters is fascinating in its own right. "It is time to take these pirates off the air by hiking the penalties and working with the Federal Communication Commission on enforcement", stated Rep. Leonard Lance (R-NJ).

"As reported in Radio World, the PIRATE Act proposes to hike the fine for violations to as much as $100,000 per day, with a maximum fine of $2 million. The rules currently allow the FCC to impose a maximum daily penalty of about $19,200 per day. At a Congressional hearing on the bill in March, New York State Broadcasters Association President David Donovan told lawmakers that illegal operators are undermining the nation’s Emergency Alert System, causing invasive and insidious interference, pose potential public health problems due to overexposure to radio frequency radiation, and interfere with airport communications."

It is apparent from reading investigative reports, that each acted-upon complaint requires a substantial investment of time and money as in the April 24 Notice of Apparent Liability for a case in Paterson, New  Jersey ... it seems that NJ and NY are 'pirate hotbeds'. By the end of the investigation, a team of fully-equipped FCC field agents had visited the pirate's site(s) on eight different occasions, a considerable investment in time, energy and money. In the end, a $25,000 penalty has been proposed for the offender.

I am not a fan of illegal pirate radio broadcasting in any form but the reasons stated by the FCC for the ongoing pirate purges seem somewhat shaky. In all of the investigative reports that I've read, I have yet to find any that were reported to cause "interference with airport communications" and I question the assertion that the low power levels used by most pirates are going to "pose potential public health problems due to overexposure to radio frequency radiation". One more likely reason may be the strong lobby pressure from broadcasters who see the possible loss of advertising revenue. I'm sure that many Washington electees receive healthy campaign donations from state broadcasters as well.

Although many pirate radio ops seemingly solicit advertising revenue, overall it can't be much of a threat to mainstream broadcasters. Is it just the NAB Washington lobby that is fuelling the FCC pirate craze or is it muscle-flexing from the new administration, wanting to look tough on "crime" and radio-pirates are just easy low-hanging fruit? I suspect that it may be more of the latter.

The FCC's 'Pirate Action' postings make for interesting reading as does the fascinating Westword article on pirate radio activity in Ward, Colorado, and the recent attempted FCC take-down of stations in operation since 1997!

There's no question that a lot of FCC resources are being used to eliminate unlicenced QRM. What will it take to see the same attack on unlicenced QRN as well?


Michael said...

And yet, this is just the history if radio, continued.

Once Marconi spanned the Atlantic, average people got interested in radio, built up some equipment, and found they could talk to others. Very little use for radio at the time, soon out of the mess was use. First ships at sea, made stronger after the Titanic sank in 1912. So licensing introduced, then more specific rules. Amateur radio becomes formal, and later relegated to "200 metres and down". The useful spectrum was seen to end about the top of the current AM broadcast band. Not much space for everyone, so specific frequencies and bands were allocated. It helped a lot when hams in December of 1921 showed that shortwave was useful for "DX", spanning the Atlantic.

It was a few iterations, of greater regulation. WWII brought leaps forward, but after a big chunk if space was allocated to tv, so until microwave became useful, new allocations tended to be carved out if existing allocations (like when CB was created. The switch to DTV a while back shook some resources free, getting rid of 70 year old technology for something bold.

So regulation came so the difference services didn't interfere with each other, not just preventing overlapping frequencies, but unintentional interference from bad transmitters.

Amateur radio is the least regulated, most free form radio service, but the cost is a technical exam, to ensure hams know sort of what they are doing.

Pirates break all that, deciding where to transmit, not being held responsible for interference, not needing to prove any technical qualifications, and using whatever transmitter they can build or buy.

Why license anyone if pirates don't need to "fit in"?

This isn't a "free speech" issue. They can say all they want, standing on a soap box. This is about distribution, and "free speech" requires no obligation to distribute what they are saying. But the magic phrase controls the story, so suddenly the pirates should be allowed to do what the rest of us can't, operate without a license.


Steve McDonald said...

From my blog above:

"I am not a fan of illegal pirate radio broadcasting in any form..."

All I'm saying is let's see the same effort put into cleaning up the pandemic noise issues as well.

Unknown said...

Most of the recent FM band pirate enforcement actions have been against real estate companies who use automated loop broadcasts located in properties for sale to give people passing by information about the listed property. I don't know who supplies the devices they use for transmitters, but it seems to me going after the sellers or importers of those devices would be much more cost effective.

Steve McDonald said...

Bill - wouldn't these be Part 15 low power / no-licence type transmitters?

Photon said...

Interesting post.

In the UK, the enforcement scene is very weak indeed, mainly due to lack of money and laws that don't keep up with reality.

I am an optimist by nature, but I really can't see how ham radio can continue very effectiely, if at all, from more populated, home QTH locations much longer. As you imply, the noise levels are entirely out of control.

My approach - and advice to hams new and old - is not to put all your investment eggs in one nest. Keep practiced at /P and /M operation, which are in themsevles rather enjoyable and offer good environment potential, if a little less convenient. That way, you also avoid the sheer stress and irritation of seeing someone go up on a neighbour's roof to install PV, knowing your 40 years of peaceful operation will come to an end in a day or so with a flick of an inverter switch.