Articles Posted in Telecommunications

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

Headlines:

  • Spoofed Calls Lead to Multiple $25,000 Fines and Ongoing Criminal Case
  • Amateur Radio Licensee Fined $25,000 for Intentional Interference
  • Failure to Timely Request STA Results in $5,000 Fine and Shortened License Term

Spoofing’s No Joke: Two Men Face $25,000 Fine Each for Harassing Phone Call Scheme

The FCC proposed to fine two New York men for apparently using false caller ID numbers – a practice commonly known as “spoofing” – to place harassing phone calls to the ex-wife of one of the men.

The Truth in Caller ID Act of 2009, as codified in Section 227(e) of the Communications Act and Section 64.1604 of the FCC’s Rules, prohibits any person, in connection with any telecommunications service or IP-enabled voice service, to knowingly cause, directly or indirectly, any caller ID service to transmit or display misleading or inaccurate caller ID information with the intent to defraud, cause harm, or wrongfully obtain anything of value.

In September 2015, the National Network to End Domestic Violence contacted the FCC on behalf of one of their clients and explained that someone was using spoofing services to stalk and harass her. The FCC subsequently opened an investigation into the matter.

Using information and call logs provided by the woman, the investigation found that between May 2015 and September 2015, 31 harassing phone calls were made. It found that the callers used a spoofing service provider to make the woman believe she was answering calls from sources such as local jails and prisons, the school district where her child attends school, and her parents’ home. In addition, it found that the callers used a voice modulation feature of the spoofing service to disguise their voices, and conveyed threatening and bizarre messages. For example, calls that spoofed the caller ID information of Sing Sing correctional facility threatened “we are waiting for you.” Other calls referenced personal information specific to the woman and her minor child.

FCC staff subpoenaed call records for the cell phone of a friend of the woman’s ex-husband after the woman told staff that she believed her ex-husband – against whom she had a restraining order during the time period in question – and his close friend were behind the calls. The woman explained to FCC staff that for some of the calls she had used a third-party “unmasking” service to reveal that the true caller ID was that of her ex-husband’s friend, with whom she had no independent relationship. The call records showed that each time the friend called the spoofing service, the woman received a spoofed call. The parent company of the spoofing service confirmed that the friend used its service to make spoofed calls to the woman.

The FCC also found that the ex-husband was directly involved in at least some of the calls. For example, the FCC found that the friend made a spoofed call moments after he was called by the ex-husband, and while he was still on the phone with the ex-husband. The FCC explained that the fact that the ex-husband “did not dial the spoofed calls himself does not absolve him of liability for the harassment and stalking of his ex-wife.”

The Communications Act and the FCC’s Rules authorize a fine of up to $10,000 for each spoofing violation, or three times that amount for each day of a continuing violation, up to a statutory maximum of $1,025,000. The FCC may adjust a fine upward or downward depending on the circumstances of the violation. Citing the “egregious” nature of the violation, the FCC proposed to fine the ex-husband and the friend $25,000 each. The friend was also arrested and charged with stalking and aggravated harassment after the woman filed a complaint with local police.

Haters Gonna Hate: Amateur Radio Licensee Fined $25,000 for Racial Slur-Filled Interference

A California amateur radio licensee received a $25,000 fine from the FCC for intentionally interfering with the transmissions of other amateurs radio operators and transmitting prohibited communications, including music.

Section 333 of the Communications Act states that “[n]o person shall willfully or maliciously interfere with or cause interference to any radio communications of any stations licensed or authorized by or under the Act or operated by the United States Government.” Similarly, Section 97.101(d) of the FCC’s Rules states that “[n]o amateur operator shall willfully or maliciously interfere with or cause interference to any radio communication or signal.” In addition, Section 97.113(a)(4) of the Rules states that “[n]o amateur station shall transmit . . . [m]usic using a phone emission except as specifically provided elsewhere in this section.”

After receiving multiple complaints of interference, primarily from the Western Amateur Radio Friendship Association (“WARFA”), FCC field agents, with assistance from the FCC’s High Frequency Direction Finding (“HFDF”) Center, conducted investigations to find the source of the interference. On August 25 and 27, 2015, between 7:45 p.m. and 9:45 p.m., the agents observed at least 12 instances of the licensee intentionally transmitting on top of, and interrupting, WARFA amateurs. The interruptions lasted from 30 seconds to at least 4 minutes, and included noises, recordings, music, and talking over WARFA users. The transmissions included racial, ethnic, and sexual slurs. The licensee ended his transmissions each night when WARFA members ended their transmissions.

