A Wisconsin wireless contractor discovered a flaw in the FCC’s Antenna Structure Registration (ASR) database, and changed the ownership of more than 40 towers from multiple carriers and tower owners into his company’s name during the past five months without the rightful owners being notified by the agency, according to FCC documents and sources knowledgeable of the illegal transfers.
Sprint, AT&T and key tower companies were targeted in the wide-ranging thefts.
The unlawful assignments also created a dangerous condition for aircraft since an FCC investigator was relying upon statements from the new owner, William M. Nix, 39, President of Aura Holdings of Wisconsin, Inc. (Aura), that he would repair obstruction lighting on a 1,100-foot tower, but he had no intentions of ordering the equipment to complete the repairs by July 1 because he neither owned the structure nor could fund the repairs that would cost over $21,000.
Senior FCC communications advisor Neil Derek Grace informed Wireless Estimator on June 15 that the Commission is aware of Nix’s “attempted” ownership changes, but declined to answer whether the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau will be issuing a Letter of Inquiry to Aura and citing the contractor with a Notice of Apparent Liability along with a fine.
If the FCC were to act against Nix for falsifying documents, they would be required to refer their investigation to the Department of Justice to charge him under U.S. Code, Title 18, § 1001 which is punishable by a fine and/or imprisonment of up to five years.
Grace would not identify whether any individual ever fraudulently changed tower ownership in the FCC’s database.
As of Friday, there were still 13 towers in the database belonging to Aura, and Grace said in an email that “the Commission has and is in the process of reverting all of the ownership statuses back to their original owners.”
By Monday morning, Aura’s remaining portfolio of towers was returned to their rightful owners.
It is unknown why Nix changed the ownership of the structures or what benefits would be derived by being able to identify that Aura owned a $12-plus million group of towers.
Although the ASR database identifies the owner of the tower, it is not legal proof of ownership but allows for a chain of correspondence to ensure compliance with all FCC requirements that also incorporate other federal regulations.
FCC allows instantaneous ownership
Changing ASR ownership is an easy process by applying online for an FCC Registration Number (FRN) which is instantly granted whether the factual or inaccurate information is provided. Then, once logged in, an FRN holder can submit a form stating that they are the new owner of any or multiple structures in the database.
As soon as it is submitted, the change is immediately reflected in the ASR.
Although Grace said that owners are notified if a change is made in the system, two tower owners whose structures’ ownership was changed by Nix informed Wireless Estimator they were never informed with an email or through regular mail, or they would have immediately acted.
Previously, the FCC would notify the assignor with a Change of Ownership Letter, alerting them that the agency processed an application to change the ownership.
“Therefore, you are no longer listed as the owner on this antenna structure,” the letter states, and the assignor was asked to notify the Commission if that was incorrect.
The date the letter was sent was typically the following day after the ownership change, and a copy of it was immediately available along with other registration data, as recorded in a 2013 ownership change for this American Towers, LLC site.
However, when Nix was changing ownerships, there was no Change of Ownership Letter sent for 12 sites reviewed by Wireless Estimator, such as this Ocala, Fla. Sprint site.
To test the ASR’s notification process, on Friday, an owner of two companies, each one having an FRN, had one company legally change the ownership of the other company’s tower. They said that the acquiring company received instant notification that the property transfer had been completed; however, the assignor did not receive information that an assignment of ownership had been made, and would not have known about it if it had been a fraudulent transfer. Also, the history log showed that no Change of Ownership Letter had been sent.
“This is unacceptable if it is correct,” said an executive of a top four tower company. “Why is the onus upon the rightful owner? I believe it would be easy to notify the current owner’s representative online and have them log in and approve or reject the transaction before it’s changed in the database.”
The FCC was alerted by Wireless Estimator Friday that the Change of Ownership Letter is still not being sent.
A remaining new build request is riddled with concerns
As of June 21, the FCC has purged all of Aura’s allegedly filched structures from their database and returned them to their original owners, but an application for a new antenna structure in Broward County, Fla. by Aura submitted on Feb. 7 is still pending.
