FCC Reveals the Details of Its Preemption of Municipal Broadband Restrictions

Posted March 27, 2015

By Scott R. Flick and David Burns

As we posted earlier, the FCC voted at its February meeting to preempt state laws in Tennessee and North Carolina restricting municipalities from providing broadband service. The FCC has now released the text of its Order, and it reveals the expanse of the FCC's concerns, filling in the details as to the types of state law provisions the FCC considers to be barriers to broadband competition and therefore subject to preemption. The Order furnishes critical guidance to other municipalities considering a challenge of laws in their own states. It also informs state legislators as to how they can modify existing state laws to avoid a future confrontation with the FCC.

In the Order, the FCC preempted a Tennessee law prohibiting municipal electric utilities from providing broadband service outside their service areas, and certain restrictions and requirements of a North Carolina law. The FCC did so under its asserted authority pursuant to Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to remove barriers to broadband investment and promote broadband competition. The specific restrictions the FCC found to constitute or contribute to such barriers are summarized below, and the breadth of the FCC's preemption of these restrictions is substantial. As a result, no one should be surprised to see more preemption requests arriving at the FCC.

Tennessee Law

The Tennessee law was fairly straightforward. It prohibited a municipally-owned electric power system from offering internet or video services anywhere outside the geographic footprint in which it provides electric service. The FCC found that this territorial restriction was an explicit barrier to broadband investment and competition, and used its authority under Section 706 to preempt the restriction. This portion of the FCC's decision offers no real surprises, and relies on a fairly basic view of what constitutes a barrier to growth in municipal broadband.

North Carolina Law

Far more interesting is the portion of the Order relating to North Carolina. The North Carolina law was more complex, containing a variety of restrictions and requirements for municipalities wishing to deploy broadband service. The FCC found that, taken in the aggregate, these portions of the law created a barrier to broadband investment and competition, leading the FCC to preempt them. While acknowledging that some of the preempted provisions in the North Carolina law might have been allowed to stand individually, the FCC concluded that the aggregate effect required their preemption. In taking this approach, the FCC left some uncertainly as to which provisions it would have preempted on even a stand-alone basis, but provided very helpful guidance as to both the nature and scope of the FCC's concerns. As the list of provisions preempted by the FCC set forth below indicates, the FCC's view of barriers to municipal broadband growth is quite expansive.

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Indecency Meets Big-Screen TVs: FCC Proposes Mammoth $325K Fine

Scott R. Flick

Posted March 23, 2015

By Scott R. Flick

Whenever we report on FCC indecency decisions, it is always an interesting test of our subscribers' spam filters. I am betting today's FCC enforcement action will trigger more than its share of spam alerts.

In recent years, the FCC has been less active in issuing indecency fines as it struggles to draw a line between permissible and impermissible broadcast content that the courts will support. As a result, it has been relying more heavily on consent decrees, in which the alleged violator agrees to make a payment to the government and institute a compliance program in return for the FCC agreeing to terminate its investigation. By pursuing this path, the FCC avoids having to defend its indecency rules in court, and the alleged violator can sidestep a costly and uncertain appeal process.

Sometimes, however, the FCC channels Justice Potter Stewart in his famous view of obscenity: "I know it when I see it." Today was just such an occasion, where the FCC proposed the maximum statutory fine of $325,000 for a station that appears to have unintentionally crossed the FCC's indecency line.

WDBJ(TV), Roanoke, Virginia, aired a story in its newscast about "a former adult film star who had joined a local volunteer rescue squad." To illustrate the story, the photojournalist preparing the report included a video screen grab of an adult website showing the subject of the report (who was neither nude nor engaged in sexual activity).

In the analog small-screen world of a prior generation, that would have been the end of it. However, living in a big-screen, high definition world, viewers noticed something that the station had missed. According to the FCC, "[t]he website, which was partially displayed along with the video image, is bordered on the right side by boxes showing video clips from other films that do not appear to show the woman who is the subject of the news report."

Unfortunately for the station, one of those boxes showed "a video image of a hand stroking an erect penis." As an aside, the decision is worth reading purely to see the variety of ways the FCC finds to describe this content.