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

Headlines:

  • FCC Enforcement Bureau and Long-Distance Provider Agree to $100,000 Settlement for Violations of FCC’s Rural Call Completion Rules
  • FCC Cancels $3,000 Fine Against TV Licensee for Untimely Kidvid Filings, Upholds $10,000 Fine for Missing Issues/Programs Lists
  • FM Construction Permit Auction Winner Fined $3,000 For Late Application

Dropped Call of the Wild: Investigation of Rural Call Problems Ends With $100,000 Consent Decree

The FCC’s Enforcement Bureau entered into a Consent Decree with a Utah-based long distance carrier to resolve an investigation into whether the carrier failed to sufficiently respond to a rural customer’s complaints of poor call quality and failed to cooperate with the FCC’s resulting investigation.

The FCC has adopted several “Rural Call Completion Rules” in recent years to address poor call quality and call completion problems in rural and other high-cost areas. The Commission clarified in a 2012 declaratory ruling that a carrier violates Section 201 of the Communications Act of 1934 when it knows or should know that calls are not being completed to certain areas and fails to correct the problem or fails to ensure that its intermediate providers correct the problem.

The FCC has also determined that practices that allow lower quality service to rural or traditionally high-cost areas to persist constitute unjust or unreasonable discrimination (based on locality) in violation of Section 202 of the Communications Act. Further, the FCC has interpreted Section 208 of the Act and Section 1.717 of the Commission’s Rules to require that a carrier satisfy (or adequately explain why it cannot satisfy) any informal rural call completion complaints.

In December 2014, a consumer filed an informal complaint with the FCC detailing ongoing problems with receiving work calls. The calls were sent over the carrier’s long distance network to the consumer’s home office, which is served by an intermediate rural local exchange carrier. The carrier investigated the matter and explained in its response to the informal complaint that (1) the consumer had not responded to a follow-up email about the complaint, and (2) the consumer was not its customer.

The carrier took action in March 2015—after the FCC reminded the carrier of its obligations to address rural call quality problems—but the problem recurred. The consumer subsequently filed additional complaints alleging continued call problems in May and June of 2015. Finding that the carrier failed to sufficiently address and resolve the call quality problems with its intermediate provider until late July 2015, the FCC issued a Letter of Inquiry to the carrier and opened an investigation.

To settle the matter, the carrier entered into a Consent Decree with the FCC, wherein the carrier: (1) admitted that it failed to ensure call quality from its intermediate providers and that it did not cooperate with the FCC’s investigation; (2) agreed to pay a $100,000 civil penalty; and (3) agreed to implement a compliance plan going forward. As part of the plan, the carrier must establish operating procedures and training on the Rural Call Completion Rules, and file regular compliance reports with the FCC during the three-year compliance period.

Island Jam: Guam TV Station Successfully Appeals Proposed Fine for Late Kidvid Reports, But Remains on the Hook for Issues/Programs List Violations

The FCC’s Media Bureau cancelled a proposed $3,000 fine against a Guam TV licensee for failing to timely file five Children’s Television Programming Reports, but upheld a $10,000 fine against the licensee for failing to place fifteen Quarterly Issues/Programs Lists in the station’s public inspection file. The FCC also admonished the licensee for its failure to upload copies of its Quarterly Issues/Programs Lists that were in the station’s local file prior to August 2, 2012.

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In a long-anticipated move towards commencement of the spectrum auction, the FCC today released a Public Notice and related Appendix providing an initial clearing target of 126 Megahertz of spectrum in what is currently the broadcast television band. The 126 MHz figure represents the targeted amount of spectrum to be repurposed from broadcast television to mobile wireless uses.  The FCC also announced that bidding in the reverse auction will commence on May 31, 2016.

The 126 MHz target is the highest the FCC was contemplating, and indicates that a large number of television stations have chosen to participate in the auction.  By setting a high clearing target, the FCC is maximizing the amount of broadcast spectrum purchased, but increasing the risk that if there is insufficient interest in the forward auction for this amount of spectrum (at the prices the FCC needs to pay selling broadcasters and cover other costs), the auction may have to be redone with a lower clearing target.

In the forward auction, the FCC will offer 10 paired blocks of spectrum, each block comprised of 10 MHz, to mobile wireless bidders.  The remaining 26 MHz of spectrum to be cleared will be used for guard band and duplex gap purposes; i.e., to protect adjacent users from interference.  If the auction is completed with the 126 MHz clearing target, the post-auction television broadcast band will consist of VHF channels 2-13 and UHF channels 14-29.  The process of repacking stations into channels 2-29 would commence following completion of the auction, and is estimated by the FCC to take approximately three years, although many have questioned whether that is sufficient time for the repack.

