Bookending the Christmas weekend, the FCC’s long-awaited 2018 Quadrennial Review Report and Order was adopted on Friday, December 22 and released Tuesday, December 26. The Commission is required by Congress to conduct a regulatory review of its broadcast ownership rules every four years and was directed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit to conclude this particular review no later than December 27 (or to show cause why that couldn’t be done).
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:
- Mobile Service Provider Enters $23.5 Million Consent Decree to Resolve Lifeline and Emergency Broadband Benefit Program Investigation
- Texas TV Station Receives $13,000 Penalty for Unauthorized Operation and Late License Application
- Radio Station License Revoked Over Eight Years of Unpaid Regulatory Fees
Investigation Into Lifeline and Emergency Broadband Benefit Program Violations Leads to $23.5 Million Penalty for Mobile Phone Provider
A major mobile virtual network operator and mobile wireless telecommunications services provider entered into a Consent Decree with the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau (the “Bureau”) resolving an investigation into whether the provider violated the Commission’s rules for its Lifeline and/or Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) programs by claiming credit for subscribers that were ineligible for these programs. These programs federally subsidize the cost of providing various services to qualifying subscribers. The company provided Lifeline telephone service as an Eligible Telecommunications Carrier (ETC) and broadband internet access service under the EBB program.
The Bureau investigated whether the phone service provider (a) improperly sought and/or obtained Lifeline or EBB financial support from the government for ineligible subscribers, or failed to de-enroll subscribers who lacked eligibility documentation or whose applications were supported by falsified tax forms; (b) sought and/or obtained Lifeline support/EBB support for subscribers who didn’t use a Lifeline-supported/EBB-supported service; and (c) directly or indirectly compensated field enrollment representatives based on earning a commission, rather than being paid on an hourly basis.
Under the Commission’s Lifeline rules, ETCs must satisfy specific requirements to be eligible to receive federal Lifeline dollars, and may only receive such support “based on the number of actual qualifying low-income customers listed in the National Lifeline Accountability Database that the eligible telecommunications carrier serves directly as of the first of the month.” Similarly, EBB providers may claim government financial support for providing discounted broadband internet access service during the emergency period of the EBB program based on the number of qualifying low-income households that the provider serves each month.
As part of these programs, participating providers were required to develop policies and procedures to ensure that their EBB households were indeed eligible to receive the discount benefit. For example, two criteria for EBB qualification are whether the household income falls below a certain threshold or whether at least one member of the household has experienced a documented substantial loss in income during the emergency period.
The next Quarterly Issues/Programs List (“Quarterly List”) must be placed in stations’ Public Inspection Files by January 10, 2024, reflecting information for the months of October, November, and December 2023.
Content of the Quarterly List
The FCC requires each broadcast station to air a reasonable amount of programming responsive to significant community needs, issues, and problems as determined by the station. The FCC gives each station the discretion to determine which issues facing the community served by the station are the most significant and how best to respond to them in the station’s overall programming.
To demonstrate a station’s compliance with this public interest obligation, the FCC requires the station to maintain and place in the Public Inspection File a Quarterly List reflecting the “station’s most significant programming treatment of community issues during the preceding three month period.” By its use of the term “most significant,” the FCC has noted that stations are not required to list all responsive programming, but only that programming which provided the most significant treatment of the issues identified.
Given that program logs are no longer mandated by the FCC, the Quarterly Lists may be the most important evidence of a station’s compliance with its public service obligations. The lists also provide important support for the certification of Class A television station compliance discussed below. We therefore urge stations not to “skimp” on the Quarterly Lists, and to err on the side of over-inclusiveness. Otherwise, stations risk a determination by the FCC that they did not adequately serve the public interest during their license term. Stations should include in the Quarterly Lists as much issue-responsive programming as they feel is necessary to demonstrate fully their responsiveness to community needs. Taking extra time now to provide a thorough Quarterly List will help reduce risk at license renewal time.
The FCC has repeatedly emphasized the importance of the Quarterly Lists and often brings enforcement actions against stations that do not have complete Quarterly Lists in their Public Inspection File or which have failed to timely upload such lists when due. The FCC’s base fine for missing Quarterly Lists is $10,000.
Preparation of the Quarterly List
The Quarterly Lists are required to be placed in the Public Inspection File by January 10, April 10, July 10, and October 10 of each year. The next Quarterly List is required to be placed in stations’ Public Inspection Files by January 10, 2024, covering the period from October 1, 2023 through December 31, 2023. Continue reading →
The origins of the annual Pillsbury Broadcasters’ Calendar have been lost to time, but it’s safe to say the new 2024 version is at least the 50th edition of this guidebook for the broadcast industry. While your own personal calendar may be full of “happy dates” like vacations and graduations, the 2024 Broadcasters’ Calendar is full of deadlines that prevent your happy dates from becoming very, very sad dates. Keeping close track of these dates and their impact permits a licensee to remain a licensee, and a broadcast employee to remain an employee, allowing you to keep taking those vacations and paying those school tuition bills.
The good news for broadcasters is that while 2024 will be a major year for political advertising (and the extensive Political File paperwork that comes with it; notice how everything positive in broadcasting comes with a regulatory cloud?), it is an off-year for regulatory deadlines. 2024 marks a brief respite between FCC license renewal cycles, the off-year for biennial ownership reports, and television broadcasters completed their three-year must-carry elections in 2023.
Of course, that still leaves dozens of deadlines of all kinds that broadcasters must meet in the coming year, and it is certainly possible that some of those may be moved and a few new ones added before it is time for the 2025 Broadcasters’ Calendar. Until then, keep a copy of the 2024 edition handy, and an eye on CommLawCenter for changes the coming year may bring.