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Enforcement Bureau Field Office Closure Plan “Drastic”

Chairman Wheeler tells Congress field offices are resource drain

In defense of a proposal to close or significantly reduce assets at some half of its Enforcement Bureau field offices, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has told lawmakers the agency is strapped. Wheeler says closures will save money in the long run, but at what cost?

The FCC has been operating under essentially flat funding levels for nonauction activities for the past six years, he told congressional appropriations lawmakers this week — yet its operating costs go up. That’s led to the commission currently having some 1,700 full-time employees, down from the 20-year average of 1,877.

And the workload of those who are left is rising — something the radio industry is familiar with these last few years as we all “do more with less.”

But a big reason the FCC is asking for more money for FY2016 is it’s got too much expensive downtown real estate. I’m sure either neighboring Maryland or Northern Virginia would love to help with that, but I digress.

The commission needs to move again because its lease at the Portals is expiring in 2017. Before moving in 1998, agency personnel were scattered among several buildings near 19th & M Streets in Northwest, Washington. Long-term, the move will allow the agency to save money. Current projections show $13 million in annual savings under a new lease and net savings of some $119 million over 15 years, according to Wheeler’s testimony.

But the move will cost the FCC some $51 million in the short-term and the money has to come from somewhere, he notes.

Cutting down on the number of contractors the commission uses, from 600+ in 2012 to 483 now and probably 435 by the end of the fiscal year will help, according to Wheeler.

Closing around half of the Enforcement Bureau field offices and reducing the number of field agents by a similar amount is a hard choice that will also improve the funding situation, according to Wheeler, who characterized the offices in many cases as having a “one-manager-to-four-employee ratio and oversized rental facilities, which are draining our resources.”

The FCC’s Southwest Washington headquarters, the Portals II

Thus, came the “Tiger Team” approach I reported on earlier, with staff based in Columbia, Md., ready to go to where they’re needed and make use of equipment staged elsewhere. The agency estimates the team could reach some 80% of the population in a day, if all goes according to plan.

If the other commissioners go along with the closure proposal, 16 field offices would close, saving the commission “$9 million annually without diminished productivity,” according to the chairman.

Under the plan that was passed onto me from noncommission sources, eight of the 24 field offices would remain open in or near New York City, Columbia, Md., Chicago, Atlanta, Miami, Dallas, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Offices that would close, but have “prepositioned equipment” with an emphasis “on population/spectrum use density,” according to the memo, include Kansas City, Denver, Salt Lake City, Phoenix, Seattle, San Juan, Puerto Rico, Anchorage, Alaska, Honolulu and Billings, Mont. And the remaining offices to close would be: Buffalo, N.Y., Houston, Norfolk, Va., and Portland, Ore.

I heard from several industry station engineers and engineering consultants who are skeptical of the plan to reduce the number of field offices and associated personnel. Many told me they believe if the actual number of closures end up being what is proposed now, pirates will become more of a problem to licensed broadcasters.

But that’s only the tip of the iceberg, according to Walter Gernon, retired former district director of the New Orleans Field Office, one of the offices slated for closure.

He characterizes the closure plan as “drastic” and tells me “I don’t think people have thought this out.” Gernon began working in communications in the Air Force and then spent 30 years with the FCC in its Enforcement Bureau. A lot of what commission field agents do is track down all kinds of spectrum interference to broadcasters and public safety communications (like marine, police and firefighters) from pirates or cellphone jammers, for example.

He’s also handled “cable signal leakage” that disrupted aviation communication at the airport in New Orleans, he says.

Before he retired two years ago, he had a “real problem” with cellphone jammers, in particular, telling me the equipment “is not discriminating and can wipe out all kinds of communication.”

The loss of institutional memory and local knowledge if the closures happen is a big issue, he believes. “You can’t solve some interference unless you are there and you can say ‘It’s coming from this house.’”

Those who would fly-in with a “Tiger team” wouldn’t know the local terrain, including the location of buildings or bodies of water, some of the things that affect whether you can determine the source of communications interference, he tells me.

When I asked for comment from the commission on the plan last week they didn’t want to get into specifics, noting that the numbers may change. I agree. To me, parts of the plan may be in play, and those that lobby the strongest for their field offices may be able to help keep them open.