With the release of the clearing target information, the FCC has locked in all of the following dates for auction-related events:

May 4, 2016, noon:  Date by which each television broadcast licensee that made an initial commitment in the reverse auction must receive a third confidential status letter from the FCC.  That letter will inform the applicant whether its station(s) will be qualified to participate in the reverse auction.  Applicants who have not received this letter by noon (Eastern Time) on May 4 should contact the FCC Auctions Hotline at (717)338-2868.

May 5, 2016: FCC Incentive Auction Reverse Auction Bidding System User Guide available on Auctions webpage.

May 18, 2016:  Online Bidding Tutorial available on Auctions webpage.

May 23, 2016, 10 a.m.:  Bidding Preview Period begins.

May 24, 2016, 10 a.m.:  Clock Phase Workshop.

May 24, 2016, 6 p.m.:  Bidding Review Period ends.

May 25, 2016, 10 a.m.:  Mock Auction Bidding Round 1.  Additional Mock Auction Rounds occur throughout May 25 and May 26.

May 31, 2016:  Bidding in the reverse auction commences for qualified applicants, with a single round of bidding on May 31 and June 1, and two rounds per day starting on June 2.

While it is unclear how many rounds of bidding will be required before the auction closes, or whether the 126 MHz target might lead to a repeat of the reverse auction, today’s news brings a palpable sense that the auction has really begun.  How successful the auction will be for broadcasters, mobile wireless companies, and the FCC will be a developing story.  Stay tuned for more updates.

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In a recently issued Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, the FCC asked for comments on proposed rules that would apply the traditional privacy requirements of the Communications Act to providers of broadband Internet access services. This proceeding is an outgrowth of the FCC’s decision last year in the Open Internet Order to reclassify broadband as a telecommunications service, subject to certain requirements under Title II of the Communications Act.  Specifically, Section 222 of the Act imposes privacy obligations on telecommunications carriers and, in this proceeding, the FCC is considering whether to apply those rules, or other rules that might be more applicable to protect consumers, to providers of Internet access services.

The proposed rules focus on transparency, choice and data security. According to the FCC, adoption of the rules will ensure that consumers (i) have the information needed to understand what data broadband providers are collecting and what they do with that information, (ii) can decide how their information is used, and (iii) are protected against the unauthorized disclosure of their information.

  • Transparency. The FCC expects that broadband providers’ privacy policies would include disclosure of what information they collect and for what purpose, what information is shared and with whom, and how consumers can opt in or out of use and sharing of their personal information.
  • Choice. The proposed rules allow the use of personal information as needed to provide broadband services and for other purposes that make sense within the context of the service provider-customer relationship. They also allow service providers to use customer personal information to market other communications services unless the consumer opts out of such usage, but require specific opt-in approval from customers before broadband providers can share customer information with third parties that do not offer communications services.  The proposed rules include mechanisms to document customer opt-in and opt-out choices and provisions on how to notify customers of privacy policies.
  • Data Security. Broadband providers would be required to ensure the security, confidentiality and integrity of any customer information they receive. This would include requirements for regular risk management assessments and training of employees that handle customer information.   The NPRM also proposes to require broadband providers to notify affected customers within ten days of the discovery of a data breach that triggers customer notification requirements, and seeks comment on whether broadband providers should also notify customers after discovery of conduct that could reasonably be tied to a breach.  Further, the NPRM proposes to require broadband providers to notify the FCC of all data breaches, and to notify other federal law enforcement of breaches that impact more than 5,000 customers.  The NPRM proposes to require notification to federal law enforcement within seven days of discovery of such a breach, and three days before notification to the customer, and would allow law enforcement to seek delay of customer notification.  Broadband providers would be required to keep records of any data breaches and notifications for a minimum of two years.

The FCC suggested that it broadly wants to protect personally identifiable information, which, in the broadband context, would include any information that is linked or linkable to an individual and is acquired by the service provider in connection with its provision of broadband services. This could include:  (1) service plan information, including type of service (e.g., cable, fiber, or mobile), service tier (e.g., speed), pricing, and capacity (e.g., information pertaining to data caps); (2) geo-location; (3) media access control (MAC) addresses and other device identifiers; (4) source and destination Internet Protocol (IP) addresses and domain name information; and (5) traffic statistics.  The FCC seeks comments on whether other types of information should also be protected, including port information, application headers, application usage and customer equipment information.

