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:

  • Wireless Internet Provider Hit With $25,000 Proposed Fine for Interference Caused by Network Equipment
  • Unauthorized License Transfers Lead to Consent Decree and $70,000 Civil Penalty
  • FCC Issues Notice of Violation to AM Daytimer Operating Past Sunset

FCC Proposes $25,000 Fine Against Wireless Internet Provider for Causing Harmful Interference

The FCC recently issued a $25,000 Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture against a wireless Internet provider.  This is one of several recent proposed fines involving unauthorized equipment causing harmful interference to Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) weather radar systems.

Section 301 of the Communications Act generally prohibits the use or operation of a device for the transmission of radio signals, communications, or energy without an FCC license.  There is an exception, however, for low power devices emitting radiofrequency energy in compliance with certain technical restrictions under Part 15 of the FCC’s Rules.  Relevant to this particular matter, the FCC has authorized unlicensed operations in portions of the 5 GHz band for U-NII (Unlicensed National Information Infrastructure) devices, which are commonly used to provide Wi-Fi and broadband access.  The FCC’s rules require U-NII devices to have Dynamic Frequency Selection (“DFS”), allowing them to detect and thereby avoid interfering with radar systems operating on similar frequencies in the 5 GHz band.

In May 2018, the FCC issued a written warning to the Internet provider concerning interference to the FAA’s nearby doppler weather radar station from unlicensed devices operating on nearby frequencies.  In response, the Internet provider confirmed that all of its equipment conformed to the FCC’s rules designed to prevent such interference.

A year later, however, the FAA notified the FCC that its weather radar station was still experiencing interference from a source operating on a nearby frequency.  Following an investigation, the FCC determined that some of the equipment used by the provider’s network was causing the interference.  Further analysis indicated that the provider’s U-NII devices were improperly configured, and that DFS functionality had been disabled.  The FCC instructed the provider to reconfigure the devices to operate on a different frequency.  Following this change, the interference ceased immediately.

The FCC’s rules establish a base fine of $10,000 for operation without a license or other authorization from the Commission.  In this case, the FCC found two separate $10,000 rule violations: (1) the unauthorized operation of devices in the 5 GHz frequencies, and (2) failure to enable DFS functionality.  The FCC also applied an upward adjustment of $5,000 for failing to address the problem after the first warning, and the provider’s false claim that its equipment complied with FCC rules.

In addition to the $25,000 proposed fine, and to protect the FAA’s weather radar systems from further interference, the FCC ordered the provider to submit a signed statement within 30 days certifying that its U-NII operations comply with the FCC’s rules and all applicable equipment authorizations.

Hospitality Company Enters Into FCC Consent Decree Over Unauthorized Transfer of Wireless Licenses

The FCC entered into a Consent Decree with a large hospitality company to resolve an investigation into unauthorized transfers of wireless licenses acquired in connection with several corporate acquisitions and other transactions.  The resulting $70,000 civil penalty serves as a reminder to companies that don’t often deal with the FCC of the risks and regulatory obligations at play in transactions involving control of FCC licenses. Continue reading →

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On April 2, 2020, the FCC established the COVID-19 Telehealth Program (Program), which will guide the disbursement of $200 million to health care providers for connected care services to their patients. We published our summary of the Program on April 3, 2020, and followed up with a discussion of the FCC’s application procedures on April 9, 2020, and a review of the first wave of proposals granted on April 16, 2020.

With the fourth tranche of proposals approved on April 29, 2020, the FCC has now granted 30 funding proposals in 16 states. The FCC has pledged to review and grant eligible proposals on a rolling basis until either the FCC runs out of funds or the national pandemic ends.

As discussed in our prior alerts, the CARES Act of 2020 provided $200 million for the FCC to distribute to eligible parties with proposals to provide connected care services in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The funds could be used for (i) telecommunications services and broadband connectivity services, (ii) data and information services, and (iii) internet-connected devices and equipment.

