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Under a new federal law, businesses are forbidden from restricting, prohibiting or penalizing consumer-posted reviews of the business or its goods and services. The Consumer Review Fairness Act of 2016 goes into effect tomorrow, March 14, 2017, and declares unlawful any “form contract” that prohibits or restricts the ability of an individual to engage in a “covered communication,” which is broadly defined to include any review, performance assessment, or other similar analysis of the company’s goods, services, or conduct.  Our Pillsbury colleagues Michael Heuga, Amy Pierce and Catherine Meyer discuss the details of the new law in a recent Pillsbury Client Alert.

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Robocalls and telemarketing calls are reliably the top source of consumer complaints received by the FCC.  Despite the good intentions of the 1991 Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), FCC decisions implementing the TCPA, and the collective efforts of the telecom industry, there has been little relief from these unwanted calls—particularly at dinner time.  More problematic is that an increasing number of these calls use false (or spoofed) Caller ID to perpetrate scams designed to trick call recipients into believing the call is coming from the Internal Revenue Service, law enforcement, computer support, or a credit card company.

The FCC is now making another attempt to reduce unwanted and sometimes fraudulent telemarketing calls and robocalls.  In a draft Notice of Proposed Rulemaking and Notice of Inquiry circulated March 2nd and to be considered formally at the next FCC Open Meeting on March 23rd, the FCC is proposing to adopt rules that would allow voice service providers (including wireline, wireless and VoIP providers) to block spoofed calls in certain circumstances. Continue reading →

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As someone who has been deeply involved in planning for the rollout of ATSC 3.0, I get a lot of questions about the next generation broadcasting standard. By far the two most common questions are “When will the transition start?” and “When will it end?”  My answers—which often lead to quizzical looks—are “Very soon.  And never.”

The visible transition to 3.0 in the United States will begin almost immediately after the FCC approves use of the new technology. Transmitters being built today are 3.0 ready, and many hundreds (perhaps more than a thousand) of these transmitters will be installed as a necessary part of the post-incentive auction repacking process.  Broadcasters are already discussing how to provide ATSC 1.0 simulcasts in many markets so that some stations can begin transmitting in 3.0.  Korean television stations will launch ATSC 3.0 broadcasts beginning in May of this year, accelerating the availability of 3.0-compatible receivers.  So, the transition will begin soon.  I would argue it is already underway.

When I say the transition will never end, I don’t mean the broadcast industry is entering its groundhog day. Quite the opposite.  I mean that ATSC 3.0 provides enormous headroom for broadcasting to continue to grow and evolve long after all stations have made the initial conversion.

And that’s the beauty of ATSC 3.0. It will bring a foundational change to the capabilities of our national television broadcast infrastructure.  Most important, it allows broadcasters to continually expand, enhance and improve the services they offer, even after all stations have converted to 3.0.  That’s why I say the “transition” will never end.

Though we can’t put a date on the end, we do know what the first steps are.

Step 1 – Upgrade to 3.0. Within a matter of years, most or perhaps all stations will have completed the transition to ATSC 3.0, in the sense that they will be broadcasting 3.0 signals.  But the services offered, and the networks and systems behind those services, can evolve to meet the changing demands of the incredibly robust and dynamic marketplace in which broadcasters must compete. Continue reading →

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Pillsbury’s communications lawyers have published FCC Enforcement Monitor monthly since 1999 to inform our clients of notable FCC enforcement actions against FCC license holders and others.  This month’s issue includes:

  • FCC Proposes $25,000 Fine Against Individual for Operating a Pirate Radio Station
  • FCC Admonishes Wireless Carrier for Data Breach
  • Telecommunications Relay Service Providers Agree to $9.1 Million Settlement

Pirate Radio Operator Faces $25,000 Proposed Fine After Flaunting Multiple FCC Warnings

After issuing multiple warnings, the FCC proposed a $25,000 fine against a New Jersey man for operating an unlicensed radio station. Section 301 of the Communications Act prohibits any person from operating any apparatus for the transmission of energy or communications or signals by radio within the United States without FCC authorization.