The FCC acknowledged that there are existing state privacy laws that could overlap with the proposed rules. To resolve any conflicts, the proposed rules would preempt state laws that were inconsistent with the FCC’s rules—with the FCC making preemption determinations on a case-by-case basis.  In addition, the rules would prohibit broadband providers from conditioning the offering of service, or the continuation of services, on a customer’s agreement to waive privacy rights guaranteed by law or regulation.

The proposed rules, like the Open Internet Order itself, drew dissents from Republican Commissioners Pai and O’Rielly.  They question the FCC’s jurisdiction to regulate Internet service providers, suggest that the Federal Trade Commission has established standards and precedents to protect consumer privacy, and question whether any rules can be effective that are not also applied to edge and content providers, such as Netflix and Twitter. The Open Internet Order is currently being appealed in the United States Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit, and a decision is expected within the next three months.

Comments on the proposed rules are due May 27, 2016.  Reply Comments are due June 27, 2016.

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November 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 Admonishes TV Licensee for Prior Station Owner’s Failure to Timely File Children’s Television Programming Reports
  • Inadequate Antenna Fencing and Signage Result in Proposed Fines of $60,000 and $25,000 for Two Broadband-PCS Licensees
  • Cable Company Settles Data Breach Investigation for $595,000

You Can’t Leave Your Troubles Behind: FCC Clarifies That Prior Violations Transfer Along with TV Station

The FCC’s Video Division admonished a New York TV licensee whose station failed to file Children’s Television Programming Reports in a timely manner for thirteen quarters between 2006 and 2010. The licensee acquired control of the station through a long-form transfer of control consummated in September 2010.

Section 73.3526 of the FCC’s Rules requires each commercial broadcast licensee to maintain a public inspection file containing specific information related to station operations. Subsection 73.3526(e)(11)(iii) requires TV licensees to prepare and place in their public inspection files a Children’s Television Programming Report for each calendar quarter showing, among other things, the efforts made during that three-month period to serve the educational and informational needs of children.

In 2011, the FCC sent a letter to the licensee requesting that the licensee provide information concerning missing Children’s Television Programming Reports between 2006 and 2010. In response, the licensee explained that some of the missing reports had actually been filed under a “–FM” call sign, instead of the licensee’s “–CA” call sign, and admitted that the others had not been filed. The FCC later notified the licensee’s counsel that it had concluded its investigation into the Children’s Television Reports at issue in its 2011 letter, and did not impose a fine or other penalty for the violations at that time.

The violations resurfaced, however, after the station’s license renewal application filing in 2015 triggered an FCC review of the station’s online public inspection file. The FCC issued a Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture to the licensee, proposing a $15,000 fine for its failure to timely file the 2006-2010 Children’s Television Programming Reports. The licensee argued that (i) the FCC had previously investigated the station’s public file and deemed it in compliance, and (ii) the licensee was not responsible for untimely report violations of the station’s prior owner, noting “existing regulations and a consistent line of published decisions and notices” to that effect. In particular, the licensee cited Section 73.3526(d) of the FCC’s Rules, which provides that “[i]f the assignment is consented to by the FCC and consummated, the assignee shall maintain the file commencing with the date on which notice of the consummation of the assignment is filed with the FCC.”

As even the licensee acknowledged, however, “assignments and transfers are dealt with in separate sub-sections of the rule, and the language about the limited responsibility of a new owner appears only in the assignment subsection.” On that basis, the FCC rejected the licensee’s argument, explaining that “[b]ecause the Licensee remains the same after a transfer of control, as a legal matter, liability remains with the licensee.”

Nevertheless, the FCC concluded that the licensee “had reason to believe it was in compliance at the time it submitted its license renewal application because it had filed previously missing reports in 2011 and 2013.” It therefore exercised its discretion to cancel the proposed fine and instead issue an admonishment. The FCC warned, however, that it would not rule out more severe sanctions for similar violations in the future, noting that the FCC takes the timely filing of Children’s Television Programming Reports “very seriously.”

Broadband-PCS Licensees Face Fines for Exposing the Public to Excessive Radiofrequency Levels

The FCC’s Enforcement Bureau proposed $60,000 and $25,000 fines against two broadband-PCS licensees for inadequate warning signs and fencing surrounding certain antennas in Phoenix, resulting in unprotected areas that exceeded what is permissible radiofrequency (“RF”) exposure for the general public. The violations were discovered on the same day as a result of a complaint from the owner of a nearby office building. Continue reading →

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October 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:

  • Time Brokerage Agreement Costs Station and Broker/Buyer $10,000
  • Telecom Provider Agrees to Pay $620,500 to Resolve Investigation of Cell Tower Registration and Lighting Violations
  • FCC Admonishes TV Station Licensee for Failing to Upload Past Issues/Programs Lists to Online Public Inspection File

Brokering Bad: Non-Compliant Time Brokerage Agreement Ends With $10,000 Consent Decree

The FCC’s Media Bureau entered into a Consent Decree with a North Carolina noncommercial educational FM broadcast licensee and a company seeking to acquire the station’s license. The decree resolved an investigation into whether the licensee violated the FCC’s Rules by receiving improper payments from, and ceding control of key station responsibilities to, the proposed buyer.

