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

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

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

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

  • No Blocking: broadband providers may not block access to legal content, applications, services, or non-harmful devices.
  • No Throttling: broadband providers may not impair or degrade lawful Internet traffic on the basis of content, applications, services, or the use of non-harmful devices.
  • No Paid Prioritization: broadband providers may not favor some lawful Internet traffic over other lawful traffic in exchange for consideration of any kind–in other words, no “fast lanes” and no prioritizing the content and services of an Internet Service Provider’s (ISP) affiliates.

The FCC also adopted a “standard for future conduct” whereby ISPs cannot “unreasonably interfere with or unreasonably disadvantage” the ability of consumers to select, access, and use the lawful content, applications, services, or devices of their choosing; or of edge providers to make lawful content, applications, services, or devices available to consumers.” Finally, the FCC added additional ISP disclosure provisions to its existing transparency rule.

Let the litigation begin.

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

The result was the FCC’s 2005 Open Internet Policy Statement, in which the FCC concluded that ISPs were not subject to mandatory common-carrier regulation like telephone services (referred to as “Title II” regulation because it is governed by Title II of the Communications Act of 1934). The FCC did conclude, however, that it had authority to regulate ISPs under its ancillary authority to impose “light touch” regulatory obligations under the less restrictive Title I of the Communications Act.
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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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It is an unusual occasion indeed when the FCC offers to revise its rules to provide regulatory relief to both television and radio stations. Yet that is precisely what the FCC proposed in a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) to update its station-conducted contest rule to allow broadcasters to post contest rules online rather than broadcast them. As the proposal now stands, stations would no longer need to broadcast the contest rules if they instead announce the full website address where the rules can be found each time they discuss the contest on-air.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.