PS, Industry Have Nothing to Fear From Changes to FCC Field Office, Enforcement Bureau Official Says

ComDaily reports, The $21 million it costs to keep 28 field offices open with 108 employees using “out-of-date equipment” is too expensive and field office staffers have too little work to do, said William Davenport, deputy chief of the FCC Enforcement Bureau, telling the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council Wednesday why the agency is considering a controversial proposal to make sharp cuts in the number of field offices and agents in the field. The cost of the field offices also increases each year, he said.

The current model is more than 20 years old and built on a “regulatory model that simply doesn’t exist anymore,” Davenport said. “Modern enforcement is about responding to interference complaints, not conducting random inspections of broadcast facilities. As valuable as that might be, that’s not our primary mission.”

Field office staffers spend only about 40 percent of their time on radiofrequency (RF) interference issues, Davenport told NPSTC. “Many don’t have very much RF work,” he said. Some of the offices receive less than one RF complaint per employee per week, he said. One office received one per agent every five weeks. Public safety interference complaints are even more rare, an average one per office per month, he said. “Several receive five or less per year.” Agents complain they spend more time in front of a computer drafting notices of apparent liability than they do in the field resolving interference problems, Davenport said.

Problems have been worsened by an inefficient management structure, with too many managers per inspector, Davenport said. “Our field agents have complained about this for years,” he said. “On average there is one manager for every four employees. Some offices have a one-to-one ratio or even worse.”

Under the FCC’s plan, Enforcement Bureau staff will spend more time focused on RF complaints, Davenport said. The FCC will maintain field offices in Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami, New York and San Francisco, with a “tiger team” in Columbia, Maryland, to provide support as needed, he said. The FCC will pre-position vehicles in San Juan, Honolulu, Anchorage, Phoenix, Denver, Salt Lake City, Kansas City and Seattle, he said. The number of managers will be reduced from 21 to five, he said. “We will continue to meet our stated goal of responding to public safety complaints, initially, within 24 hours,” he reassured the NPSTC board.

NPSTC board member Dave Buchanan, a former 911 official in San Bernardino County, California, said the way that the FCC has handled the proposed closing of the field offices has caused the agency problems. “You’re a service organization, whether you realize it or not,” he said. “We had to hear about it, not after the fact, but it wasn’t presented to us. … It’s better to come and explain things to people.” Buchanan said many public safety officials have stopped calling the FCC when they have a complaint because it has taken too long for the commission to respond.

Brian Fontes, CEO of the National Emergency Number Association, said this is not the first time the FCC has reorganized the field offices. Fontes, a former FCC chief of staff, said the reorganization looks “good on paper,” but what happens is reliant on “financial reality,” which “can change, literally, year to year, depending on the whims of Congress.” Fontes noted he has also been co-chairman of the Commerce Spectrum Management Advisory Committee, which has taken a long look at spectrum sharing. “One of the critical issues in the spectrum sharing world between government and nongovernment, or between licensed and unlicensed, is the ability to remedy interference in real time,” he said. “By real time we’re talking minutes and hours, not weeks or days.”

NPSTC also heard a presentation by the Department of Homeland Security Office of Emergency Communications. “There was a recognition that there was a need for the federal government to really become more engaged in 911 beyond just the FCC and regulation,” said Dusty Rhoads, a telecom specialist with the office. “There are a lot of departments and agencies that have some role or authority or responsibility with 911.”

Fontes asked how many of 23 grant programs administered by the office offer funding for 911 or next-generation 911. Rhoads said he wasn’t sure. Fontes said from his experience, few of the programs offer funding for 911. “It leaves a big gap, in my opinion, in terms, particularly in the efforts now underway to try to take a look at next-generation 911,” Fontes said. “Not to have 911 as a definitional element in these grant programs is overlooking a huge opportunity.” Rhoads said the grants are being changed in some cases to define 911 as an allowable expense.”