Under Section 73.503(c) of the FCC’s Rules, a noncommercial educational FM broadcast station may broadcast programs produced by, or whose creation was paid for by, other parties. However, the station can receive compensation from the other party only in the form of the radio program itself and costs incidental to the program’s production and broadcast.

In addition, the FCC requires a station licensee to staff its main studio with at least two employees, one of whom must be a manager (the “main studio rule”). The FCC has clarified that, while a licensee may delegate some functions to an agent or employee on a day-to-day basis, “ultimate responsibility for essential station matters, such as personnel, programming and finances, is nondelegable.”

In March 2013, the station licensee and the company jointly filed an application to assign the station’s license to the company, which had been brokering time on the station for a number of years. The application included a copy of the Time Brokerage Agreement (“TBA”) the parties executed in 2003. In return for airing the broker’s programming, the TBA provided for a series of escalating payments to the station, including initial monthly payments of $6,750 for the first year of the TBA, increasing to $8,614 per month in 2008, and then increasing five percent per year thereafter.

Upon investigating the TBA, the FCC found that the payments were unrelated to “costs incidental to the program’s production and broadcast.” Additionally, the FCC concluded that the TBA violated the main studio rule and resulted in an improper transfer of control of the station license by improperly delegating staffing responsibilities to the broker.

To resolve the investigation into these violations, the licensee and the broker/buyer agreed to jointly pay a $10,000 fine. In exchange, the FCC agreed to grant their assignment application provided that the following conditions are met: (1) full and timely payment of the fine; and (2) “there are no issues other than the Violations that would preclude grant of the Application.”

Telecommunications Provider Settles FCC Investigation of Unregistered and Unlit Cell Towers for $620,500

An Alaskan telecommunications provider entered into a Consent Decree with the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau to resolve an investigation into whether the provider failed to properly register and light its cell towers in violation of the FCC’s Rules. With few exceptions, Section 17.4(a) of the FCC’s Rules requires cell tower owners to register their towers in the FCC’s Antenna Structure Registration (“ASR”) system. In addition, Section 17.21(a) requires that cell towers be lit where their height may pose an obstruction to air traffic, such as towers taller than 200 feet and towers in the flight path of an airport. The FCC’s antenna structure registration and lighting rules operate in conjunction with Federal Aviation Administration regulations to ensure cell towers do not pose hazards to air traffic.

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June 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:

  • Educational FM Licensee Receives $8,000 Fine for Unauthorized Operation
  • FCC Cancels $6,000 Fine for Late Filings due to Licensee’s Inability to Pay
  • Blaming Prior Legal Counsel, Telecommunications Provider Pays $2,000,000 Civil Penalty

Continued Unauthorized Operation Leads to $8,000 Fine

A New York noncommercial educational radio station received an $8,000 fine after repeatedly failing to operate its station in accordance with its authorization. Section 301 of the Communications Act prohibits the use or operation of any apparatus for the transmission of communications or signals by radio, except in accordance with the Act and with a license granted by the FCC. In addition, Section 73.1350(a) of the FCC’s Rules requires a licensee to maintain and operate its broadcast station in accordance with the terms of the station authorization.

In response to a complaint, an FCC agent discovered in October of 2012 that the licensee was operating the station from a transmitter site in Buffalo, New York, a location about 36 miles from the authorized site. The FCC made repeated attempts to contact the licensee. Ultimately, the president of the licensee confirmed the unauthorized operation and agreed to cease operating from Buffalo. The FCC then issued a Notice of Unlicensed Operation to the licensee, warning it that future unauthorized operations could result in monetary penalties.

After receiving another complaint, the FCC determined that the licensee had resumed unauthorized operation in November of 2012. In response, the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau issued a Notice of Apparent Liability (NAL) proposing an $8,000 fine. The FCC explained in the NAL that although the base fine for operating at an unauthorized location is $4,000, the egregiousness of the licensee’s violation warranted an upward adjustment of an additional $4,000. The FCC based this decision on the fact that the licensee had moved the location of its transmitter to a significantly more populous area more than 30 miles from its authorized location in an effort to increase the station’s audience while potentially causing economic or competitive harm to radio stations licensed to that community.

