Lauren Lynch Flick

By Lauren Lynch Flick, Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP

The FCC has released its finalized schedule of annual Regulatory Fees for Fiscal Year 2019, and thanks to the collective efforts of all 50 State Broadcasters Associations and the National Association of Broadcasters, there is some good news for radio stations and satellite television stations.

But before we get to that, some information for you from the FCC’s Public Notice released August 28 on filing requirements. Fees will be due by 11:59 p.m. EDT on September 24, 2019. You must file via the FCC’s Fee Filer system, which is available for use now. You may pay online via credit card or debit card, or submit payment via Automated Clearing House (ACH) or wire transfer. Remember that $24,999.99 is the daily maximum that can be charged to a credit card in the Fee Filer system. As a result, many stations may have to pay their fees using the other methods.

Television broadcast stations will see an unfamiliar number in the “Quantity” box when they go to pay. This relates to the FCC’s phase-in of a population-based methodology for calculating television station fee amounts. It cannot be changed and should not be a cause for concern. Regulatees whose total fee amount is $1,000 or less are once again exempt and do not need to pay.

In most years, the outcome of the annual Regulatory Fee battle ends with the FCC’s various regulatees rolling their collective eyes and murmuring “just tell me how much I have to fork over.” This year’s Regulatory Fee proceeding had some surprises, however. When the proposed fee amounts were first announced, they contained a dramatic increase in year-over-year fee amounts for most categories of radio stations. Yet, the reason for this sudden increase was neither addressed by the FCC nor readily apparent from the FCC’s brain-numbing summary of its calculation process.

In response, all 50 State Broadcasters Associations and the NAB filed comments pressing the FCC to revisit its fee methodology and to explain or correct what appeared to be flawed data used to calculate broadcast Regulatory Fee amounts. In particular, they pressed the FCC to explain why the estimated number of radio stations slated to cover radio’s share of the FCC’s budget had inexplicably plummeted between 2018 and 2019, resulting in each individual station having to shoulder a significantly higher fee burden.

In its regulatory fee Order, the Commission acknowledged that its estimate of the number of radio stations that would be paying Regulatory Fees in 2019 had been “conservative”, and failed to include 553 of the nation’s commercial radio stations. Once these stations were added to the total number of radio stations previously anticipated to pay Regulatory Fees, the impact was to reduce individual station fees from those originally proposed by 9% to 13%, depending on the class of radio station.

This adjustment prevented what would have otherwise been a roughly $3 million dollar overpayment by radio stations nationwide, significantly exceeding the FCC’s cost of regulating radio stations in FY 2019. The fact that the FCC listened to the concerns of broadcasters, investigated the discrepancy between 2019 station data and that of prior years, and made appropriate changes to fix the problem, is heartening, particularly given that stations’ only options are paying the fees demanded, seeking a waiver, or turning in their license.

Terrestrial satellite TV stations also received a requested correction to their fee calculations. As noted above, the FCC is transitioning from a DMA-based fee calculation methodology to a population-based methodology for TV stations. To phase in this new methodology, the Commission proposed to average each station’s historical and population-based Regulatory Fee amounts and use that average for FY 2019 before moving to a fully population-based fee in FY 2020.

In calculating the average of the “old” and “new” fees, however, the FCC neglected to use the reduced fee amount historically paid by TV satellite stations, which is much lower than that paid by non-satellite TV stations in the same DMA. As a result, a TV satellite station might have seen its 2019 fees jump by tens of thousand of dollars over FY 2018, only to see them drop again in FY 2020. The FCC acknowledged that its intent in adopting the phase-in was not to unduly burden TV satellite stations in FY 2019, and it therefore recalculated those fees using the lower historical fee amounts traditionally applied to such stations.

While these reductions are a rare win against ever-increasing regulatory fees, there remain big picture issues that Congress and the FCC need to address in the longer term. Significant among these is the FCC’s reliance on collecting the fees that support its operations from the licensees it regulates (a burden not a benefit), while charging no fees to those that rely on the FCC’s rulemakings to launch new technologies on unlicensed spectrum or obtain rights against other private parties via the FCC’s rulemaking processes (a benefit not a burden). Such a narrow approach to funding the FCC makes little sense, particularly where it unduly burdens broadcasters, who, unlike most other regulatees, have no ability to just pass those fees on to consumers as a line item on a bill.

We live in a time of disruption. Disruption affects all areas of the economy, but surely the most affected has to be the communications sector. If any government agency can claim to be the regulator of this disruption, it must surely be the FCC. Yet despite the FCC’s position at the forefront of these changes, its Regulatory Fee process is mired in a system in which broadcasters are left holding the bag for more than 35% of the FCC’s operating budget (once again, burden not benefit). Even as the FCC spends more of its time and resources on rulemakings, economic analysis, and technical studies surrounding new technologies and new entrants into the communications sector whose main goal is to nibble away at broadcasters’ spectrum, audience, and revenue, it still collects regulatory fees only from the licensees and regulatees of its four “core” bureaus – the International Bureau, Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, Wireline Competition Bureau, and Media Bureau. It’s an old formula, and it no longer works.

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