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Florida Company Hunts Pirates

With illegal radio rampant in Florida, the private sector gets involved

With illegal radio rampant in Florida, the private sector gets involved

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. With the number of radio “pirates” operating in South Florida ever increasing and the FCC trying to keep pace using enforcement efforts to shut them down, a pair of businessmen have formed what they say is a first of its kind: a company to step in and hunt down rogue signals.

The company says the data they gather could give broadcasters the option of quashing unlicensed radio operators in civil court.

Broadcast engineers in South Florida contacted for this article say the area has numerous illegal broadcasters – typically members of the area’s minority ethnic communities who say they are underrepresented by commercial broadcasters – who use cheap transmitters to broadcast without FCC licenses. With used transmitters selling for as little as a $1,000 on the Internet, pirates typically need nothing more than a rooftop antenna, a CD player, mixer and microphone to operate, these engineers say.

Signal Finder Inc. President Lu Vencl and Vice President Steven Grey say the proliferation of pirates has many South Florida broadcasters worried.

“This is the Mecca for pirates,” said Grey. “They set up in basements, vans and apartments. They’ll rent high-rise office space for $500 a month setting up multiple rooftop antennas running transmission line up the elevator shaft. It really reached a point where we said, ‘We need to form a company that can give an independent view of interference.'”

Area engineers say Signal Finder is at the forefront of a possible dawning of a “cottage industry” unique to South Florida; it may be the first company solely devoted to finding the cause of interference.

Signal Finder, founded in February, charges clients an hourly rate to hunt for pirates. Vencl said it has a small staff of engineers and clients across Florida.

Licensed broadcasters from Miami to West Palm Beach say they compete with pirates for listeners and advertising dollars and endure interference with their signals. South Florida is believed to have more illegitimate broadcasters than any other region of the country.

Grey said that at any time, as many as 60 broadcasters are on the air illegally in Miami-Dade and Broward counties in South Florida, some with power levels as high as 2,000 to 3,000 watts.

“These are experimenters, kids, hobbyists … really people from all walks of life who can be very brazen in their operations,” Grey said.

Some pirates have taken to giving out their addresses and tying into promotions with local TV stations, he said.

Clients of Signal Finder receive a detailed report with bandwidth of an offending signal and how it affects them.

“We can show (clients) maps of how much degradation a legitimate station can receive when a co-channel pirate is on the air,” Vencl said.

Grey and Vencl – the name is pronounced “VEN-sill” – use various homing devices to hunt pirates, from Doppler systems ¾ helping them narrow down the vicinity of a pirate quickly – to spectrum analyzers and even some “home-brew” equipment to pinpoint the location of the offending signal.

Signal Finder’s van is outfitted with a Will-burt telescopic mast, Scala antennas, Inovonics model 530-modulation monitor, Onan 3 kW generator and Icom and Yaesu mobile radios, Vencl said.

“We have gear that can rate the power level of the signal causing interference and give the client calibrated power levels for certified readings of locations and frequencies,” Grey said.

The client typically would take that information and use it to pursue damages from the pirate in civil court.

Grey comes from a broadcast background, having recently worked for Clear Channel Communications in several South Florida markets as a chief engineer. Vencl worked for more than 25 years in the telecommunications industry, including a long stint with Motorola, finding interference hazards.

Any interference

It’s not only broadcast interference Signal Finder is after.

“We are not just a pirate-busting company,” Vencl said. “We pinpoint anything interfering with a radio signal, from cordless telephones to power-line interference. We work also with law enforcement, business communications companies and others to eliminate interference with their communications. It just so happens that a lot of our clients are broadcasters.”

An FCC official, who asked not to be named, said the commission has 26 investigations in various stages of development against pirates in South Florida. It has meted out thousands of dollars in fines in the past year and confiscated some broadcast gear – but has yet to make a mark on the number of pirates in the area, the official said, because when one pirate is shut down, another usually takes its spot on the dial.

“We are doing as much as we can right now with our resources and current staffing levels. We are investigating these claims to determine whether we need to refer these people to the Department of Justice for criminal prosecution,” she said.

The commission’s Tampa district office has two field agents and is charged with oversight of the South Florida pirate problem. The FCC also maintains a resident agent office in Miami.

The operation of an unlicensed broadcast station is a violation of the Communications Act of 1934. Operators of illegal broadcast stations face monetary penalties up to $11,000 per violation and the threat of criminal sanctions, including additional fines and imprisonment.

The FCC says its investigations result in the shutdown of hundreds of unlicensed broadcast operations each year nationwide. Since 1997, the FCC has shut down more than 400 pirates in Florida alone.

Florida pirates

“South Florida has become synonymous with pirate radio,” said Joe Cassara, operations manager for non-commercial and Miami-based WDNA(FM), a potential Signal Finder client.

Non-commercial broadcasters may suffer the most harm from pirate interference because many are at the low end of the dial and many low-power transmitters operate on those frequencies.

Cassara said the services of Signal Finder would not be necessary except for failures of the FCC in spectrum compliance.

“While the FCC is busy sanitizing the content of broadcasts, they neglect the responsibility with which they were originally charged: to regulate the spectrum as a resource,” Cassara said.

In the FCC’s defense, Grey said, there appears to be more pirate traffic than it can handle in South Florida. “I think they are just overwhelmed, not only by pirate radio but also interference with two-way communication systems, VHF and UHF. It’s just too much to handle right now.”

The commission has been quiet about Signal Finder’s efforts to this point, Grey said.

“One FCC enforcement officer told me that having us pinpoint a pirate could expedite the process. However, they still need to do their complete investigation. That leaves our clients the option of taking action against unlicensed broadcasters in civil court,” he said.

The six-station Clear Channel Communications group in West Palm Beach is considering using Signal Finder, according to Chief Engineer Jim Leifer.

“We have had discussions with them about the interference problems. It’s a major concern for us,” Leifer said. “If it’s something we think Signal Finder can help us with, we’ll use them.”

Randy Bennett, owner of WCEE, an LPFM station in Melbourne, Fla., said he used Signal Finder in late March to track a pirate on a first-adjacent channel.

“We are at 93.1 MHz and someone fired up a station at 92.9 MHz. We’re just 40 kW, so we don’t need interference like that,” Bennett said.

Signal Finder tracked the pirate to Palm Bay, Fla., approximately five miles from Melbourne, where a man had started a pirate station from his apartment building, Bennett said.

“I think the documentation and photos we had from Signal Finder certainly helped to get the FCC in here quicker. The FCC confiscated the gear and shut him down,” Bennett said.

Other means of relief for legitimate stations in the Sunshine State could be on the way. The Florida state legislature passed a provision in April under which pirate broadcasters could face third-degree felony charges and stiff penalties if convicted under state law. A conviction is punishable by five years in prison and a $5,000 fine for each count. The bill was awaiting the signature of Gov. Jeb Bush in early May.

C. Patrick Roberts, president of the Florida Association of Broadcasters, said in a statement, “We’re happy the state recognized a problem that’s become a major concern across the state.”

Some Floridians have questioned why the state needs to step into the pirate fray, saying pirate broadcasters are serving their local areas with low-power signals featuring community-based programming and providing an outlet for ethnic music. Broadcasters have maintained that illegal broadcasts could interfere with emergency broadcasts during hurricanes and other disasters.