Nix’s registration request is questionable for several reasons; the most obvious is that there is currently an AT&T Long Lines tower with its microwave feed horns stripped at that location that is not listed in the ASR database.
Also, the self-supporting structure might still be owned by American Tower Corporation, although the company did not reply to a request for verification. American Tower bought the majority of AT&T’s cold war-era long distance microwave structures in the late 1990s and sold off a number of them beginning in 2002.
Although Nix’s request is for a height of 213 feet, requiring obstruction lighting, his application stated that there would be no marking and/or lighting.
He also stated that he was not submitting an environmental assessment for a site that is in an environmentally sensitive area of the Everglades Wildlife Management Area.
Aura’s corporate address is an unauthorized mailbox on a site fence
Nix, in an email, said he wasn’t aware of an investigation by the FCC and declined to answer questions and address allegations that were provided to him in writing by Wireless Estimator.
Aura does not have a website, although Nix has a Facebook page where he states that he is CEO & President at Aura Group, Inc.
Aura registered its corporation in Wisconsin as Aura Holdings of Wisconsin, Inc. on Sept. 23, 2016, with a business address listed as 7284 Patton Rd., Deforest.
However, the address is a tower site owned by Subcarrier Communications of Old Bridge, N.J. and, according to a company executive, Nix, is illegally using that address and does not have any tenancy or other interests in the property.
“In fact, we had hired him as a contractor to do some site maintenance last year in Minnesota and were very unhappy with his work. After he was asked to never set foot on any of our sites, he continued to change locks and enter and create problems for our tenants. One incident involved taking FBI radios offline, and I believe they are currently investigating. We have filed trespassing charges against Nix,” said Subcarrier President John Paleski.
“Twice he put a mailbox on the fence that we removed, and he also changed the locks for that site,” said Paleski.
In January, Nix, according to sources, came to Florida to provide services to Crown Castle as a vendor partner of FPL Fibernet. He had requested quotations from FPL Fibernet for two 1G fiber lines for Aura that would be installed at two Crown Castle tower locations, one an AT&T Long Lines cell tower with multiple tenants in Margate.
Crown Castle had acquired FPL Fibernet in late 2016 for $1.5 billion.
According to an FPL Fibernet spokesperson, the Jan. 4 order that resulted in charges of $3,720 per month was never completed.
Crown Castle did not respond to multiple requests for information.
Nix informed FCC investigator that he owned a tower he illegally transferred
On Jan. 10, FCC agent John Kuzma out of the agency’s Chicago office visited a tower in Footville, Wisc. after a pilot reported that the lights on the 1,100-foot tower were out, and he confirmed that neither the daytime nor the nighttime lights were operational.
On Jan. 12, Kuzma called Nix who was listed as the contact for Aura, the owner of the structure.
Nix informed Kuzma, according to a report, that “he had recently acquired the tower and was aware that the lights were out. Mr. Nix said that the tower had been vandalized and that he had the equipment necessary to repair the lights but would not be able to repair them until Spring when it would be safe for technicians to climb the tower. Agent Kuzma told Mr. Nix that a reasonable timeframe to get the tower lights repaired would be May 2017, and told Mr. Nix to update him with the status of the repairs.”
On March 20, Kuzma emailed Nix requesting a status update, and Nix replied, stating that the light would be repaired by July 1.
On May 19, Kuzma was contacted by a staff attorney at FCC headquarters and learned that the FCC had found that “William Nix had changed the ownership information on many antenna structure registrations to Aura Holdings and that Aura Holdings had no legitimate ownership for any of the towers.”
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced yesterday that he intends to appoint Rosemary C. Harold to serve as chief of the agency’s Enforcement Bureau.
Harold, a former journalist, is an attorney with experience within the FCC and in private practice.
“This agency has a critical role to play in enforcing the law to protect consumers and support competition in the communications marketplace,” Pai said. “Our Enforcement Bureau has been getting back on track in recent months, and I am confident in Rosemary’s ability to continue this progress.”