Articles Posted in Telecommunications

Published on:

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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Published on:

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 →

Published on:

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 →

Published on:

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.

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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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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.

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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.

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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.
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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.