FCC Preempts State Laws Restricting Municipal Broadband Deployment

Posted February 27, 2015

By David Burns

While the FCC's net neutrality order got most of the attention yesterday, the FCC took another major broadband-related action at its February 26 meeting. Over the strenuous objections of incumbent internet service providers ("ISPs"), trade associations for ISPs, states, the National Governor's Association and others, the FCC on a 3-2 vote with Commissioners Pai and O'Rielly dissenting, preempted state laws in Tennessee and North Carolina which placed limitations on municipally-owned broadband networks. The FCC's action, if upheld in the judicial review certain to follow, would allow municipalities currently prohibited by state law from expanding service to do so via federal preemption of those restrictions. Advocates of the FCC's action argue that it will open the door to a more robust expansion of high-speed broadband service, especially in rural areas and other locations that would otherwise be underserved.

The matter began last year when the City of Wilson, North Carolina and the Electric Power Board of Chattanooga, an agency of the City of Chattanooga, Tennessee (the "EPB") challenged state restrictions on their operations. Wilson and the EPB own and operate high-speed fiber broadband networks in their respective communities, and each claimed that it wants to expand the geographic scope of its network but is effectively blocked from doing so by state laws. Wilson and EPB asked the FCC to use its power under Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to preempt those laws, arguing that they are inconsistent with the federal policy of making broadband available to all Americans.

Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act provides that the FCC "shall take immediate action to accelerate deployment of [broadband to all Americans] by removing barriers to infrastructure investment and by promoting competition in the telecommunications market." Wilson and EPB argued that Section 706 gives the FCC the power to preempt the Tennessee and North Carolina statutes because those statutes constitute barriers to network investment and competition. Wilson and EPB were supported by a number of municipalities and municipal utilities, and organizations representing them, as well as by technology companies such as Netflix and scores of individual commenters. Those parties generally argued that encouraging municipalities such as Wilson and EPB to expand internet service to consumers is precisely the sort of competition that the FCC should be promoting, and would encourage the spread of high speed broadband to rural areas that are unserved or underserved by incumbent ISPs. Wilson, EPB and their supporters also asserted that the state laws limiting municipal broadband service were enacted at the behest of incumbent ISPs to insulate them from competition.

Incumbent ISPs and others opposing Wilson and EPB argued that municipal broadband services often fail to succeed financially, leaving taxpayers stuck with the bill, while not necessarily promoting effective competition or the rollout of broadband to unserved areas. They also argued that the FCC lacks authority to preempt state laws under Section 706 because that provision does not explicitly provide such authority. In addition, they argued that preemption would be inconsistent with the Supreme Court's 2004 decision in Nixon vs. Missouri Municipal League, where municipalities petitioned the FCC for preemption of a Missouri law prohibiting municipalities from providing telecommunications services. At issue in Nixon was the language of Section 253 of the Communications Act of 1934 which provided that no state law could prohibit "the ability of any entity to provide ... telecommunications service." The Court held that "any entity" did not include municipalities, which are political subdivisions of the states themselves. As a result, opponents of Wilson and EPB claimed that Nixon bars the FCC from interfering with a state's sovereignty over its municipalities by preempting the limitations the state has placed on those municipalities.

Although the text of the Order adopted at the February 26 meeting has not yet been released, from the statements made by the Chairman and commissioners at the meeting, it appears the FCC is asserting that its preemption authority empowers it only to strike down the state restrictions, or "red tape" as Chairman Wheeler referred to them, that the states of Tennessee and North Carolina had imposed on municipalities which they had otherwise authorized to provide broadband service. Proceeding from this perspective, a state could ban a municipality from providing broadband service altogether, but once it has given the municipality authority to provide broadband service, it may not impose restrictions that create barriers to network investment and competition.

It is important to note that the FCC's Order is limited to the specific statutes in Tennessee and North Carolina, and that other state laws would have to be considered on a case-by-case basis following the filing of petitions with the FCC by municipalities in those states. However, yesterday's action provides a strong indication of how the current FCC would likely rule in cases involving the other 17 states that have similar restrictions on municipally-provided broadband service.

One can expect at least two things to result from the FCC's action. First, other municipalities wishing to build or expand their own broadband networks may file petitions with the FCC for preemption of laws in their states claiming that those laws restrict municipally-deployed broadband networks.

Second, the FCC's action will almost certainly be subject to judicial challenges and stay requests by the States of Tennessee and North Carolina, as well as other parties in interest. By limiting its claimed authority under Section 706 to review restrictions imposed by states on municipal broadband service to "red tape" restrictions, without disturbing a state's right to make the fundamental decision as to whether a municipality should be permitted to offer broadband service in the first place, the FCC is seeking to navigate a course that will make the preemption more limited and therefore easier to defend in the inevitable court challenges. Whether that will be enough for yesterday's action to survive a trip through the courts remains to be seen.

The Net Neutrality Drama Plays On

Scott R. Flick Paul A. Cicelski

Posted February 26, 2015

By Scott R. Flick and Paul A. Cicelski

The FCC voted on net neutrality rules in an open meeting today (that was delayed an hour due to yet more snow in DC), and the highly anticipated vote ran into a few last minute snags. First, Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, one of the three Democrats on the FCC's five-member Commission and an essential vote given the party-line split at the FCC on net neutrality, asked Chairman Wheeler to scale back some of the proposed provisions in the Order prior to today's vote.

Second, the tension between the Chairman and Republican commissioners Pai and O'Rielly continued, with Pai and O'Rielly not merely voting against the item, but vocally making their case for minimizing rather than expanding the FCC's dominion over Internet business practices. This followed their spirited opposition in the weeks leading up to the meeting, where commissioners Pai and O'Rielly very publicly urged Chairman Wheeler to release the FCC's proposed rules to the public for review and to postpone the vote to allow the public 30 days to comment on those rules, a request which the Chairman rejected.