Following the NAL, the licensee sought a reduction or cancellation of the fine, claiming that it made good faith efforts to remedy the violation, had a history of compliance with the FCC’s Rules, and was unable to pay the fine. The FCC concluded that the licensee took no remedial actions until after it was notified of the violation, and found that the licensee’s continued operation from the unauthorized location after receiving a Notice of Unlicensed Operation demonstrated a deliberate disregard for the FCC’s Rules. Finally, the licensee failed to provide any documentation supporting its inability to pay claim. Accordingly, the FCC rejected the licensee’s arguments and declined to cancel or reduce the $8,000 fine.

In Rare Decision, FCC Cancels Fine Based on Station’s Operating Losses

In October of 2014, the FCC’s Video Division proposed a $16,000 fine against the licensee of a Class A TV station for violating (i) Section 73.3539(a) of the FCC’s Rules by failing to timely file its license renewal application, (ii) Section 73.3526(11)(iii) for failing to timely file its Children’s Television Programming Reports for eight quarters, (iii) Section 73.3514(a) for failing to report those late filings in its license renewal application, and (iv) Section 73.3615(a) for failing to timely file its 2011 biennial ownership report. The FCC also noted a violation of Section 301 of the Communications Act because the station continued operating after its authorization expired. Continue reading →

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May 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:

  • 404 Not Found: Missing Online Public File Documents Lead to $9,000 Fine
  • Wireless Providers Pay $158 Million to Settle Mobile Cramming Violations
  • Failure to Timely File License Renewal Application Results in $1,500 Fine

FCC Ramps up Enforcement of Online Public File Rule with $9,000 Fine and Multiple Admonishments

This month, the FCC proposed a $9,000 fine against one TV station licensee and admonished two others for violating the online public file rule. TV stations were required to upload new public file documents to the online public file on a going-forward basis beginning August 2, 2012, and should have finished uploading existing public file documents (with certain exceptions) by February 4, 2013. Until now, the FCC had taken relatively few enforcement actions against licensees for public file documents that exist but haven’t been uploaded to the station’s online public file, making three cases in one month stand out.

Section 73.3526(e)(11)(i) of the FCC’s Rules requires that every commercial TV licensee place in its public file, on a quarterly basis, an Issues/Programs List that details programs that have provided the station’s most significant treatment of community issues during the preceding quarter. Section 73.3526(b)(2), which the FCC modified in 2012, requires TV station licensees to upload these and most other public file documents to the FCC-hosted online public file website.

On October 1, 2014, an Oregon TV licensee filed its license renewal application. An FCC staff inspection revealed that the licensee failed to upload to the online public file copies of its Issues/Programs Lists for its entire license term. The FCC concluded that the licensee missed both the August 2, 2012 and the February 4, 2013 deadlines by over two years, resulting in two separate violations. Additionally, the licensee did not disclose the online file violations in its license renewal application, creating an additional violation of the FCC’s Rules. Each violation cost the station $3,000, for a total proposed fine of $9,000.

Also this month, a Honolulu licensee and a different Oregon licensee caught the FCC’s attention for online public file violations. The FCC proposed fines of $9,000 and $3,000 respectively against the stations for failing to timely file all of their Children’s Television Programming Reports. In addition, the FCC admonished both licensees for failing to timely upload electronic copies of their quarterly Issues/Programs Lists by the February 4, 2013 deadline. The FCC determined that while the licensees uploaded the documents approximately 18-19 months late, they were at least uploaded prior to the filing of each station’s license renewal application. Because this preserved the public’s ability to undertake a full review of the stations’ public file documents in connection with potentially filing a petition to deny, the FCC concluded that admonitions rather than additional fines were an appropriate response.

FCC Continues Crack Down on Cramming Violations With Two Multi-Million Dollar Settlements

The FCC announced this month that, in coordination with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the attorneys general of all 50 states and D.C., it has reached settlements with two large wireless carriers to resolve allegations that the companies charged customers for unauthorized third-party products and services, a practice known as “cramming.” Investigations revealed that the companies had included charges ranging from $0.99 to $14.00 per month for unauthorized third-party Premium Short Message Services (“PSMS”) on their customers’ telephone bills, and that the companies retained approximately 30-35% of the revenues for each PSMS charge they billed. Continue reading →

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April 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 Scuttles New York Pirate Radio Operator and Proposes $20,000 Fine
  • Failure to Properly Identify Children’s Programming Results in $3,000 Fine
  • Telecommunications Carrier Consents to Pay $16 Million To Resolve 911 Outage Investigation

Fire in the Hole: FCC Proposes $20,000 Fine Against Pirate Radio Operator

This month, the FCC proposed a fine of $20,000 against an individual in Queens, NY for operating a pirate FM radio station. Section 301 of the Communications Act prohibits the unlicensed use or operation of any apparatus for the transmission of communications or signals by radio. Pirate radio operations can interfere with and pose illegal competitive harm to licensed broadcasters, and impede the FCC’s ability to manage radio spectrum.

