Archive for November, 2016

Head-start for the Holiday

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2016

With many people taking time off for the Thanksgiving holiday, we are announcing the scheduled agenda for the Commission’s December open meeting a few days early.

The first item up for consideration will be a proposed Order to enable a universal and integrated text solution for people with disabilities who rely on text communications to make telephone calls. For half a century, people who are deaf, hard of hearing, speech-disabled and deaf-blind have been using TTYs to communicate by text over the phone. Obviously, our communications have changed dramatically over the past 50 years, and TTY technology is now outdated and not functionally equivalent to telephone services used by voice telephone users. That’s why the Commission is working to accelerate the use of real-time text as a replacement.

Real-time text allows text to be sent immediately as it is being created, enabling communications to flow back and forth in the same manner as voice communications. It also permits people with hearing and speech disabilities to use off-the-shelf devices.  Rather than pay for special equipment that may be hard to find and not as effective, they will, for the first time, be able to use the same phones as everyone else. The proposed Order would replace our rules requiring TTY support with rules defining the obligations of these wireless entities to support real-time text over IP-based services.

Also on tap, we will have new rules to improve the Emergency Alert System (EAS) as a tool for emergency preparedness. The EAS is our national public warning system, which broadcasters, cable and satellite companies use to keep us informed in times of crisis. Our new rules would strengthen EAS by promoting greater participation by partners on the state and local levels, improved testing, and enhanced EAS security. The item would also seek comment on how best to leverage technological advances to strengthen alerting.

I look forward to considering these items at next month’s meeting. Until then, safe travels, and happy Thanksgiving to all.

Robocallers Face Growing International Alliance

Monday, November 21st, 2016

The FCC receives more consumer complaints about unwanted calls and texts than it receives about any other subject. The Commission’s complaint database shows that each year more than 200,000 consumers complain to the Commission about unwanted calls, including robocalls and telemarketing. Indeed, at least one outside source estimates that as many as 2.4 billion robocalls are made each month in the United States.

Unsolicited calls and text messages are a global problem. Unsolicited calls and text messages are more than just a nuisance these days. They are used to perpetrate criminal fraud, phishing attacks, and identity theft schemes all around the world. These calls often overwhelm facilities, including emergency or 911 call centers. Those responsible for sending unwanted calls and texts often operate from outside of the United States, too often allowing them to evade our enforcement. Indeed, it is very easy for these scammers to operate from multiple countries, hide their locations, change their phone numbers between calls, trick caller ID systems into displaying false or trusted numbers, increasingly demand payments in hard-to-trace forms such as cash or gift cards, and move quickly to avoid detection and prosecution in our increasingly mobile world.

In one notable case that we worked last year, overseas identity theft scammers made hundreds of thousands of robocalls to wireless phones belonging to residents in West Virginia. Affected consumers reported that the calls began around 9:00 a.m. and repeated every 2 to 5 minutes until around 6:00 or 7:00 in the evening. The fraudsters used a variant of the well-known “Rachel from Cardholder Services” scam in the hopes of harvesting consumers’ personal information. Although the FCC was able to identify the source of the illegal robocalls and cut off the source of the call traffic within 14 days of learning of the campaign, the fraudsters themselves were based outside the United States—effectively beyond the FCC’s grasp.

In our efforts to protect consumers from criminal scams and unlawful intrusions, we recognize the need to work closely with our international law enforcement partners and other regulatory agencies to stop illegal calls and texts – and to ensure those who make them are held accountable. Earlier this year, the FCC took an important step to improve international collaboration by signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with members of the Unsolicited Communications Enforcement Network (“UCENet,” formerly called the London Action Plan). This team of robo-cops is a global network of law enforcement authorities and regulatory agencies who combat unsolicited communications. UCENet coordinates and promotes international cooperation and activities targeting unlawful communications. We share intelligence, identify common threats, learn from each other’s best practices and assist each other with investigations where permissible. The UCENet MOU, as well as an MOU that we signed last week with the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission, provides a framework for participating agencies to share enforcement data. Through this agreement, the Enforcement Bureau can exchange enforcement data with its partner agencies and work closely with them on international and cross-jurisdictional enforcement actions related to robocalls and similar unlawful practices.