As anticipated, the final vote today was a 3-2 split in favor of reclassifying broadband Internet access under Title II of the Communications Act, thereby making it subject to significant regulation by the FCC. Each of the commissioners released a statement in support of their respective position, with statements in favor from Democratic commissioners Wheeler, Clyburn, and Rosenworcel, and statements in opposition from Republican commissioners Pai and O'Rielly.

The FCC released a Public Notice summarizing the rule changes adopted by the Commission in the Order. According to the Public Notice, the FCC adopted the following bright line rules:


  • No Blocking: broadband providers may not block access to legal content, applications, services, or non-harmful devices.

  • No Throttling: broadband providers may not impair or degrade lawful Internet traffic on the basis of content, applications, services, or the use of non-harmful devices.
  • No Paid Prioritization: broadband providers may not favor some lawful Internet traffic over other lawful traffic in exchange for consideration of any kind--in other words, no "fast lanes" and no prioritizing the content and services of an Internet Service Provider's (ISP) affiliates.
The FCC also adopted a "standard for future conduct" whereby ISPs cannot "unreasonably interfere with or unreasonably disadvantage" the ability of consumers to select, access, and use the lawful content, applications, services, or devices of their choosing; or of edge providers to make lawful content, applications, services, or devices available to consumers." Finally, the FCC added additional ISP disclosure provisions to its existing transparency rule.

Let the litigation begin.

So how did we reach this regulatory crescendo? The core issue that launched the "network neutrality" debate is whether an Internet Service Provider can deliver selected Internet sites and services to customers faster than others in exchange for compensation from the website receiving the benefit. In line with the FCC's previous approach of treating the Internet as something completely new and different from the telecommunications services it had traditionally regulated, the FCC resisted involving itself in anything that could be described as regulation of the Internet. However, as the Internet grew and it became clear that it (a) was no longer a fledgling service that might be accidentally extinguished by government regulation; and (b) had moved from being a convenience to being as essential to the public as gas or electric, regulatory attitudes began to change.

The result was the FCC's 2005 Open Internet Policy Statement, in which the FCC concluded that ISPs were not subject to mandatory common-carrier regulation like telephone services (referred to as "Title II" regulation because it is governed by Title II of the Communications Act of 1934). The FCC did conclude, however, that it had authority to regulate ISPs under its ancillary authority to impose "light touch" regulatory obligations under the less restrictive Title I of the Communications Act.

Continue reading "The Net Neutrality Drama Plays On"

FCC Enforcement Monitor

Scott R. Flick

Posted February 25, 2015

By Scott R. Flick and Jessica Nyman

February 2015

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 Issues $3.36 Million Fine to Company and Its CEO for Selling Toll Free Numbers
  • Antenna Fencing and Public Inspection File Violations Result in $17,000 Fine
  • FCC Reiterates That "Willful Violation" Does Not Require "Intent to Violate the Law"

Hold the Phone: FCC Finds Company and CEO Jointly and Severally Liable for Brokering Toll Free Numbers

The FCC handed down a $3,360,000 fine to a custom connectivity solutions company (the "Company") and its CEO for violations of the FCC's rules regarding toll free number administration. Section 251(e)(1) of the Communications Act mandates that telephone numbers, including toll free numbers, be made "available on an equitable basis." As a general rule, toll free numbers, including "vanity" numbers (e.g., 1-800-BUY-THIS), cannot be transferred, and must be returned to the numbering pool so that they can be made available to others interested in applying for them when the current holder no longer needs them. Section 52.107 of the FCC's Rules specifically prohibits brokering, which is "the selling of a toll free number by a private entity for a fee."

In 2007, the Enforcement Bureau issued a citation to the Company and CEO for warehousing, hoarding, and brokering toll free numbers. The Bureau warned that if the Company or CEO subsequently violated the Act or Rules in any manner described in the 2007 citation, the FCC would impose monetary forfeitures. A few years later, the Bureau received a complaint alleging that in June and July of 2011, the Company and CEO brokered 15 toll free numbers to a pharmaceutical company for fees ranging from $10,000 to $17,000 per number. In 2013, the FCC found the Company and CEO jointly and severally liable for those violations and issued a $240,000 fine.

Despite the 2007 citation and 2013 fine, the Bureau found evidence that the CEO continued to broker toll free numbers. In early 2013, the Bureau received tips that the CEO sold several toll free numbers to a law firm for substantial fees. An investigation revealed that the CEO, who was the law firm's main point of contact with the Company, had sold 32 toll free numbers to the firm for fees ranging from $375 to $10,000 per number. On other occasions, the CEO solicited the firm to buy 178 toll free numbers for fees ranging from $575 to $60,000 per number. This, along with his correspondence with the firm--including requests that payments be made to his or his wife's personal bank accounts--were cited in support of a 2014 Notice of Apparent Liability ("NAL") finding that the CEO, in his personal capacity and on behalf of the Company, had "yet again, apparently violated the prohibition against brokering."

As neither the Company nor the CEO timely filed a response to the 2014 NAL, the FCC affirmed the proposed fines: $16,000 for each of the 32 toll free numbers that were sold, combined with a penalty of $16,000 for each of the 178 toll free numbers that the Company and CEO offered to sell, resulting in a total fine of $3.36 million.

FCC Rejects AM Licensee's "Not My Tower, Not My Problem" Defense

The FCC imposed a penalty of $17,000 against a Michigan radio licensee for failing to make available its issues/program lists in the station's public file and for failing to enclose the station's antenna structure within an effective locked fence.