While the FCC has not released for public review most of the approved proposals, based on the public notices that have been released, it is clear that the FCC is willing to provide funding for proposals to implement connected care services and devices. Most of the approved proposals requested funding for a combination of:

  • Remote patient monitoring;
  • Portable equipment for screening at remote centers and nursing homes;
  • Video services including patient visits; and
  • Connected devices (tablets) for staff and high-risk patients.

On May 1, 2020, the FCC announced that, as of May 3, 2020, all applicants must submit their applications through the online portal.

Recently, there has been a push by groups to expand the pool of eligible entities. The American Hospital Association requested that the FCC reconsider its decision to only provide funding for nonprofit applicants. Other organizations like HCA Healthcare and the American Dental Association supported the expansion of eligible entities, arguing that the COVID-19 pandemic has affected all health care providers (including dentists) and that the CARES Act did not require the nonprofit limitation. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce also supported the expansion of funding opportunities, noting that 20 percent of the nation’s hospitals are prevented from filing proposals for COVID-19 funds.

It is unclear whether the FCC will adjust its eligibility standards to include for-profit hospitals and medical practices, especially in light of the availability of funds that have yet to be allocated. We will continue to monitor the program’s progress and report any changes in the FCC’s rules.

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On March 31, 2020, the FCC adopted a Report and Order to implement the COVID-19 Telehealth Program.  The Program was established in the CARES Act, and the FCC was appropriated $200 million to provide to eligible medical facilities to provide telehealth services to their patients.

A more detailed discussion of the FCC’s Report and Order creating the Program, and a discussion of the procedures to apply for funding, can be found here and here.  The Program’s intended purpose is to provide emergency funding for expenses arising from the COVID-19 pandemic that fall outside of the normal procurement process.  Under the new program, non-profit hospitals, teaching hospitals, rural health clinics and skilled nursing facilities can apply for funds from the FCC to be used for voice and internet service, remote patient monitoring platforms, and Internet-connected devices and equipment.

The window for submitting applications opened on Monday, April 13th, and the FCC announced today that the first wave of applications had been granted.  Below is a summary of each approved funding proposal:

  • Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia, was awarded $727,747 to implement telehealth video visits, virtual check-ins, remote patient monitoring, and e-visits to patient’s hospital rooms, which it said would enable it to continue to provide high quality patient care, keep patients safe in their homes, and reduce the use of personal protective equipment during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Hudson River HealthCare, Inc., in Peekskill, New York, was awarded $753,367 for telehealth services to expand its COVID-19 testing and treatment programs serving a large volume of low-income, uninsured, and/or underinsured patients throughout southeastern New York State, encompassing the Hudson Valley, New York City, and Long Island.
  • Mount Sinai Health System, in New York City, was awarded $312,500 to provide telehealth devices and services to geriatric and palliative patients who are at high risk for COVID-19 throughout New York City’s five boroughs.
  • Neighborhood Health Care, Inc., in Cleveland, Ohio, was awarded $244,282 to provide telemedicine, connected devices, and remote patient monitoring to patients and families impacted by COVID-19 in Cleveland’s West Side neighborhoods, targeting low-income patients with chronic conditions.
  • Ochsner Clinic Foundation, in New Orleans, Louisiana, was awarded $1,000,000 for telehealth services and devices to serve high-risk patients and vulnerable populations in Louisiana and Mississippi, to treat COVID-19 patients, and to slow the spread of the virus to others.
  • UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh was awarded $192,500 to provide telehealth services to children who have received organ transplants and are thus immune-compromised and at high risk for COVID-19.

The FCC will continue to process applications until the earlier of (i) granting proposals for the full $200 million budgeted; or (ii) the end of the national emergency.

Even though the FCC stated that it would likely not grant proposals for more than $1 million, considering the rapid processing and approval of the first seven applications, interested parties will want to move quickly to submit their applications.