The FCC sent several warning shots across the bow of the operator, noting that pirate radio broadcasts are illegal. None, however, deterred the individual from continuing to operate his unlicensed station. On May 29, 2014, agents from the Enforcement Bureau’s New York Office responded to complaints of unauthorized operations and traced the source of radio transmissions to an apartment building in Queens. The agents spoke with the landlord, who identified the man that set the equipment up in the building’s basement. According to FCC records, no authorization had been issued to the man, or anyone else, to operate an FM broadcast station at or near the building. After the man admitted that he owned and installed the equipment, the agents issued a Notice of Unlicensed Operation and verbally warned him to cease operations or face significant fines. The man did not respond to the notice.

Not long after, on January 13, 2015, New York agents responded to additional complaints of unlicensed operations on the same frequency and traced the source of the transmissions to another multi-family dwelling in Queens. The agents heard the station playing advertisements and identifying itself with the same name the man had used during his previous unlicensed operations. Again, the agents issued a Notice of Unlicensed Operation and ordered the man to cease operations, and again he did not respond.

The FCC therefore concluded it had sufficient evidence that the man willfully and repeatedly violated Section 301 of the Communications Act, and that his unauthorized operation of a pirate FM station warranted a significant fine. The FCC’s Rules establish a base fine of $10,000 for unlicensed operation of a radio station, but because the man had ignored multiple warnings, the FCC doubled the base amount, resulting in a proposed fine of $20,000.

FCC Rejects Licensee’s Improper “E/I” Waiver Request and Issues $3,000 Fine

A California TV licensee received a $3,000 fine this month for failing to properly identify children’s programming with an “E/I” symbol on the screen. The Children’s Television Act (“CTA”) requires TV licensees to offer programming that meets the educational and informational needs of children, known as “Core Programming.” Section 73.671 of the FCC’s Rules requires licensees to satisfy certain criteria to demonstrate compliance with the CTA; for example, broadcasters are required to provide specific information to the public about the children’s programming they air, such as displaying the “E/I” symbol to identify Core Programing. Continue reading →

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March 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:

  • Deceptive Practices Yield Multi-Million Dollar Fines for Telephone Interexchange Carriers
  • LPFM Ads Cost $16,000
  • Multiple TV Station Licensees Face $6,000 Fines for Failing to File Children’s TV Programming Reports

Interexchange Carriers’ “Slamming” and “Cramming” Violations Yield Over $16 Million in Fines

Earlier this month, the FCC imposed a $7.62 million fine against one interexchange carrier and proposed a $9 million fine against another for changing the carriers of consumers without their authorization, commonly known as “slamming,” and placing unauthorized charges for service on consumers’ telephone bills, a practice known as “cramming.” Both companies also fabricated audio recordings and submitted the recordings to the FCC, consumers, and state regulatory officials as “proof” that consumers had authorized the companies to switch their long distance carrier and charge them for service when in fact the consumers had never spoken to the companies or agreed to the service.

Section 258 of the Communications Act and Section 64.1120 of the FCC’s Rules make it unlawful for any telecommunications service carrier to submit or execute a change in a subscriber’s selection of telephone exchange service or telecommunications service provider except with prior authorization from the consumer and in accordance with the FCC’s verification procedures. Additionally, Section 201(b) of the Communications Act requires that “all charges, practices, classifications, and regulations for and in connection with [interstate or foreign] communications service [by wire or radio], shall be just and reasonable.” The FCC has found that any assessment of unauthorized charges on a telephone bill for a telecommunications service is an “unjust and unreasonable” practice under Section 201(b), regardless of whether the “crammed” charge is placed on consumers’ local telephone bills by a third party or by the customer’s carrier.

Further, the submission of false and misleading evidence to the FCC violates Section 1.17 of the FCC’s Rules, which states that no person shall “provide material factual information that is incorrect or omit material information . . . without a reasonable basis for believing that any such material factual statement is correct and not misleading.” The FCC has also held that a company’s fabrication of audio recordings associated with its “customers” to make it appear as if the consumers had authorized the company to be their preferred carrier, and thus charge it for service, is a deceptive and fraudulent practice that violates Section 201(b)’s “just and reasonable” mandate.