Continue reading "FCC Enforcement Monitor"

Bringing the FCC's Contest Rule Up to Date

Paul A. Cicelski

Posted February 20, 2015

By: Paul A. Cicelski

It is an unusual occasion indeed when the FCC offers to revise its rules to provide regulatory relief to both television and radio stations. Yet that is precisely what the FCC proposed in a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) to update its station-conducted contest rule to allow broadcasters to post contest rules online rather than broadcast them. As the proposal now stands, stations would no longer need to broadcast the contest rules if they instead announce the full website address where the rules can be found each time they discuss the contest on-air.

The FCC's current contest rule was adopted back in 1976 when broadcasters could only provide contest information via printed copies of the rules available at the station or by announcing the rules over the air. The FCC's existing rule states that broadcasters sponsoring a contest must "fully and accurately disclose the material terms of the contest" on-air, and subsequently conduct the contest substantially as announced. (For a refresher on the contest rule, you can take a look at the Pillsbury Advisory drafted by Scott Flick covering a number of on-air rules, including the contest rule, here). A note to the rule explains that "[t]he material terms should be disclosed periodically by announcements broadcast on the station conducting the contest, but need not be enumerated each time an announcement promoting the contest is broadcast. Disclosure of material terms in a reasonable number of announcements is sufficient." The challenge for broadcasters has been airing the material terms of each station contest on-air a "reasonable number" of times without driving audiences away.

In the NPRM, the FCC acknowledged that things have changed since 1976, and that the Internet is now "an effective tool for distributing information to broadcast audiences." More than three years ago, Entercom Communications filed a Petition for Rulemaking advancing the notion, among others, that the FCC should let broadcasters use their websites to post contest rules instead of having to announce them over the air. Not surprisingly, the Entercom proposal received a great deal of support and it remains unclear why the FCC waited so long to act on it.

The proposed rule would allow stations to satisfy their disclosure obligations by posting contest terms on the station's Internet website, the licensee's website, or if neither the individual station nor the licensee has its own website, any Internet website that is publicly accessible. Material contest terms disclosed online would have to conform with any mentioned on-air, and any changes to the material terms during the course of the contest would have to be fully disclosed on-air and in the rules as posted on the website.

Comments on the FCC's proposals were due this week and it seems most parties are on the same page as the the FCC; namely, that it is the 21st century and the contest rule should be modernized to keep up with the times. In fact, Entercom in its comments asks the Commission to permit stations to announce contest website information an average of three times per day during a contest as an effective way to announce contest information to to public.

While this is generally good news for broadcasters, there is a catch or two. Under the new rule, stations that choose to disclose their contest rules online would be required to announce on-air that the rules are accessible online, and would also be required to announce the "complete, direct website address where the terms are posted ... each time the station mentions or advertises the contest." For stations that promote (or even mention) their contests frequently, this could become a pain really quickly, for both the station and their audience. Listening to a complete and lengthy URL "each time" anything regarding the contest is uttered on the air will grow old fast. There is a reason you rarely hear an ad that contains more than just the advertiser's domain name, as opposed to the full address for a particular link from that domain. Advertisers know that people will remember a home page domain name much better than a full URL address, and that the full URL address will only cause the audience to tune out, both literally and figuratively.

In light of these concerns, Pillsbury submitted comments this week on behalf of all fifty State Broadcasters Associations urging the Commission to simplify matters by exempting passing on-air references to a contest from any requirement to announce the contest rules' web address. Additionally, rather than require the broadcast of a "complete and direct website address," which is typically a lengthy and easily forgettable string of letters and punctuation, the State Broadcasters Associations' comments urged that the rule only require stations to announce the address of the website's home page, where a link to the contest rules can be found. Those on the Internet understand quite well how to navigate a website, and will have little difficulty locating contest rules, either through a direct link or by using a site's search function.

As Lauren Lynch Flick, the head of Pillsbury's Contests & Sweepstakes practice, noted in a November 2014 post, station contests also must abide by applicable state law requirements. In that vein, the State Broadcasters Associations reminded the Commission that any FCC micro-management of the manner or format of a station's online contest rule disclosures could subject stations to dueling federal and state requirements with no countervailing benefit. As pointed out in her post, an improperly conducted contest can subject a station to far greater liability under consumer protection laws and state and federal gambling laws than the typical $4,000 fine issued by the FCC for a contest violation. As a result, broadcasters need no further incentives to make sure their contests are fairly run and their rules fully disclosed to potential entrants.

In short, the FCC has an opportunity to ease the burden on both broadcasters and their audiences by allowing stations the flexibility to elect to make their contest rule disclosures online. The FCC shouldn't diminish the benefit to be gained by reflexively imposing unnecessary restrictions on that flexibility.

Can a Consumer Give Up the Right to Opt-Out of Robocalls and Texts?

Paul A. Cicelski Lauren Lynch Flick

Posted February 12, 2015

By Lauren Lynch Flick and Paul A. Cicelski

Everyone with a cell phone has probably received an unsolicited telemarketing robocall or text made by a company using an automated dialing system at some point. As we have previously written, a federal statute, the Telephone Consumer Protection Act ("TCPA"), prohibits making any autodialed call or sending a text to mobile phones, except in the case of an emergency or where the called party has provided their consent. And, where the autodialed call is a telemarketing call, that consent must be in writing. Significant fines have been levied against companies that violate the TCPA and related regulations.

Recently, however, there has been considerable debate as to whether a consumer's consent to receive such calls, once given, can be withdrawn, and if so, whether consumers can waive that right so that marketers can continue to contact them despite a request to opt out. Although the TCPA and its implementing regulations give consumers the right to opt in to receiving telemarketing robocalls and texts, they are actually silent as to consumers' ability to later change their minds and revoke that consent or opt out.

