As HR 5709 meanders through the U.S. House, FCC targets a pirate station serving Brooklyn’s Haitian community

On 13 June 2018, the Federal Communications Commission issued a notice of unlicensed operation to Reginald Simeon, an operator of a radio station in Brooklyn, New York. The Commission alleges that Mr. Simeon’s station, operating from a residential property on East 49th Street in Brooklyn, may be operating on the 88.5 Mhz frequency without a license.  The unlicensed operation is, according to the Commission, a violation of section 301 of the Communications Act of 1934.  The Commission also alleges that power emissions from Mr. Simeon’s station violated Part 15 of the Commission’s rules as to allowed field strength of signals at 250 micro-volts per meter for three meters.

While there is the legal and regulatory issue of whether or not Mr. Simeon’s station operated without a license and whether the signal strength was too strong, there is, too me, the more important issue of whether the Commission is about to deny the Haitian community another outlet for receiving news pertinent to the community’s members.

Section 301 of the Communications Act of 1934 requires any person that owns or operates an apparatus that transmits energy, communications, or signals by radio must have, subject to certain exceptions, a license to do so. Mr. Simeon has 30 days to answer the Commission’s complaint and make a showing as to whether he or not section 301 applies to his operations.

The Commission has made “pirate radio” (a derogatory term in my opinion) a priority lately. Arguments against pirate radio include interference with licensed broadcasts; interference with public safety broadcasts; and potential health effects from unregulated radiation. Besides, some critics of pirate radio may argue, if radio operators want to avoid getting a license without getting in trouble why not simply stream their broadcasts via the internet?

Part of the answer to the streaming question may lie in the preferences of the culture. As Justin Strout pointed out in a 2009 article on Prometheusradio.org when discussing pirate radio and Haitian communities:

“For different communities, radio stations are the best way to reach people,” offers Brandy Doyle, a regulatory policy associate for the Prometheus Radio Project, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit advocacy group for low-power communications. The organization forms coalitions to push Congress to reform the rules and regulations that prohibit people from gaining access to the airwaves. “We find that even in the age of the Internet, people still want radio stations,” says Doyle. “In Florida, many of the unlicensed stations are operated by Haitian communities and other Caribbean communities that [have] immigrants who come from places where radio is really vital and important. They come to the U.S. and they can’t get a radio station license. They’re trying to reach the Haitian community in Miami, for example, where it’s really local. In many parts of the world, radio is much more central to daily life than it is in the U.S.”

Congress, however, seems keen on making operating a radio station without a license more expensive. HR 5709, the Preventing Illegal Radio Abuse Through Enforcement Act, provides the following:

“Any person who willfully and knowingly violates this Act or any rule, regulation, restriction, or condition made or imposed by the Commission under authority of this Act, or any rule, regulation, restriction, or condition made or imposed by any international radio or wire communications treaty or convention, or regulations annexed thereto, to which the United States is or may hereafter become party, relating to pirate radio broadcasting shall, in addition to any other penalties provided by law, be subject to a fine of not more than $100,000 for each day during which such offense occurs, in accordance with the limit described in subsection (a).” The limit described in subsection (a) is $2 million.

As a consumer, I do not care for internet radio. It is a costly tie-up of bandwidth. Also, during power outages, connecting to news and information is more difficult online versus via radio. All I need is a supply of batteries to keep my radio charged.

Policy wise, I do not see the Commission or the aforementioned Congress pursuing some type of middle ground policy that would keep small stations serving Caribbean communities alive. With Democrats and Republicans supporting the bill (it has been forwarded to the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce), I see eventually passage by the full House and the U.S. Senate.