FCC's Wheeler Agrees to Keep Most Regional Offices Open

E&C says it struck agreement with FCC chair on budget revision

According to the House Energy & Commerce Committee, it has struck an "agreement" with FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler that will keep 15 of the FCC's 24 field offices open.

The chairman's budget plan had included closing 16 of the 24 offices, saying that was a way to save money without adversely impacting interference monitoring, but various House members, including ones in districts where offices were closing, were not convinced, and broadcasters were concerned given the interference monitoring the FCC will have to do when it repacks stations and wireless operators after the incentive auction.

“Communities across America will continue to be served even as the commission becomes more efficient – it’s a win-win,” said full committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) in announcing the agreement. “It also demonstrates how much we can accomplish when we work together to tackle the many tough issues we face.”

"These changes will keep field offices open in strategic locations and help ensure that the commission can fulfill its responsibilities to the public and public safety communities," added Communications Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.).

In addition to keeping 15 field offices open, the revised FCC budget plan will "ensure better rapid response capabilities for the west, provide a mechanism for escalating interference complaints, improve enforcement of the FCC’s rules against pirate radio operators, and prevent the commission from transferring field office jobs to the FCC’s Washington, D.C. headquarters."

Walden and Upton registered their concerns about the plan in a letter to Wheeler in April.

Wheeler spent some time defending the closures to broadcasters in his speech to the NAB convention back in April. Wheeler has said the FCC found it had more trucks than employees and one manager for every four in the offices, so there was room for finding new efficiencies by taking a "strike force" approach. He said centralizing the process would save costs and that there were currently too many people doing too few things.

The announcement of the agreement by the House Republicans, including the ramped-up efforts targeting pirate radio stations, comes the same day that 33 members of the New York and New Jersey congressional delegations wrote the FCC asking it to crack down on pirate radio stations in the region, including by staffing up its New York regional office and boosting enforcement.

The deal was a victory for the National Association of Broadcasters, which had challenged the closures.

"NAB thanks the many members of Congress who expressed concern over proposed cuts in FCC field offices," said NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton, "and we applaud Chairman Wheeler and his staff for resolving this issue in a manner that better protects against airwave interference. We also salute Chairman Wheeler's willingness to address the rampant growth of pirate radio, which creates significant interference challenges for radio listeners who rely daily on their legally-licensed hometown stations."

In fact, Wheeler gave NAB a shout-out for its help in informing the shift.

“Today, I circulated to my fellow Commissioners a modified plan to modernize our field offices," said Wheeler in a statement. "These changes create the opportunity for the FCC to be more efficient with its resources while actually improving 21st Century field activities. This updated plan represents the best of both worlds: rigorous management analysis combined with extensive stakeholder and Congressional input. Chairman Walden, Chairman Upton and other lawmakers have contributed to this effort through their thoughtful engagement," he confirmed. "Input from industry and public safety stakeholders has further informed the modifications, and I appreciate the important role played by the National Association of Broadcasters in getting to a constructive result. I urge my colleagues to approve this revised plan with dispatch so that we may get on with improving the agency’s productivity.”