The further issue of whether consumers can waive their right to revoke their consent after having given it is discussed in a recent Pillsbury Client Alert by Pillsbury attorneys Catherine D. Meyer, Andrew D. Bluth, Amy L. Pierce and Elaine Lee entitled Stop Calling Me: Can Consumers Waive the Right to Revoke Consent under the TCPA? As the Client Alert points out, while most authorities and courts imply a right under the TCPA to revoke previously given consent, some recent decisions have revolved around whether the consumer can contractually give up that right to revoke.

Because the TCPA's restrictions apply not just to businesses that use autodialers, but to businesses that use telephones capable of autodialing (which, some are arguing at the FCC, include pretty much any smartphone), the answer to this question could affect a large number of businesses and not just telemarketers.

In short, while the permanence of a consumer's consent to be called is now somewhat up in the air, businesses calling consumer cell phones using equipment capable of autodialing need to be knowledgeable about all of the requirements of the TCPA, including whether they have received, and continue to have, a consumer's consent to make that call.

FCC Enforcement Monitor

Scott R. Flick

Posted January 30, 2015

By Scott R. Flick and Jessica Nyman

January 2015

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:

  • Individual fined $25,000 for Unauthorized "Chanting and Heavy Breathing" on Public Safety Station
  • Failure to Timely Request STA Results in $5,000 Fine
  • FCC Imposes $11,500 Fine for Intentional Interference and Station ID Violation

FCC Fired up by a New Yorker's Deliberate Disregard for Public Safety

Earlier this month, the FCC imposed a $25,000 fine against a New York man for operating a radio transmitter without a license and interfering with the licensed radio communications system of the local fire department. Section 301 of the Communications Act provides that "[n]o person shall use or operate any apparatus for the transmission of energy or communications or signals by radio . . . except under and in accordance with [the Act] and with a license." Section 333 of the Act prohibits a person from willfully or maliciously interfering with any radio communications of any station licensed or authorized under the Act or operated by the United States government.

On October 31, 2013, the local fire department complained to the FCC that unauthorized transmissions of chanting and heavy breathing were interfering with its radio communications system. When the transmissions occurred during fire emergencies, the firefighters were forced to switch to an alternate frequency to communicate with each other and with the dispatchers. FCC agents traced the source of the interfering transmissions to an individual's residence--a location for which no authorization had been issued to operate a Private Land Mobile Station. County police officers interviewed the individual and confirmed that one of his portable radios transmitted with the unique identifying code that the fire department observed when the unauthorized transmissions interfered with its communications. The officers subsequently arrested the individual for obstruction of governmental administration.

The FCC found the individual's conduct was particularly egregious because his unlicensed operations hampered firefighting operations and demonstrated a deliberate disregard for public safety and the Commission's authority and rules. Thus, while the FCC's base fines are $10,000 for operation without authorization and $7,000 for interference, the FCC found that an upward adjustment of $8,000 was warranted, leading to the $25,000 fine.

Continue reading "FCC Enforcement Monitor"

FCC Announces May 29, 2015 Licensing Deadline for Spectrum Repacking Protection

Scott R. Flick Paul A. Cicelski

Posted January 28, 2015

By Scott R. Flick and Paul A. Cicelski

In a just released Public Notice, the Media Bureau has designated May 29, 2015, as the Pre-Auction Licensing Deadline. That is the date by which certain full-power and Class A TV stations must have a license application on file with the FCC in order for their modified facilities to be protected in the repacking process following the spectrum incentive auction.

While the FCC earlier concluded that full-power and Class A TV facilities licensed by February 22, 2012 would be protected in the repacking, it envisioned protection of TV facilities licensed after that date in a few specific situations. It is to this latter group that the May 29, 2015 deadline applies. These include:


  • Full-power television facilities authorized by an outstanding channel substitution construction permit for a licensed station, including stations seeking to relocate from Channel 51 pursuant to voluntary relocation agreements with Lower 700 MHz A Block licensees;

  • Modified facilities of full-power and Class A television stations that were authorized by construction permits granted on or before April 5, 2013, the date of the FCC's announcement of a freeze on most television modification applications, or that have been authorized by construction permits that were granted after April 5, 2013, but which fit into one of the announced exceptions to the application freeze; and

  • Class A TV stations' initial digital facilities that were not licensed until after February 22, 2012, including those that were not authorized until after announcement of the modification application freeze.

Today's announcement means that, with the exception of stations affected by the destruction of the World Trade Center, stations in the categories above must complete construction and have a license application on file with the FCC by the May 29, 2015 deadline if they wish to have those facilities protected in the repacking process. According to the Public Notice, licensees affected by the destruction of the World Trade Center may elect to protect either their licensed Empire State Building facilities or a proposed new facility at One World Trade Center as long as that new facility has been applied for and authorized in a construction permit granted by the May 29 deadline.

The Public Notice will inevitably cause some confusion, as it refers in a number of places to having a facility "licensed" by the May 29 deadline (e.g., "We also emphasize that, in order for a Class A digital facility to be afforded protection in the repacking process, it must be licensed by the Pre-Auction Licensing Deadline."). Fortunately for those of us that read footnotes carefully (that's what lawyers do!), the FCC stated in the small print that "[t]he term 'licensed' encompasses both licensed facilities and those subject to a pending license to cover application...."

For those holding TV licenses that are more interested in the spectrum auction than in the repacking of stations afterwards, the Pre-Auction Licensing Deadline is also relevant, as the FCC indicates that "[t]he Pre-Auction Licensing Deadline will also determine which facilities are eligible for voluntary relinquishment of spectrum usage rights in the incentive auction." In other words, to the extent the FCC bases auction payments in part on a selling station's coverage area, the facilities constructed by the Pre-Auction Licensing Deadline (with a license application on file) will be used in making that determination.

Finally, the Public Notice indicates that this is a "last opportunity" for full power and Class A TV stations to modify their licenses to correct errors in their stated operating parameters if they want the FCC to use the correct operating parameters in determining post-auction protection.

