LeBlanc Defends Proposal to Close Many Field Offices

LAS VEGAS – FCC Enforcement Bureau Chief Travis LeBlanc today defended a proposal to shrink the number of agency field offices from two dozen to eight, saying it will allow the agency to focus its resources where they are most needed as its budgets remain stagnant.  During a session at the 2015 NAB Show here, Mr. LeBlanc also touted changes he said the bureau has already made since he arrived a year ago that he said allows it to ensure it is pursuing matters that will make the greatest difference to the American people.

The FCC has drawn criticism from some members of Congress and industry entities, including the National Association of Broadcasters, for the proposal FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has forwarded to shutter many of its field offices. “We have spent a lot of time thinking about how our field operations are tailored to the 21st century challenges that we have,” Mr. LeBlanc said today. He said that over a number of years, the number of personnel working in field offices has declined through attrition and that morale in field offices is low. More than half of field office agents are eligible for retirement today, Mr. LeBlanc said.

For the past six years, the FCC has had a flatlined budget, meaning it has less money to spend after mandatory expenses are covered, Mr. LeBlanc said.

Mr. LeBlanc, who said field office operations have not been reviewed in about 20 years, said technological and other changes can allow the FCC to continue to enforce its rules adequately without the same number of field offices, some of which have only one or two employees. “We may not need as many people on the ground full time,” he said.

For example, he noted that broadcaster public inspection files are moving online, eliminating the need for a field office agent to go to stations to inspect files. Also, major tower companies have deployed automated systems to monitor lighting at facilities, eliminating the need for agents to drive out to towers, Mr. LeBlanc said.

Mr. LeBlanc said that under the field office closure proposal, the FCC would still respond to public safety issues within 24 hours. He also said that the bureau would develop metrics for responding to other issues, which he said are not in place today. A “Tiger Team” at the FCC’s lab in Columbia, Md., would be able to respond to issues to back up field offices, and the bureau would create a field office director position in Washington, he said.

Mr. LeBlanc also said that the FCC would assess the new framework after it is implemented to ensure that it is working, adding that it would modify the plan if needed, including adding resources.

But a broadcaster at today’s session asked FCC officials to reconsider the proposal, saying that the presence of field agents ensures that stations comply with the FCC’s rules. “That’s the FCC to many of us,” Paul Tinkle, president of Thunderbolt Broadcasting in Tennessee, said of field offices. “Shutting those offices down or reducing them to a level that you’re talking about, I just don’t think, is a good idea.”

After the session, Mr. LeBlanc was asked by a reporter if he is concerned by congressional efforts to flatline the agency’s budget. “It goes above my pay grade,” he replied, adding that he knows Mr. Wheeler and FCC Managing Director Jon Wilkins are working with Congress on the issue.

During the session, Mr. LeBlanc also discussed major enforcement actions the bureau has pursued during his tenure and ways it has worked to improve its processes. The key is “focusing on the kinds of issues that matter most to ordinary Americans in the 21st century” and targeting “our scarce enforcement resources so that we’re reaching the maximum impact,” he said.

Among others, Mr. LeBlanc touted enforcement actions dealing with cramming, Wi-Fi blocking, 911 outages, rural call completion, the Universal Service Fund, telecommunications relay services, and data security and privacy.

He said that when he arrived, a significant amount of bureau resources were going toward reaching tolling agreements with parties that would allow the bureau to probe actions past the typical one-year statute of limitations. As a result, the bureau faced a backlog of investigations, he said.

Mr. LeBlanc said the bureau has moved away from such tolling arrangements and is now moving more quickly to either pursue enforcement actions or decide not to, including in cases where technology has changed. Such a change benefits broadcasters and others regulated by the Commission because it provides more certainty more quickly, while allowing the bureau to keep up with technological developments, he said. He also said that all but one case that has gone to Commissioners for a vote have been unanimous, with the outlier being approved on a 3-2 vote.

The bureau chief said the bureau has implemented a system to focus on high-priority items. He said that previously, a case was opened each time a complaint was filed, even though in many cases the FCC had no plans to pursue an action. He said the bureau is not just focusing “on technical violations” by parties but instead prioritizing whether actions impact goals such as competition or network security.

In response to a question from the audience, Mr. LeBlanc also stressed the importance of consent decrees, and he said the bureau has worked to improve aspects of them. For example, it previously called a payment by an entity a “voluntary contribution” to the U.S. Treasury but now calls it a “civil penalty.” Also, the bureau has sought admissions of liability from parties and added more background in decrees to “provide guidance to others in the industry.”  In addition, the bureau has pressed for compliance provisions to help ensure that the offending activity will not occur again, Mr. LeBlanc said.

While he cited major consent decrees such as $90 million and $105 million cramming settlements with T-Mobile, US, Inc., and AT&T, Inc., respectively, Mr. LeBlanc said, “We’re thinking differently. It’s not just about the size of the fine. We’re really thinking about how we can avoid future violations,” he said. “We’re being more creative about our approaches to enforcement.”  For example, he noted, a $25 million consent decree announced last week with AT&T to settle an FCC investigation into data breaches at AT&T call centers in Mexico, Colombia, and the Philippines includes a requirement that the carrier conduct a privacy risk assessment and training and implement an information security program (TRDaily, April 8).

He noted that cramming settlements have included restitution for victims, while a $5 million rural call completion settlement with Verizon Communications, Inc., included money for research and the creation of an ombudsman position (TRDaily, Jan. 26).- Paul Kirby, paul.kirby@wolterskluwer.com