AT&T slapped by FCC with proposed $640,000 fine over microwave license violations

The FCC voted 5-0 to propose fining AT&T (NYSE: T) $640,000 for allegedly operating numerous wireless microwave stations without authorization over a multiyear period and failing to provide required license modification notices to the commission. AT&T said it is going to review the proposed fine and respond "as appropriate."

The FCC alleges that AT&T operated 26 common carrier fixed point-to-point microwave base stations in ways that were different than the stations' authorizations for periods as long as five years. The commission also said that AT&T failed to notify it regarding minor modifications of an additional eight stations within the past year, and AT&T has yet to file five major modification applications and two minor modification applications with the FCC regarding the stations.

In a statement, the FCC said it was taking the enforcement action "as part of its duty to prevent unauthorized radio operations from interfering with authorized radio communications and to facilitate the efficient administration of the radio spectrum for the benefit of all Americans."

Common carrier microwave base stations are generally used in a point-to-point configuration for long-haul backbone connections or to connect parts of the network that cannot be connected using standard wireline or fiber backhaul because of cost or terrain. The systems are also used to relay TV signals.

Although the fine is a pittance for a company that had consolidated revenues of $34.4 billion in the fourth quarter, the proposed "Notice of Apparent Liability" did not come to a vote without some rancor.

AT&T had brought the failures to the FCC voluntarily and although the facts of the case were not in dispute, the two Republican commissioners only concurred with the vote after they said they did not get information about the proposed fine until just before the FCC's open meeting on Thursday. Additionally, they said they had problems with increasing the fine by more than 400 percent because of what the FCC said was the egregiousness of the violations and AT&T's ability to pay the fine.

In a statement, an AT&T spokesperson said that the proposed fine stems from a review AT&T voluntarily conducted of 691 microwave licenses acquired from other entities between 2009 through 2012, and that it undertook the review to determine if any FCC records needed to be updated. 

"The vast majority of the licenses reviewed required no updates. The results of the review were voluntarily reported to the FCC and filings were made in ULS to modify and update Commission records as appropriate," AT&T said. "The majority of the updates filed were considered 'minor' modifications under the Commission rules, updates that were as simple as correcting the longitude or latitude of a site or changing contact information. We strongly disagree that this conduct merits a proposed forfeiture of over $600,000, particularly when that amount is based largely on bureau penalty multipliers for conduct deemed willful, repeated and egregious."

As Multichannel News notes, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said the Republicans had failed to engage on the issue until late in the process and had no standing to complain. However, Republican Commissioners Ajit Pai and Michael O'Rielly had not recorded a vote by the meeting's start, which is unusual since most votes on FCC agenda items are tallied before the formal voting at commission meetings.

Pai said that once he did get the information on the proposed fine--which he said he only received a day before the meeting--he thought there was sufficient justification go ahead with the fine, but both he and O'Rielly indicated that they had not previously been given enough information to cast a vote.

For more:
- see this FCC statement (PDF)
- see this Reuters article
- see this Multichannel News article
- see this PhoneScoop article

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