In October 2015, the licensee of an FM translator station in Jersey City complained to the FCC that an unauthorized station was causing co-channel interference. FCC agents verified the complaint and issued a Notice of Unlicensed Operation (“NOUO”) to the owner of the apartment building where the unlicensed station was operating. The unauthorized broadcast subsequently stopped. However, in May 2016, the FCC received another complaint and found that the unlicensed station was operating again. FCC agents issued a second NOUO, this time to both the individual operating the pirate station and the building owner. The individual contacted the FCC in June 2016, at which time he was warned he could face additional enforcement action if unlicensed operations continued.

Despite that admonition, FCC agents found the individual again engaged in unlicensed operation in August 2016, this time at a different site. The FCC issued another NOUO, but later that month found the individual operating without a license again, this time at yet another site.

FCC guidelines set a base fine for unauthorized operation of $10,000 for each violation or each day of a continuing violation. The FCC may adjust the fine upward or downward after taking into account the particular facts of each case. Here, the FCC found that a “significant upward adjustment was warranted” due to the individual’s disregard of multiple warnings. As a result, the FCC proposed a $20,000 base fine—$10,000 for the May 2016 operations and another $10,000 for the August 2016 operations—and applied a $5,000 upward adjustment, for a total proposed fine of $25,000.

Hack of Wireless Carrier Leads to Admonishment by FCC

The FCC admonished a national wireless phone carrier for a 2015 data breach in which a third party gained unauthorized access to personal information collected by the carrier to run credit checks on customers.

Section 222(a) of the Communications Act requires telecommunications carriers to “protect the confidentiality of proprietary information of, and relating to . . . customers.” It also requires carriers to “take every reasonable precaution” to protect personal customer information. Section 201(b) of the Act requires practices related to interstate or foreign telecommunications to be “just and reasonable.” Continue reading →

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After the election, it was clear that we would be seeing a much different FCC in 2017. Such transitions typically take time, as a president’s nomination of new candidates to fill the Chairman’s or commissioners’ seats, along with the delay typically associated with obtaining Senate confirmation, means that a new fully-staffed FCC won’t typically be ready for action until May or June following the January change in administrations. By that time, the actions of the prior FCC have often become final and unappealable, or at least the regulated industries have already begun to adapt their operations to comply with those rules, making subsequent changes more complicated.

Continue reading →

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Just 29 days ago, the FCC’s Media Bureau issued an unusual decision denying Petitions for Reconsideration of an order adopted by the commissioners themselves, raising questions as to who’s in charge at the FCC.  The petitions were filed by noncommercial broadcasters in the Commission’s long-running proceeding to update its broadcast ownership reporting requirements.  Today, a much different Media Bureau backtracked on that decision—the FCC’s rules give it 30 days to change its mind—and decided that ruling on petitions seeking reconsideration of a Commission-level order is a matter best left to the commissioners themselves.

Continue reading →

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Pillsbury’s communications lawyers have published FCC Enforcement Monitor monthly since 1999 to inform our clients of notable FCC enforcement actions against FCC license holders and others.  This month’s issue includes:

  • FCC Proposes $10,000 Fine to FM Licensee for Public Inspection File Violations
  • Spoofed Calls Lead to $25,000 Fine
  • Wireless Licensee Agrees to Pay $28,800 Settlement for Operating on Unauthorized Frequencies

FM Licensee Hit with $10,000 Proposed Fine for “Extensive” Public Inspection File Violations

The FCC proposed a $10,000 fine against a South Carolina FM licensee for “willfully and repeatedly” failing to retain all required public inspection file documents.

Continue reading →

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It took a while to get to this point, but at the first public meeting of the Pai FCC, the Commission voted today to eliminate the requirement that stations maintain “Letters and Emails from the Public” in their public inspection files. As discussed below, that decision will have differing impacts on TV and radio stations, and even among radio stations.