In addition to working with our global partners, the Enforcement Bureau continues to work closely with federal and state law enforcement agencies in the United States to stop unlawful calls and texts. For example, we have coordinated with other federal agencies to combat an extensive and pernicious scam of robocallers pretending to represent the Internal Revenue Service and bilk consumers out of millions of dollars. We have also worked with phone carriers to identify sources of fraudulent calls, such as the massive robocalling scheme in West Virginia. Our work with UCENet, our domestic partners, and the industry are all good examples of our ongoing efforts to more effectively respond to this threat by collaborating more closely with partners, leveraging our respective resources to identify scammers, and protecting consumers at home and on their cell.

Upholding the Value of Broadcast Localism in the U.S. Virgin Islands

Monday, November 21st, 2016

Imagine living in New York City and discovering that your pay-TV provider does not carry the local PBS affiliate and instead provides you with a Philadelphia based station. While this unusual arrangement would preserve access to some of your favorite nationally-televised PBS shows like Antiques Roadshow and NewsHour, unless you have an over-the-air antenna, it would mean missing out on the high-quality local programming that broadcasters are required to provide their communities of license.

Earlier this year, Congresswoman Stacey Plaskett from the U.S. Virgin Islands brought to my attention a similar scenario confronting her constituents. The local PBS affiliate, WTJX-TV which has been broadcasting for more than 40 years is not available to satellite customers, including a growing number of residents who have chosen DISH as their provider. In its place, DISH carries the PBS national feed along with several Puerto Rico based stations. Geographically, Puerto Rico is just over 100 miles from the Virgin Islands, but make no mistake they are very different communities, not to mention that they have a different dominate language.

A few weeks ago, I traveled to the Virgin Islands and met with Tanya-Marie Singh, the Chief Executive Officer of Virgin Islands Public Broadcasting System, which includes WTJX-TV Channel 12 and WTJX-FM 93.1. Take a look at their lineup and you will find that they produce high-quality local programming, including Face to Face with Addie Ottley, Ritmo Del Doce along with Meet the Candidates programs during the election season.

So why is WTJX-TV not being carried by some pay-TV providers? Primarily because the Virgin Islands is not in a Nielsen Designated Market Area (DMA). This means, in sum, that WTJX cannot elect must-carry or retransmission consent. And while I cannot compel carriage of WTJX as an FCC Commissioner, I do believe it is the right thing to do. We owe it to the people of the Virgin Islands to ensure they have access to local public broadcasting, just as those living in the continental United States, Hawaii, and parts of Alaska have come to expect and I call on the powers that be to make it happen, now.

AM Window Openings a Resounding Success

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2016

On October 31, 2016, the Media Bureau closed the second of two filing windows designed to allow AM stations to tackle reception issues by relocating FM translators up to 250 miles so they can re-broadcast the AM stations’ signals.  This can enable some stations for the first time to provide nighttime service to their communities.  The Commission opened the windows as part of a broader policy to give relief to AM broadcasters, many of whom were experiencing degraded signals.

While the second of these windows just closed, it is not too early to call the relocation program a resounding success.  In the first window, which was open to smaller and daytime-only AM stations, 671 relocation applications were filed, and over 90% of those applications already have been granted.  In the second window, open to all classes of AM stations, 420 relocation applications were received, with 265 granted thus far.  Though a few of the AM licensees already owned or could lease the necessary translators, a substantial majority of the licensees participating in the windows chose to acquire the relocating translators, thereby ensuring a permanent place for their programming on the FM dial.  Seven hundred sixty-six translator assignment applications were filed during the two windows, and 631 of those already have been granted.

Allowing FM translators to be moved to where they can be most useful to an AM station was a good idea.  But a good idea needs good implementation.  These filing windows would not have succeeded without the outstanding effort of the Audio Division’s engineering staff, who processed the modification applications, its legal staff, who expedited the companion assignment applications, and its managers, who orchestrated the effort with great skill.  Their exemplary work provides relief to AM broadcasters as the Commission continues to revitalize the AM broadcast band.