So, whether a television station owner is planning on being a seller or a wallflower in the spectrum auction, today's announcement is an important one, and represents one of the FCC's more concrete steps towards holding the world's most complicated auction.

FCC Doesn't Back Down on $1.4 Million in Fines Against Viacom and ESPN for False EAS Tones

Scott R. Flick

Posted January 20, 2015

By Scott R. Flick

I wrote in March of last year that the FCC had proposed fines of $1,120,000 against Viacom, $530,000 against NBCUniversal, and $280,000 against ESPN for airing ads for the movie Olympus Has Fallen that promoted the movie with an EAS alert tone. Seven Viacom cable networks aired the spot a total of 108 times, seven NBCUniversal cable networks aired it a total of 38 times, and ESPN aired it a total of 13 times on three cable networks.

According to the FCC, NBC elected to pay its $530,000 fine shortly thereafter and call it a day, but Viacom and ESPN challenged their respective fines, arguing that the fines should be rescinded or reduced because:

  • as programmers, Viacom and ESPN lacked adequate notice that Section 11.45 of the FCC's Rules (the prohibition on false EAS tones) and Section 325 of the Communications Act (the prohibition on false distress signals) applied to them;

  • the prohibition on false EAS tones does not apply to intermediary program distributors, as opposed to broadcast stations and cable systems that transmit directly to the public;

  • the use of the EAS tone in the ad was not deceptive as it was clear from the context that it was not an actual EAS alert; and

  • Viacom and ESPN did not knowingly violate the prohibition on transmitting false EAS tones.
In an Order released earlier today, the FCC rejected these arguments, noting that Section 325 of the Communications Act and Section 11.45 of the FCC's Rules are not new, and that they apply to all "persons" who transmit false EAS tones, not just to broadcasters and cable/satellite system operators. The FCC found that transmission of the network content to cable and satellite systems for distribution to subscribers constituted "transmission" of false EAS tones sufficient to trigger a violation of the rule. In reaching this conclusion, the FCC noted that both Viacom and ESPN had reviewed the ad before it was aired and had the contractual right to reject an ad that didn't comply with law, but had failed to do so. The FCC also concluded that it was irrelevant whether the use of the EAS tone was deceptive, as the law prohibits any use of the tone except in an actual emergency or test of the system.

In line with many prior FCC enforcement decisions, the FCC found the violations to be "willful" on the grounds that it did not matter whether the parties transmitting the ads knew they were violating a law, only that they intended to air the ads, which neither party disputed. The FCC summed up its position by noting that it "has consistently held that ignorance or mistake of law are not exculpating or mitigating factors when assessing a forfeiture."

While Viacom and ESPN also challenged the sheer size of the fines, the FCC noted that the base fine for false EAS tone violations is $8,000, and that in assessing the appropriate fines here, it took into account "(1) the number of networks over which the transmissions occurred; (2) the number of repetitions (i.e., the number of individual transmissions); (3) the duration of the violation (i.e., the number of days over which the violation occurred); (4) the audience reach of the transmissions (e.g., nationwide, regional, or local); and (5) the extent of the public safety impact (e.g., whether an EAS activation was triggered)." Because there were "multiple violations over multiple days on multiple networks, with the number of transmissions doubled on some networks due to the separate East Coast and West Coast programming feeds," the FCC concluded the size of the fines was appropriate.

In describing more precisely its reasoning for the outsize fines, the FCC's Order stated:

As the rule clearly applies to each transmission, each separate transmission represents a separate violation and Viacom cites no authority to the contrary. Moreover, the vast audience reach of each Company's programming greatly increased the extent and gravity of the violations. Given the public safety implications raised by the transmissions, and for the reasons set forth in the [Notice of Apparent Liability], we find that the instant violations, due to their egregiousness, warrant the upwardly adjusted forfeiture amounts detailed by the Commission.
Finally, to buttress its argument for such large fines, the FCC pulled out its "ability to pay" card, noting the multi-billion dollar revenues of the companies involved and stating that "entities with substantial revenues, such as the Companies, may expect the imposition of forfeitures well above the base amounts in order to deter improper behavior."

While today's Order is not surprising in light of the FCC's increasingly tough treatment of false EAS tone violations since 2010, it is not all bad news for the media community. To the extent that one of more of the Viacom, ESPN or NBCUniversal networks that transmitted the ads is likely carried by nearly every cable system in the U.S., the FCC could have elected to commence enforcement actions and issue fines against each and every system that failed to delete the offending content before transmitting the network programming to subscribers. Pursuing such fines would be expensive for all affected cable and satellite systems, but particularly devastating for smaller cable systems.

While it is always possible that the FCC could still commence such proceedings, it is notable that the FCC specifically rejected Viacom's argument that it was unfair for the FCC to fine the networks while not fining the ad agency that created the ad or the cable and satellite systems that actually delivered the ad to subscribers. It therefore appears that, at least for now, the FCC is content to apply pressure where it thinks it will do the most good in terms of avoiding future violations. Should the FCC decide to broaden its enforcement efforts in the future however, we'll be hearing a lot more about my last post on this subject--ensuring you are contractually indemnified by advertisers for any illegal content in the ads they send you to air.

Comment Dates Set in FCC's Heavily Anticipated MVPD Definition Proceeding

Paul A. Cicelski

Posted January 15, 2015

By Paul A. Cicelski

The press has been abuzz in recent months regarding the launch of various Internet-based video services and the FCC's decision to revisit its current definition of Multichannel Video Programming Distributors (MVPDs). In December, the FCC released a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM), seeking to "modernize" its rules to redefine what constitutes an MVPD. The FCC's proposals would significantly expand the universe of what is considered an "MVPD" to include a wide-variety of Internet-based offerings. Today, the FCC released a Public Notice providing the dates by which parties can provide their own suggestions regarding how to modify the definition of "MVPD". Comments are now due February 17, 2015, with reply comments due March 2, 2015.

