Posted July 25, 2014
Pillsbury's communications lawyers have published FCC Enforcement Monitor monthly since 1999 to inform our clients of notable FCC enforcement actions against FCC license holders and others. This month's issue includes:
- Multi-Year Cramming Scheme Results in $1.6 Million Fine
- Violation of Retransmission Consent Rules Leads to $2.25 Million Fine
- $25,000 Fine for Failure to Respond to FCC
Continued Cramming Practices Lead to Double the Base Fine
The FCC recently issued a Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture ("NAL") against a Florida telephone company for "cramming" customers by billing them for unauthorized charges and fees related to long distance telephone service.
The FCC had received more than 100 customer complaints against the company. The complaints alleged that the company had continued to bill the customers and charge them late fees after they had paid their final bills and canceled their service with the company. The FCC opened an investigation in response to the complaints and issued a Letter of Inquiry ("LOI") to the company in July 2011, but the company did not submit a timely response. The FCC issued an NAL in 2011 proposing a $25,000 fine against the company for its failure to reply to the LOI, and ultimately issued a Forfeiture Order fining the company $25,000.
Section 201(b) of the Communications Act of 1934 (the "Act") requires that that "[a]ll charges . . . in connection with . . . communication service shall be just and reasonable." Prior decisions of the FCC have determined that placing unauthorized charges and fees on consumers' phone bills is an "unjust and unreasonable" practice and is therefore unlawful.
The NAL provides information from 11 customer complaints detailing instances where customers attempted to cancel their service and continued to be charged late fees and other fees by the company. The FCC determined that the phone company did not have authorization to continue billing these customers after they canceled their service.
Although the FCC's Forfeiture Guidelines do not provide a base fine for cramming, the FCC has settled on $40,000 as the base fine for a cramming violation. The NAL addressed 20 cramming violations, which would create a base fine of $800,000. However, the FCC determined that an upward adjustment of the fine was appropriate in this case because the unlawful cramming practices had been occurring since 2011, the company did not respond to the 2011 LOI, and there was a high volume of customers who received cramming charges. Therefore, the FCC increased the proposed fine by $800,000, resulting in a total proposed fine of twice the base amount, or $1.6 million.
Cable Operator's Retransmission of Six Texas TV Stations Results in Multi-Million Dollar Fine
Earlier this month, the FCC issued an order against a cable operator for rebroadcasting the signals of six full-power televisions stations in Texas in violation of the FCC's retransmission consent rules.
The cable operator serves more than 10,000 subscribers in the Houston Designated Market Area ("DMA") in 245 multiple-dwelling-unit buildings and previously had retransmission consent agreements with the stations. However, those agreements expired in December 2011 and March 2012. The cable operator continued retransmitting the signals of those stations without extending or renewing the retransmission consent agreements, and the licensees notified the cable operator that its continued retransmissions were illegal. Subsequently, each licensee filed a complaint with the FCC.
In its May 2012 response to the complaints, the cable operator did not deny that it had retransmitted the stations without the licensee's express written consent, but said that it had relied on the master antenna television ("MATV") exception to the retransmission consent requirement. The cable operator noted that it had begun converting its buildings to MATV systems in November 2011 and had hoped to complete the installations before the retransmission agreements expired in December 2011, but did not complete the MATV installation until July 26, 2012.