The licensee of the station noted that "the smaller boxes, including the image of the penis, were not visible on the monitors in the Station's editing bay, and therefore, the Station's News Director and other management personnel who had reviewed the story did not see the indecent material prior to the broadcast." It also noted that the video appeared for less than three seconds of the three minute and twenty second story.

The FCC apparently had no trouble seeing it, however, finding that the video met the definition of "indecency" in that it was "material that, in context, depicts or describes sexual or excretory organs or activities in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium." Because the content aired in the newscast at approximately 6pm, the FCC found that it did not fall within the 10pm-6am safe harbor in which indecent material may normally be aired, and therefore merited enforcement action. While the base fine for indecency is $7,000, the FCC found that "the patently offensive depiction of graphic and explicit sexual material obtained by the Station from an adult film website--is extreme and grave enough to warrant a significant increase from the $7,000 base forfeiture amount." Building up steam, the FCC proceeded to throw more adjectives at it, finding that the content was "extremely graphic, lewd and offensive, and this action heightens the gravity of the violation and justifies a higher forfeiture."

In proposing, for the first time ever, the maximum statutory fine of $325,000, the FCC added insult to injury, accusing the station of having a small monitor:

We also consider WDBJ to be sufficiently culpable to support a forfeiture. As discussed above, WDBJ broadcast material obtained from an online video distributor of adult films but failed to take adequate precautions to prevent the broadcast of indecent material when it knew, or should have known, that its editing equipment at the time of the apparent violation did not permit full screen review of material intended for broadcast. In addition, the indecent material was plainly visible to the Station employee who downloaded it; he simply didn't notice it and transmitted it to Station editors who reviewed the story before it was broadcast.

While it's clear the FCC didn't have any qualms in pursuing this particular case, it does raise practical questions for broadcasters in less unusual circumstances. For example, might the FCC find a station airing crowd shots at a live sporting event guilty of willful indecency because its monitoring equipment was not large enough to detect that
a few members of the crowd were being over-enthusiastic in trying to draw the attention of the kiss-cam? Stations in an analog world could usually rely on the low resolution of the medium to solve "background problems" like adult magazines in the background of a bookstore interview. Similarly, small images in a panning shot of the bookstore would be off the screen so quickly that viewers wouldn't notice them or couldn't be sure of what they had seen. In a hi-def world where DVRs make it possible for viewers to replay and analyze video frame by frame, stations must be conscious of every corner of every frame. It's admittedly not an intuitive response at a time when broadcast stations are increasingly focusing on reaching the mobile audience watching tiny screens rather than on big-screen home viewers.

So what should broadcasters take away from this? Well, as station engineers head to the NAB Show in Vegas in a few weeks, they have a great story to tell their General Managers as to why they need to buy newer and bigger 16:9 studio monitors. As for me, media lawyers are often called upon to assess broadcast content for indecency, so I'm polishing my "guess we need a bigger TV" pitch for my wife. She's a communications lawyer; she'll understand.

FCC Releases Text of Net Neutrality Order

Glenn S. Richards

Posted March 12, 2015

By Glenn S. Richards

The FCC today released its much anticipated Open Internet Order. While it will take some time to digest the 313-page decision (though the new rules only total eight pages), here is a brief summary of the highlights:

  • No Blocking. The Order prohibits providers of broadband Internet access services ("broadband services") from blocking lawful content, applications, services, or non-harmful devices, subject to reasonable network management.