The Communications Act currently defines an "MVPD" as an entity who "makes available for purchase, by subscribers or customers, multiple channels of video programming." Specific examples given of current MVPDs under the Act are "a cable operator, a multichannel multipoint distribution service, a direct broadcast satellite service, or a television receive-only satellite program distributor who makes available for purchase, by subscribers or customers, multiple channels of video programming." The Act states, however, that the definition of MVPD is "not limited" to these examples.

Historically, MVPDs have generally been defined as entities that own the distribution system, such as cable and DBS satellite operators, but now the FCC is asking for comments on two new possible interpretations of the term "MVPD." The first would "includ[e] within its scope services that make available for purchase, by subscribers or customers, multiple linear streams of video programming, regardless of the technology used to distribute the programming." The second would hew closer to the traditional definition, and would "require an entity to control a transmission path to qualify as an MVPD". The FCC's is looking for input regarding the impact of adopting either of these proposed definitions.

What all this means is that the FCC is interested in making the definition of "MVPD" more flexible, potentially expanding it to include not just what we think of as traditional cable and satellite services, but also newer distribution technologies, including some types of Internet delivery.

Underscoring its interest in this subject, the FCC asks a wide array of questions in its NPRM regarding the impact of revising the MVPD definition. The result of this proceeding will have far-reaching impact on the video distribution ecosystem, and on almost every party involved in the delivery of at least linear video programming. Consequently, this is an NPRM that will continue to draw much attention and merits special consideration by those wondering where the world of video distribution is headed next.

2015 Off to a Fast Start for Broadcasters' Regulatory Obligations

Scott R. Flick

Posted January 5, 2015

By Scott R. Flick

In what has become an annual holiday tradition going back so far none of us can remember when it started (Pillsbury predates the FCC by 66 years), we released the 2015 Broadcasters' Calendar last week.

While starting a new year is usually jarring, particularly breaking yourself of the habit of dating everything "2014", this new year seems particularly so, as many took last Friday off, making today, January 5th, their first day back at work. For broadcasters, whose fourth quarter regulatory reports need to be in their public inspection files by January 10th, that doesn't leave much time to complete the tasks at hand.

To assist in meeting that deadline, we also released last week our fourth quarter Advisories regarding the FCC-mandated Quarterly Issues/Programs List (for radio and TV) and the Form 398 Quarterly Children's Programming Report (for TV only). Both have not-so-hidden Easter Eggs for Class A TV stations needing to meet their obligation to demonstrate continuing compliance with their Class A obligations, effectively giving you three advisories for the price of two (the price being more strain on your "now a year older" eyes)!

And all that only takes you through January 10th, so you can imagine how many more thrilling regulatory adventures are to be found in the pages of the 2015 Broadcasters' Calendar. Whether it's SoundExchange royalty filings, the upcoming Delaware and Pennsylvania TV license renewal public notices, or any of a variety of FCC EEO reports coming due this year, broadcasters can find the details in the 2015 Broadcasters' Calendar. For those clamoring for an audiobook edition, we're holding out for James Earl Jones. We'll keep you posted on that.

FCC Enforcement Monitor

Scott R. Flick

Posted December 29, 2014

By Scott R. Flick and Jessica Nyman

December 2014

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:

  • Sponsorship Identification Violation Yields $115,000 Civil Penalty
  • $13,000 Increase in Fine Upheld for Deliberate and Continued Operation at Unauthorized Location
  • FCC Reduces $14,000 Fine for EAS and Power Violations Due to Inability to Pay

FCC Adopts Consent Decree Requiring Licensee to Pay $115,000 Civil Penalty

Earlier this month, the FCC's Enforcement Bureau entered into a Consent Decree with a Nevada TV station terminating an investigation into violations of the FCC's sponsorship identification rule.

The FCC's sponsorship identification rule requires broadcast stations to identify the sponsor of content aired whenever any "money, service, or other valuable consideration" is paid or promised to the station for the broadcast. The FCC has explained that the rule is rooted in the idea that the broadcast audience is "entitled to know who seeks to persuade them."

In 2009, the FCC received a complaint alleging that an advertising agency in Las Vegas offered to buy air time for commercials if broadcast stations aired news-like programming about automobile liquidation sales events at dealerships. The FCC investigated the complaint and found that the licensee's TV station accepted payment to air "Special Reports" about the liquidation sales. The "Special Reports" resembled news reports, and featured a station employee playing the role of a television reporter questioning representatives of the dealership about their ongoing sales event.

The licensee acknowledged the applicability of the sponsorship identification rule to the "Special Reports," but asserted that the context made clear their nature as paid advertisements despite the absence of an explicit announcement. The FCC disagreed, contending that the licensee failed to air required sponsorship announcements for twenty-seven "Special Reports" broadcast by the station from May through August of 2009.

As part of the Consent Decree, the licensee admitted to violating the FCC's sponsorship identification rule and agreed to (i) pay a civil penalty of $115,000; (ii) develop and implement a Compliance Plan to prevent future violations; and (iii) file Compliance Reports with the FCC annually for the next three years.

FCC Finds That Corrective Actions and Staffing Problems Do Not Merit Reduction of Fine

The FCC imposed a $25,000 fine against a Colorado radio licensee for operating three studio-transmitter links ("STL") from a location not authorized by their respective FCC licenses.

Section 301 of the Communications Act prohibits the use or operation of any apparatus for the transmission of communications signals by radio, except in accordance with the Act and with a license from the FCC. In addition, Section 1.903(a) of the FCC's Rules requires that stations in the Wireless Radio Services be operated in accordance with the rules applicable to their particular service, and only with a valid FCC authorization.