When the FCC charged ahead to move television public inspection files online in 2012, there didn’t seem to be any upside for broadcasters, who objected loudly. Those objections were primarily based upon the fact that the FCC had managed to find a way to expend even more of a broadcaster’s resources on the rarely-read file, requiring that it now also be uploaded to an online FCC database. Uploading a public file is no small task, as an FCC review of TV public files in Baltimore in 2012 revealed that some contained more than 8,000 pages. In response to those objections, the FCC announced when it adopted the change that it would automatically upload applications, kidvid reports, and other documents it had access to, reducing the number of documents stations would need to upload themselves.

Continue reading →

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Last May, Jessica Nyman and I wrote about the potential impact of an FCC Notice of Proposed Rulemaking proposing to eliminate the requirement that stations keep “Letters and Emails from the Public” in their Public Inspection File.  In moving public inspection files online, the FCC recognized that posting such letters and emails online creates privacy concerns, and required that stations continue to maintain such correspondence at the main studio in the local public file.  The result was that many stations had to maintain and provide public access to a local public file solely to provide this one category of document.

Earlier today, the FCC released the tentative agenda for its January 31 meeting, and the sole item on it is:

Streamlining the Public File Rules: The Commission will consider a Report and Order that would eliminate the requirement that commercial broadcast stations retain copies of letters and emails from the public in their public inspection file and the requirement that cable operators retain the location of the cable system’s principal headend in their public inspection file.

While we are still waiting to hear who will be chairing that post-inaugural meeting, for broadcasters, it’s a nice way to start the year.  For more background on the proceeding and information on the likely benefits for stations, please check out our earlier post on the subject.

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If trying to maintain the required paperwork for political advertising aired by your station gives you a headache, prepare for a migraine of biblical proportions.

With the departure of Commissioner Rosenworcel leaving the FCC in a 2-2 partisan split, there are really only two types of broadcast orders coming out of the FCC these days—those having the unanimous support of all four remaining commissioners, and those that can be done by the Media Bureau on delegated authority with or without the support of the two Republican commissioners.  That was evidenced twice last week.  The first was the Media Bureau’s rejection of various petitions seeking reconsideration of increased ownership reporting requirements for noncommercial stations.  That action generated an immediate response from Republican commissioners Pai and O’Rielly, who released a joint statement chiding the Media Bureau for taking the action right before the FCC changes control, and encouraging the rejected petitioners to appeal the decision to the full Commission for reversal:

The Commission’s ruling no longer enjoys the support of the majority of Commissioners—nor is there a majority that supports today’s Media Bureau decision—so it was wrong for the Bureau to bypass Commissioners and reaffirm these reporting requirements unilaterally. . . . The good news is that today’s decision need not be the final word. We encourage public broadcasters to file an application for review so that the newly constituted Commission will have an opportunity to revisit this matter. It is pointless to require board members of NCE stations to report sensitive personal information (like the last four digits of individual Social Security numbers) to the Commission and will only serve to discourage these volunteers from serving their communities.

We might now be headed down a similar path with the political file.  This past Friday evening, the Media Bureau released an Order expanding the recordkeeping associated with airing political advertising.  Perhaps simply an error, but contributing to the appearance that the Order was rushed out to beat the change in administrations, is the fact that the formatting and text of the Friday night version deteriorates badly in the last third of the Order, with no text at all in the last 49 footnotes, the paragraph numbering changing, and the text of some paragraphs being in bold type and/or all capitals.  The cleaned up version can now be found here.  The Order responds to complaints filed by activist groups against eleven different stations owned by a Who’s Who of television broadcasters, with the FCC admonishing nine of the eleven stations for political ad recordkeeping violations.  A separate order admonishing a twelfth station in response to a more recent complaint was also released Friday night.

But why would an order admonishing stations for alleged recordkeeping violations (which originated from complaints sitting at the FCC since mid-2014) need to be rushed out?  Perhaps because it also “clarifies” that the admittedly vague rules on political ad recordkeeping require much more expansive political file records than most anyone has previously suggested (at least anyone who wasn’t trying to use the records for other than their intended purpose; for example, as a proxy for overall political ad expenditures).  The clarifications apply not just to broadcasters, but to cable, DBS, and satellite radio providers as well.

Read without an understanding of the current political ad landscape, the clarifications probably seem dryly mundane.  They include the following: Continue reading →