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On April 4, 2020, the White House issued an Executive Order creating the Committee for the Assessment of Foreign Participation in the United States Telecommunications Services Sector (the “Committee”). The Committee, chaired by the Attorney General, includes the Secretaries of Homeland Security and Defense, and any other executive department head so designated by the President, is seen as an attempt to formalize the long-standing “Team Telecom” review process that began in the 1990s. The Committee’s stated goal is similar to Team Telecom’s, i.e., to assist the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) in its public interest review of national security and law enforcement concerns that may be triggered by foreign investment in the US telecommunications sector. But there may be some notable differences. Continue reading →

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Twelve large telecom companies and the attorneys general of 50 states and the District of Columbia announced yesterday an agreement on eight voluntary principles that the companies will adopt to combat illegal and unwanted robocalls.  The announcement comes as regulators, telecom companies, and legislators continue to grapple with a worsening robocall problem that has become a significant concern for consumers, generating more complaints at the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission than any other topic.

Both the Senate and House have passed robocall bills that have yet to be reconciled to produce a bill both houses of Congress can agree upon.  In the meantime, the states are attempting to take the lead by working with telecom companies to establish what are effectively best practices.  These include:

  1. Making available free call-blocking and labeling tools to customers, and implementing free call blocking at the network level (network-level call blocking does not require any action from the consumer).
  2. Implementing STIR/SHAKEN, a technology used to provide authentication that calls are coming from a valid source.
  3. Monitoring network traffic for patterns consistent with robocalls.
  4. Investigating suspicious calls and calling patterns by, for example, initiating a traceback investigation or verifying that the commercial customer owns or is authorized to use the Caller ID number.
  5. Confirming the identity of new commercial VoIP customers by collecting information such as physical location.
  6. Requiring other telephone companies with which they contract to cooperate in identifying the source of suspected illegal robocalls.
  7. Working with law enforcement to trace robocalls by identifying a single point of contact for traceback requests, and responding to such requests as soon as possible.
  8. Communicating with state attorneys general to keep them apprised of trends in illegal robocalling and potential additional solutions to combat such robocalls.

For context and information on other recent actions taken to combat illegal and unwanted robocalls, read our post from June, where we discussed the FCC’s decision to permit voice service providers to implement call-blocking programs for subscribers on an opt-out basis.  Robocalling finally appears to have achieved the status of Public Enemy Number One, with Congress, states, and federal agencies all working to block the flood of calls inundating the public.

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The availability of broadband Internet service in apartment buildings, condominiums, and office buildings, or what the FCC calls multiple tenant environments (MTE), was the subject of a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) and Declaratory Ruling released on Friday of last week. Prior FCC decisions have attempted to strike a balance between promoting competitive access to tenants and preserving adequate incentives for the initial service providers to deploy, maintain, and upgrade infrastructure. For example, the Commission prohibits cable providers and telecommunications carriers from entering into contracts with MTEs that grant a single provider exclusive access to the MTE, but permits exclusive marketing agreements.

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For many consumers, answering a phone call from an unknown number has effectively turned into a gamble. Is it a potential new client? A medical emergency? Or, more likely, is it an incredible offer-to-stay-at-a-Caribbean-resort-of-your-choosing-please-hold-for-a-representative?

Not surprisingly, no issue generates more complaints at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Federal Trade Commission than robocalls – according to one estimate there were 47 billion illegal and unwanted calls in 2018. In response, the FCC last week released a Declaratory Ruling and Third Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (CG Docket No. 17-59, WC Docket No. 17-97) clarifying that voice service providers may offer consumers call-blocking tools through an opt-out process rather than an opt-in basis, as is typically done today. The FCC issued this clarification to address concerns that the majority of consumers are not requesting available call-blocking services.

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Originally intended as an “innovation band” for the testing of new wireless broadband services, the Citizen Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) was created in 2015 to permit commercial and federal spectrum users to operate in the same spectrum band. By utilizing smaller geographic areas for licenses, and short-term authorizations lacking an expectation of renewal, the CBRS was seen as a test bed for a variety of different wireless broadband services, including those of rural wireless broadband service providers.

To that end, the FCC created two new classes of licenses, Priority Access Licenses (PALs) and General Authorized Access Licenses (GAAs).  GAAs are permitted to operate anywhere within the CBRS band, so long as incumbent licensees and PALs are protected. PALs are required to protect the incumbent licensees, and will receive protection from GAAs. A key component of the CBRS licensing scheme is the implementation of a central database, the Spectrum Access System (SAS) (had enough acronyms yet?), maintained by third parties who will coordinate among licensees to prevent interference.