In August 2012, an agent from the Enforcement Bureau's Denver Office inspected the STL facilities and found they were operating from a location approximately 0.6 miles from their authorized location. The agent concluded--and the licensee did not dispute-- that the STL facilities had been operating at the unauthorized location for five years. A July 2013 follow-up inspection found that the STL facilities continued to operate from the unauthorized location.

Continue reading "FCC Enforcement Monitor"

FCC Proposes Moving Radio, Satellite TV/Radio, and Cable TV Public Files Online

Lauren Lynch Flick

Posted December 19, 2014

By Lauren Lynch Flick

Yesterday, the FCC released a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking proposing that broadcast radio licensees, satellite TV/radio licensees, and cable system operators move the bulk of their public inspection files online. The FCC previously adopted an online public file requirement for broadcast TV, and sees this as the logical next step.

The FCC noted that adoption of the online broadcast TV public file "represent[ed] a significant achievement in the Commission's ongoing effort to modernize disclosure procedures to improve access to public file material." As such, the FCC is proposing the same general approach for transitioning broadcast radio, satellite TV/radio, and cable system operators to an online public file.

Specifically, the FCC proposes to:

  • require entities to upload only documents that are not already on file with the FCC or for which the FCC does not maintain its own database; and


  • exempt existing political file material from the online file requirement and instead require that political file documents be uploaded only on a going-forward basis.
While the FCC indicates it is not generally interested in modifying the content of public inspection files in this proceeding, it does propose some new or modified public inspection file requirements, including:

  • requiring broadcast radio, satellite TV/radio, and cable system operators to post online the location and contact information for their local public file;


  • requiring cable system operators to provide information about the geographic areas they serve; and


  • clarifying the documents required to be kept in the cable public file.
To address online file capacity and technical concerns related to the significant increase in the number of online file users that the proposed expansion will bring, the FCC seeks comment on:

  • whether it should require that only certain components of the public file be moved online;

  • any steps the FCC might take to improve the organization of the online file and facilitate the uploading and downloading of material;

  • the amount of time the FCC should provide entities to upload documents to the online file;

  • whether the FCC should adopt staggered filing dates by service (broadcast radio, satellite radio, satellite TV, and cable);

  • whether to otherwise stagger or alter existing filing deadlines; and

  • any other ways the FCC can improve performance of the online public file database.
With respect to broadcast radio, the proposed online public file rule would require stations to upload all documents required to be in the public file that are not also filed in CDBS (or LMS) or otherwise available at the FCC's website. Just as with the online broadcast TV file, the FCC proposes to exempt letters and emails from the public from being uploaded due to privacy concerns, instead requiring that those documents continue to be maintained in the "paper" local public file.

The FCC "recognize[s] that some radio stations may face financial or other obstacles that could make the transition to an online public file more difficult." In response, the FCC proposes to:

  • begin the transition to an online public file with commercial stations in the top 50 markets that have five or more full-time employees;


  • initially exempt, for two years, non-commercial educational (NCE) radio stations, as well as stations with fewer than five full-time employees from all online public file requirements; and


  • permit exempted stations to voluntarily transition to an online public file early.
The Commission also is seeking comment on:

  • whether it is appropriate to temporarily exempt other categories of radio stations from all online public file requirements, or at least from an online political file requirement;

  • how the FCC should define the category of stations eligible for a temporary exemption;

  • whether the FCC should permanently exempt certain radio stations, such as NCEs and stations with fewer than five full-time employees, from all online public file requirements; and

  • whether the FCC should exclude NCE radio station donor lists from the online public file, thereby treating them differently than NCE TV station donor lists, which must currently be uploaded to the TV online file.
The FCC proposes to treat satellite TV/radio licensees and cable system operators in essentially the same manner as broadcast radio by requiring them to upload only material that is not already on file with the Commission. Because the only document these entities file with the FCC that must be retained in the public inspection file is the EEO program annual report (which the FCC will upload to the file), almost all material required to be kept by these entities in the online file will need to be uploaded.

Comments will be due 30 days after publication of the NPRM in the Federal Register and reply comments will be due 30 days thereafter.

FCC Announces New End Date for JSA Grandfathering

Scott R. Flick

Posted December 11, 2014

By Scott R. Flick

The FCC announced in March of this year that it would begin treating TV Joint Sales Agreements between two local TV stations involving more than 15% of a station's advertising time as an attributable ownership interest. However, it also announced at that time that it would provide parties to existing JSAs two years from the effective date of the new rule to make any necessary modifications to ensure compliance with the FCC's multiple ownership rule. As I wrote in June when the new rule went into effect, that made June 19, 2016 the deadline for addressing any issues with existing JSAs.

However, the STELA Reauthorization Act of 2014 (STELAR) became law on December
4, 2014. While the primary purpose of STELAR was to extend for an additional five years the compulsory copyright license allowing satellite TV providers to import distant network TV signals to their subscribers where no local affiliate is available, as often happens in Congress, a number of unrelated provisions slipped into the bill. One of those provisions extended the JSA grandfathering period by a somewhat imprecise "six months".

Today, the FCC released a Public Notice announcing that it would deem December 19, 2016 to be the new deadline for making any necessary modifications to existing TV JSAs to ensure compliance with the FCC's multiple ownership rule. As a result, in those situations where the treatment of a JSA as an attributable ownership interest would create a violation of the FCC's local ownership limits, the affected broadcaster will need to take whatever steps are necessary to ensure that it has remedied that situation by the December 19, 2016 deadline.

