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Eye on the Sky

FCC Agents Guard the Crowded Airwaves Against Pirates and Accidental Interference


COLUMBIA, Md. — Using a car full of high-tech gear to pinpoint a false marine radio distress signal, Charles C. Magin rounded a corner on Maryland's Kent Island one day last month and flashed his federal badge to six dumbfounded teenagers.

"So who's been operating the radio?" asked Magin, district director of the Federal Communications Commission's compliance and information bureau in Maryland. Magin extracted a confession from one of the youths, and police and parents were called. But the shocked suspects, ages 13 to 15, had pressing questions of their own, Magin recalled: "What's the FCC? Are you, like, part of the Coast Guard or something?"

The Industrial Age had its G-men--federal agents who rose to prominence nabbing bank robbers and other criminals who flourished with the rise of the automobile. The Information Age--fueled by dozens of new wireless services from phones to digital TV--has given rise to a little known, but increasingly important federal enforcement activity: policing the multibillion-dollar airwaves.

At any given moment, in places ranging from Los Angeles to London, there are literally thousands of electronic transmissions flooding the airwaves. They include AM and FM radio, television, cellular phone calls, satellite signals, police walkie-talkies as well as taxicab, marine, citizens band and high-frequency commercial and amateur radios.

Most of these operators require government authorization to broadcast. And the FCC has issued more than 3.5 million licenses to American broadcasters for various classes of wireless service.

But the task of keeping order among the cacophony of transmissions falls to some 250 men and women in the FCC's compliance and information bureau. They are the federal government's cybercops. And though their ranks have been thinned by massive budget cuts and layoffs, their work has never been more critical than today.

"We are putting more of our emphasis on enforcement," said FCC Chairman William E. Kennard, who has been buoyed by a June federal court decision upholding his agency's authority to shut down on pirate radio operators who had asserted a 1st Amendment right to broadcast without FCC authorization. "If you didn't police the airwaves, you'd have chaos."

The Kent Island teenagers, whom the FCC and police declined to identify because they were juveniles, were not arrested. But the FCC and Coast Guard contend the teenagers' horseplay potentially jeopardized the safety of others by interfering with a real emergency communications.

Around the world, the airwaves have become the lifeblood of modern communications. Nations are increasingly dependent on broadcasting, cellular phones, satellites and other wireless technologies to carry information, provide electronic security and oil the wheels of commerce.

But those wireless communications can be disrupted by a whole host of factors. They include natural phenomenon such as sunspots, as well as human factors like mis-tuned transmission devices, malfunctioning microwave ovens, broken cable TV wires, airwave pranksters or outright subterfuge.

In one recent incident, some commercial fishermen in vessels off the coast of eastern Africa interfered with airline radio communications by commandeering the airline frequency to hold forth about their personal lives, FCC officials said.

The FCC does not keep precise figures on complaints about airwave interference because most cases are detected and resolved with a few phone calls between the FCC and radio operators. What's more, improvements in consumer equipment have helped slash inadvertent interference from faulty appliances and other common household electronic devices.

But serious incidents of airwave interference still exceed 500 a year and have become so commonplace that Kennard said he is considering asking Congress for permission to give broadcasters the authority to go to court on their own and shut down unlicensed operators without tying up the resources of the FCC.

"I'd like to have more resources to fight this problem," Kennard said. But in the meantime, he added, "this agency is going to have to be more vigilant in policing the airwaves."

Despite a one-third reduction in staff in 1996, the FCC's compliance and information bureau has been able to hold its own by automating much of its surveillance of the airwaves, said bureau chief Richard Lee.

The agency, which used to maintain a sprawling network of agents at listening posts around the country, has replaced most of the sites with computers and automated tracking systems. The remote equipment can scan the skies for radio interference and automatically dial up the FCC's headquarters and report any anomalies over the phone.

Meanwhile, FCC agents like Magin have been outfitted with state-of-the-art "cybercars." The vehicles, which look like ordinary late-model passenger cars to the uninitiated, are crammed full of electronic mapping displays, oscilloscopes and airwave listening devices to track down pirates.

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