  • No Throttling. The Order prohibits providers of broadband services from impairing or degrading lawful Internet traffic on the basis of content, application or service, or use of a non-harmful device, subject to reasonable network management. This includes no degradation of traffic based on source, destination, or content and prohibits singling out content that competes with the broadband provider's business model.
  • No Paid Prioritization. The Order prohibits paid prioritization, which the FCC views as the management of a broadband provider's network to directly or indirectly favor some traffic over other traffic, including through use of techniques such as traffic shaping, prioritization, resource reservation, or other forms of preferential traffic management, either (a) in exchange for consideration (monetary or otherwise) from a third party, or (b) to benefit an affiliated entity.
  • No Unreasonable Interference. The Order also prohibits broadband providers from unreasonably interfering with or unreasonably disadvantaging (i) end users' ability to select, access, and use broadband Internet access service or lawful Internet content, applications, services, or devices of their choice, or (ii) edge providers' ability to make lawful content, applications, services, or devices available to end users. The FCC indicates that reasonable network management will not violate this rule.
  • Reasonable Network Management. The Order defines reasonable network management as follows:
    A network management practice is a practice that has a primarily technical network management justification, but does not include other business practices. A network management practice is reasonable if it is primarily used for and tailored to achieving a legitimate network management purpose, taking into account the particular network architecture and technology of the broadband Internet access service.

  • Enhanced Transparency. The rule adopted in 2010, and upheld on appeal, remains in effect. Specifically, broadband providers must accurately disclose information regarding network management practices, as well as performance and commercial terms sufficient for consumers to make informed choices regarding use of the service. The rule has been enhanced by: adopting a requirement that broadband providers always disclose promotional rates, all fees and/or surcharges, and all data caps or data allowances; adding packet loss as a measure of network performance that must be disclosed; and requiring specific notification to consumers that a "network practice" is likely to significantly affect their use of the service. The FCC granted a temporary exemption from these enhancements for small providers (defined for the purposes of this temporary exception as providers with 100,000 or fewer subscribers), and asked the Consumer & Governmental Affairs Bureau to adopt an Order by December 15, 2015 deciding whether to make the exception permanent and, if so, the appropriate definition of "small".
  • Scope of Rules. The FCC clarified that the rules apply to both fixed and mobile broadband Internet access service. The focus is on the consumer-facing service which that FCC defines as:
    A mass-market retail service by wire or radio that provides the capability to transmit data to and receive data from all or substantially all Internet endpoints, including any capabilities that are incidental to and enable the operation of the communications service, but excluding dial-up Internet access service. This term also encompasses any service that the Commission finds to be providing a functional equivalent of the service described in the previous sentence, or that is used to evade the protections set forth in this Part.

    The definition does not include enterprise services, virtual private network services, hosting, or data storage services. The definition also does include the provision of service to edge providers.

  • Interconnection. Because broadband service is classified as telecommunications, the FCC indicates that commercial arrangements for the exchange of traffic with a broadband provider are within the scope of Title II, and the FCC will be available to hear disputes raised on a case-by-case basis. The Order does not apply the Open Internet rules to interconnection.
  • Enforcement. The FCC may enforce the Open Internet rules through investigation and the processing of complaints (both formal and informal). In addition, the FCC may provide guidance through the use of enforcement advisories and advisory opinions, and it will appoint an ombudsperson on the subject. The Order delegates to the Enforcement Bureau the authority to request a written opinion from an outside technical organization or otherwise to obtain objective advice from industry standard-setting bodies or similar organizations.
  • "Light touch" Title II. While reclassifying broadband services under Title II of the Communications Act, the FCC forbears from applying more than 700 codified rules, including no unbundling of last-mile facilities, no tariffing, no rate regulation, and no cost accounting rules. The FCC also states that reclassification will not result in the imposition of any new federal taxes or fees; the ability of states to impose fees on broadband is already limited by the congressional Internet tax moratorium. The FCC, however, does not forbear from Sections 201 (prohibiting unreasonable practices), 202 (prohibiting unreasonable discrimination), 208 (for filing complaints), Section 222 (protecting consumer privacy), Sections 225/255/251(a)(2) (ensuring access to services by people with disabilities), Section 224 (ensuring access to poles, conduits and attachments), and Section 254 (promoting the deployment and availability of communications networks (including broadband) to all Americans; except that broadband providers are not immediately required to make universal service contributions for broadband services.

The new rules will not go into effect until they have been published in the Federal Register. That publication also starts the clock for parties that want to file petitions for reconsideration or appeals of this decision. With more than 4 million comments filed in the proceeding, you would have to think someone will not be happy with this Order.