FCC Enforcement Monitor

Scott R. Flick Carly A. Deckelboim

Posted November 25, 2014

By Scott R. Flick and Carly A. Deckelboim

November 2014

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:

  • $7,000 Fine for Late Renewal Application and Unauthorized Operation
  • Missing Wood Planks Around Tower Lead to $5,600 Fine
  • $39,000 Fine Upheld for Hearing Aid Compatibility Violations

Reduced Fine Imposed for Unauthorized Operation and Tardy Renewal Application

Earlier this month, the Audio Division of the FCC's Media Bureau (the "Bureau") issued a Memorandum Opinion and Order and Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture ("NAL") against a Nevada licensee for failing to timely file its license renewal application and for continuing to operate its FM station after its license had expired. The Bureau imposed a fine for the violations and considered the licensee's renewal application at the same time.

Section 301 of the Communications Act provides that "[n]o person shall use or operate any apparatus for the transmission of energy of communications or signals by radio . . . except under and in accordance with this Act and with a license in that behalf granted under the provisions of the Act." Section 73.3539(a) of the FCC's Rules requires that broadcast licensees file applications to renew their licenses "not later than the first day of the fourth full calendar month prior to the expiration date of the license sought to be renewed."

In this case, the licensee's license expired on October 1, 2013, which meant that the licensee was required to file its license renewal application by June 1, 2013. However, the licensee did not file its renewal application until October 18, 2013, almost three weeks after its license expired, even though the Bureau had attempted to contact the licensee in June of 2013 about the impending expiration. In addition to its license renewal application, the licensee also requested Special Temporary Authority on October 18, 2013 to continue operating while its license renewal application was processed.

Continue reading "FCC Enforcement Monitor"

FCC Proposes to Clear Airwaves of Boring Contest Rules, But State Law Issues Remain

Lauren Lynch Flick

Posted November 21, 2014

By Lauren Lynch Flick

At its Open Meeting this morning, the FCC adopted a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to "modernize" its station-conducted contest rule, which was originally adopted in 1976. The proposal would allow broadcasters to post the rules of a contest on any publicly accessible website. Stations would no longer have to broadcast the contest rules if they instead announce the full website address where the rules can be found each time they promote or advertise the contest on-air.

Currently, the FCC's rule requires that broadcasters sponsoring a contest must "fully and accurately disclose the material terms of the contest" and subsequently conduct the contest substantially as announced. A note to the rule explains that "[t]he material terms should be disclosed periodically by announcements broadcast on the station conducting the contest, but need not be enumerated each time an announcement promoting the contest is broadcast. Disclosure of material terms in a reasonable number of announcements is sufficient."

Of course what terms are "material" and what number of announcements is "reasonable" have been open to interpretation. A review of many past issues of Pillsbury's Enforcement Monitor reveals numerous cases where a station was accused of having failed to disclose on-air a material term of a contest, or of deviating from the announced rules in conducting a contest. Even where a station's efforts are ultimately deemed sufficient, the licensee has been put in the delicate position of defending its disclosure practices as "reasonable," which has the effect of accusing a disappointed listener or viewer of being "unreasonable" in having not understood the disclosures made.

Adopting the rule change proposed by the FCC today would simplify a broadcaster's defense of its actions because a written record of what was posted online will be available for the FCC to review. Accordingly, questions about whether the station aired the rules, or aired them enough times for the listener/viewer to understand all the material terms of the contest would be less important from an FCC standpoint. Instead, the listener/viewer will be expected to access the web version of the rules and benefit from the opportunity to review those rules at a more leisurely pace, no longer subjected to a fast-talker recitation of the rules on radio, or squinting at a mouseprint crawl at the bottom of a television screen. While the FCC's willingness to accept online disclosures is certainly welcome, the question of what disclosures must be made in the first instance remains. In fact, the FCC asks in the NPRM whether its rules should dictate a set of "material" terms to be disclosed online.

In our Advertising and Sweepstakes practice, we frequently advise sponsors of contests and sweepstakes on how to conduct legal contests, including the drafting of contest rules and the sufficiency of the sponsor's disclosure of those rules in advertisements. In addition to the FCC's rule requiring disclosure of "material" terms, the consumer protection laws of nearly every state prohibit advertising the availability of a prize in a false or misleading manner. What terms will be "material" and essential to making a disclosure not false or misleading is a very fact-specific issue, and will vary significantly depending on the exact nature of the contest involved. As a result, regardless of whether the FCC dictates a prescribed set of "material" terms to be disclosed, the terms will still have to satisfy state disclosure requirements.

The FCC (with regard to station-conducted contests) and state Attorney Generals (with regard to all contests and sweepstakes) investigate whether contests and sweepstakes have been conducted fairly and in accordance with the advertised rules. These investigations usually arise in response to a consumer complaint that the contest was not conducted in the manner the consumer expected. Many of these investigations can be avoided by: (1) having well-drafted contest rules that anticipate common issues which often arise in administering a contest or sweepstakes, and (2) assuring that statements promoting the contest are consistent with those rules.

While, as Commissioner Pai noted, the public does not generally find contest disclosure statements to be "compelling" listening or viewing, and may well change channels to avoid them, the individual states are going to continue to require adequate public disclosure of contest rules, even if that means continued on-air disclosures. If the FCC's on-air contest disclosure requirements do go away, stations will need to focus on how state law contest requirements affect them before deciding whether they can actually scale back their on-air disclosures.

In fact, while a violation of the FCC's contest disclosure requirements often results in the imposition of a $4,000 fine, an improperly conducted contest can subject the sponsor, whether it be a station or an advertiser, to far more liability under consumer protection laws and state and federal gambling laws. In addition, state laws may impose record retention obligations, require registration and bonding before a contest can commence, or impose a number of other obligations. As promotional contests and sweepstakes continue to proliferate, knowing the ground rules for conducting them is critically important. If the FCC proceeds with its elimination of mandatory on-air contest disclosures for station-conducted contests, it will make broadcasters' lives a little easier, but not by as much as some might anticipate.