Agency cites failure to file for license
The Methow Valley Communications District has been fined $6,500 by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for not notifying the commission as soon as it completed the transfer of TV broadcasts to a new channel.
The communications district had to switch TV transmitters after the FCC auctioned off two frequencies to T-Mobile in 2017 on Goat Mountain near Pateros, communications district Site Manager Paul Brown said.
The district purchased a new transmitter and antenna and changed to the new channels in 2018. It notified the FCC that one transfer was complete, but there was interference on the second channel that took time to address and the district never provided the final update to the FCC when the change-over was finished, Brown said.
Communications District funded by taxpayer assessments
The Methow Valley Communications District is a special-purpose district similar to an irrigation district. The district sets an assessment for people within the boundaries of the district, Okanogan County Treasurer Leah Mc Cormack said. But because the district has no way of knowing whom to bill, it basically gets paid by the honor system, she said.
The annual assessment is $30 per year, which the district depends on to finance its operations. Although the equipment on McClure Mountain also transmits radio signals, the fee is just for TV broadcasts, district Site Manager Paul Brown said. People who have satellite TV are legally exempt from paying.
In 2022, the Okanogan County treasurer billed about 3,600 addresses in the district for a total of $107,820. So far, they’ve collected $72,420 and have $5,280 claimed in exemptions, said Data Processing Specialist Nicole Moore in the Treasurer’s Office. The district typically sends a second notice to people who haven’t paid.
The district also gets rent from tenants for use of mountain-top transmission sites, Communications District Administrative Manager Bri Sullivan said.
Now that the district broadcasts digital signals, there are five channels — ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and PBS — all with subchannels, for a total of 11. Digital reception is excellent, comparable to the quality of a DVD, whereas the former analog system was sometimes fuzzy, Brown said.
The district has been broadcasting on the two channels ever since. The Goat Mountain signals provide TV transmission for people in the lower valley. The district also transmits signals to a transmitter on McClure Mountain for broadcasts in the rest of the Methow Valley.
The FCC granted temporary authority to the district to use the new frequency so it could broadcast while the permanent application was pending. That authority expired on Nov. 26, 2021.
In a review of the FCC license this year, Brown discovered that the district had never filed the final paperwork with the FCC and notified the agency. The FCC wasn’t aware that they didn’t have the final paperwork until then, Brown said.
That prompted the FCC to issue a Memorandum Opinion and Order and Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture to the District on June 10. “We find that the Permittee apparently willfully violated … the Rules by failing to timely file a license to cover application, and willfully and repeatedly violated … the Act, by engaging in unauthorized operation of the Station after its construction permit had expired,” the FCC notice of liability said.
“Permittee states that it overlooked submitting the license to cover at that time. It is well settled that administrative oversight is not an excuse for failure to comply with the Commission’s rules. Further, as a result of its late filing, Permittee also engaged in unauthorized operation in violation of section 301 of the Act,” the FCC said in the notice of liability.
Because the FCC wasn’t authorizing construction permits for new channels when the communications district was displaced off the old channel by T-Mobile, the district applied for a permanent construction permit and a special temporary authorization in September 2017. That permit and temporary authorization allowed the district to operate while its application was pending, according to an FCC spokesperson.
The station switched to the new channel in June 2018. Because the authorization was still temporary, the district had to request an extension every six months, which it did, according to the FCC.
But when the district got the construction permit for the permanent facility on Nov. 26, 2018, it failed to file a “license to cover,” which verifies to the FCC that the facility was constructed as authorized. That license should have been filed within 10 days of getting the construction permit — that is, in early December 2018. “As such, it had no authority to operate from 10 days after the grant of the construction permit until now,” the FCC spokesperson said.
In the end, the communications district didn’t file the license until Brown discovered the lapse in May 2022, six months after the three-year construction permit expired. “It wasn’t willful — it was an oversight,” he said.
The FCC rules provide for a fine from $3,000 to $10,000, which the agency can adjust depending on “the nature, circumstances, extent and gravity of the violation.” The agency can also take into account history of prior offenses and ability to pay, according to the notice of liability.
The communications district’s annual operating budget is just over $100,000. Most of that is spent on operating expenses such as utilities, equipment repair and maintenance, permits from the U.S. Forest Service, and administrative costs, Communications District Administrative Manager Bri Sullivan said. Less than a third pays wages for three part-time employees.
Any unspent money is rolled into a reserve fund for maintenance and repairs of powerlines on McClure and Grizzly mountains, capital expenses such as replacement of aging communications buildings, emergency repairs, and equipment purchases, Sullivan said.
The communications district is appealing the fine. “We’re a very small organization. Our monthly payroll is $3,000,” Brown said. The new transmitters and antennas the district purchased for the switch cost about $10,000.
Once the penalty is paid, the FCC will grant the license to cover the construction permit. The district has until July 10 to appeal.
The fine is a “powerful reminder” that the district needs to stay up to date, Brown said.