In the cases at issue, the companies failed to obtain authorization from consumers to switch their carriers and subsequently placed unauthorized charges on consumers’ bills. The FCC found that instead of obtaining the appropriate authorization or even attempting to follow the required verification procedures, the companies created false audio recordings to mislead consumers and regulatory officials into believing that they had received the appropriate authorizations. One consumer who called to investigate suspect charges on her bill was told that her husband authorized them–but her husband had been dead for seven years. Another person was told that her father–who lives on another continent–requested the change in service provider. Other consumers’ “verifications” were given in Spanish even though they did not speak Spanish on the phone and therefore would not have completed any such verification in Spanish. With respect to one of the companies, the FCC remarked that “there was no evidence in the record to show that [the company] had completed a single authentic verification recording for any of the complainants.”

The FCC’s forfeiture guidelines permit the FCC to impose a base fine of $40,000 for “slamming” violations and FCC case law has established a base fine of $40,000 for “cramming” violations as well. Finding that each unlawful request to change service providers and each unauthorized charge constituted a separate and distinct violation, the FCC calculated a base fine of $3.24 million for one company and $4 million for the other. Taking into account the repeated and egregious nature of the violations, the FCC found that significant upward adjustments were warranted–resulting in a $7.62 million fine for the first company and a proposed $9 million fine for the second.

Investigation Into Commercials Aired on LPFM Station Ends With $16,000 Civil Penalty

Late last month, the FCC entered into a consent decree with the licensee of a West Virginia low power FM radio station to terminate an investigation into whether the licensee violated the FCC’s underwriting laws by broadcasting announcements promoting the products, services, or businesses of its financial contributors.

LPFM stations, as noncommercial broadcasters, are allowed to broadcast announcements that identify and thank their sponsors, but Section 399b(b)(2) of the Communications Act and Sections 73.801 and 73.503(d) of the FCC’s Rules prohibit such stations from broadcasting advertisements. The FCC has explained that the rules are intended to protect the public’s use and enjoyment of commercial-free broadcasts in spectrum that is reserved for noncommercial broadcasters that benefit from reduced regulatory fees.

The FCC had received multiple complaints alleging that from August 2010 to October 2010, the licensee’s station broadcast advertisements in violation of the FCC’s noncommercial underwriting rules. Accordingly, the FCC sent a letter of inquiry to the licensee. In its response, the licensee admitted that the broadcasts violated the FCC’s underwriting rules. The licensee subsequently agreed to pay a civil penalty of $16,000, an amount the FCC indicated reflected the licensee’s successful showing of financial hardship. In addition, the licensee agreed to implement a three-year compliance plan, including annual reporting requirements, to ensure no future violations of the FCC’s underwriting rules by the station will occur.

Failure to “Think of the Children” Leads to $6,000 Fines

Three TV licensees are facing $6,000 fines for failing to timely file with the FCC their Form 398 Children’s Television Programming Reports. Section 73.3526 of the FCC’s Rules requires each commercial broadcast licensee to maintain a public inspection file containing specific information related to station operations. Subsection 73.3526(e)(11)(iii) requires a commercial licensee to prepare and place in its public inspection file a Children’s Television Programming Report on FCC Form 398 for each calendar quarter. The report sets forth the efforts the station made during that quarter and has planned for the next quarter to serve the educational and informational needs of children. Licensees are required to file the reports with the FCC and place them in their public files by the tenth day of the month following the quarter, and to publicize the existence and location of those reports.

This month, the FCC took enforcement action against two TV licensees in California and one TV licensee in Ohio for Form 398 filing violations. The first California licensee failed to timely file its reports for two quarters, the second California licensee failed to file its reports for five quarters, and the Ohio licensee failed to file its reports for eight quarters. Each licensee also failed to report these violations in its license renewal application, as required under Section 73.3514(a) of the Rules. Additionally, the Ohio licensee failed to timely file its license renewal application (in violation of Section 73.3539(a) of the Rules), engaged in unauthorized operation of its station after its authorization expired (in violation of Section 301 of the Communications Act), and failed to timely file its biennial ownership reports (in violation of Section 73.3615(a) of the Rules).

Despite the variation in the scope of the violations, each licensee now faces an identical $6,000 fine. The FCC originally contemplated a $16,000 fine against the Ohio licensee, as its guidelines specify a base forfeiture of $10,000 for unauthorized operation alone. However, after assessing the licensee’s gross revenue over the past three years, the FCC determined that a reduction of $10,000 was appropriate, resulting in the third $6,000 fine.

A PDF version of this article can be found at FCC Enforcement Monitor.