New Closed Captioning Rules Take Effect Monday, March 16

Posted March 12, 2015

By Jessica Nyman

As Pillsbury's 2015 Broadcasters' Calendar indicates, new rules relating to closed captioning go into effect on March 16, 2015. The FCC adopted these rules in its February 24, 2014 Closed Captioning Quality Order . They generally concern a station's "quality control" over its program captioning.

As a quick refresher, the Order adopted closed caption quality standards and technical compliance rules to ensure video programming is fully accessible to individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing. In April 2014, the FCC announced a series of effective dates for the requirements in the Order, and in December 2014, it extended a January 15, 2015 deadline for compliance with certain rules to March 16, 2015. The requirements that will go into effect on March 16, 2015 include:

Continue reading "New Closed Captioning Rules Take Effect Monday, March 16"

An Epitaph for Aereo

Scott R. Flick

Posted March 4, 2015

By Scott R. Flick

For a company that could always punch well above its weight in drawing press coverage, Aereo's sale of its assets in bankruptcy last week drew surprisingly little coverage.

Less than a month before last year's Supreme Court decision finding that Aereo's retransmission of broadcast TV signals over the Internet constituted copyright infringement, a Forbes article discussing Aereo's prospects in court noted the company had "a putative valuation of $800 million or so (that could vault up if Aereo wins)." The article went on to note that "It's a tidy business, too, bringing in an estimated $40 million while reaping 77% gross margins ...."

Aereo made its case before a variety of judges and in the court of public opinion that it was an innovative tech company, with a growing patent portfolio and cutting edge technology. When broadcasters argued that Aereo was merely retransmitting broadcast programming to subscribers for a fee without paying copyright holders, Aereo doubled down, arguing before the Supreme Court that it was at the vanguard of cloud computing, and that a decision adverse to Aereo would devastate the world of cloud computing. In a blog post published the day Aereo filed its response brief at the Court, Aereo CEO Chet Kanojia wrote:

If the broadcasters succeed, the consequences to American consumers and the cloud industry are chilling.

The long-standing landmark Second Circuit decision in Cablevision has served as a crucial underpinning to the cloud computing and cloud storage industry. The broadcasters have made clear they are using Aereo as a proxy to attack Cablevision itself. A decision against Aereo would upend and cripple the entire cloud industry.

So Aereo's narrative heading into the Supreme Court was clear: Aereo is a cutting edge technology company that is not in the content business, and a prototypical representative of the cloud computing industry in that industry's first encounter with the Supreme Court.

As CommLawCenter readers know, the Supreme Court rejected that narrative, finding that a principal feature of Aereo's business model was copyright infringement, and the Court saw little difficultly in separating Aereo's activities from that of members of the public storing their own content in the cloud.

The results of Aereo's asset sale reveal much about the accuracy of the Supreme Court's conclusions, and about the true nature of Aereo itself. The value of Aereo's cutting edge technology, patent portfolio, trademark rights, and equipment when sold at auction fell a bit short of last year's $800 million valuation. How much was Aereo worth without broadcast content? As it turns out, a little over $1.5 million. But even that number apparently overstates the value of Aereo's technology as represented by its patent portfolio.

Tivo bought the Aereo trademark, domain names, and customer lists for $1 million, apparently as part of its return to selling broadcast DVRs. Another buyer paid approximately $300,000 for 8,200 slightly-used hard drives.

And the value of the Aereo patent portfolio? $225,000.

To add insult to injury, the patent portfolio was not purchased by a technology company looking to utilize the patents for any Internet video venture. The buyer was RPX, a "patent risk solutions" company. The World Intellectual Property Review quoted an RPX spokesman regarding the purchase, who stated that "RPX is constantly evaluating ways to clear risk on behalf of its more than 200 members. The Aereo bankruptcy afforded RPX a unique opportunity to quickly and decisively remove risk in the media and technology sectors, thus providing another example of the clearinghouse approach at work."

In other words, the Aereo patent portfolio was purchased for its nuisance value, which, having lost the ability to resell broadcast programming, turned out to be all the value Aereo had.

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.