At its October meeting, the FCC revised its rules for the service with the stated goal of further encouraging the rapid development of 5G technologies.  The revised rules were adopted in response to petitions filed by CTIA and T-Mobile in 2017 which proposed several changes to the original 2015 rules.  The FCC sought comment on those proposals, which suggested several changes to the Priority Access Licenses, including adjusting the size of the geographic license, expanding the initial and renewal terms for licenses, and adopting performance standards. Although the FCC did not fully adopt the proposals, the revised rules make significant changes before the FCC has even issued the first CBRS authorization.

License Area: Under the 2015 rules, PALs were to be issued based on census tracts. The intent was to encourage local broadband development, especially in rural areas that may not receive service by nationwide carriers. By highlighting the difficulty of managing the licensing and build-out of service in 74,000 separate census tracts, CTIA, T-Mobile and several other parties argued that the FCC should expand the PAL geographic area to the more-manageable Partial Economic Areas. Ultimately, the FCC rejected that proposal, but instead expanded the PAL geographic area to county-based authorizations.

License Terms: In 2015, the FCC was concerned about the warehousing of spectrum, so it limited the license term of PALs in a particular geographic area to two sequential three-year periods, with no option for renewal. Several parties filed comments arguing that the three-year limit for licenses would serve as a roadblock to robust investment by wireless companies. The FCC has now agreed and extended the initial term to ten years. The FCC also modified its rules to permit licensees to renew their PAL authorizations.

Performance Standards: In light of its decision to extend the license term and permit renewals, the FCC imposed a “substantial service” performance standard for services operating in the CBRS band. For mobile and point-to-multipoint services, a licensee must demonstrate that it provides service to at least 50 percent of the licensed service area. For point-to-point service, a licensee must demonstrate that it provides at least four links in areas with a service population of 134,000 people or less, and at least one link per 33,500 people in service areas with a population greater than 134,000 people. This showing will be required when the licensee files its license renewal application.

Competitive Bidding: Finally, the FCC decided to grant PALs in accordance with its competitive bidding auction rules, permitting applicants to claim bidding credits as “small” or “very small business” entities, as a rural service provider, and/or if they propose to serve qualifying Tribal lands.

Support for the proposed rule changes was first signaled by then-Commissioner Pai and Commissioner O’Rielly in their concurring statements when the original rules were adopted in 2015. Because the FCC is still working on approval of the various SAS database proposals, and because there was a change in FCC leadership in January 2017, it was possible for the petitioning parties to seek revision of the 2015 rules before the FCC issued its first CBRS authorization. To date, the FCC has not issued authorizations for PALs or GAAs, but it is possible that new authorizations could be issued in 2019. Thus, while the rule changes will not impact any existing PAL or GAA licensees, these changes will have a significant impact on the operation of the CBRS band in the future.

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The FCC will take a number of significant actions in the final months of 2018 to facilitate the development of 5G, the fifth generation of wireless cellular technology. First, at its October meeting tomorrow, it will vote on making a portion of mid-band spectrum (2.5 to 4.2 GHz) available for 5G use.  Second, it will launch in November the first of two high-band 5G spectrum auctions scheduled for 2018.  Now is therefore a good time to take a look at what 5G is, and what impact it promises to have.

Looking back, the primary benefit of the transition from 3G to 4G was a significant speed boost, which allowed users to, among other things, stream YouTube and upload videos to social media platforms like Instagram without much waiting.  Once implemented, 5G is expected to deliver download speeds anywhere from 10-100 times faster than 4G, with speeds of up to 20 gigabits per second.  5G users will also experience significantly less latency, i.e., the time between when you click on a link and when the network responds.  While 4G latency is about 9 milliseconds, mature 5G systems will reduce latency to around 1 millisecond.

Mature 5G networks will use high-band spectrum (24 GHz and above), which is capable of transmitting significantly more data than 4G, but is limited to much shorter distances.  4G towers currently deliver service for up to 10 miles, while high-band 5G towers will only deliver service for up to 1,000 feet (about 3 football fields).

In addition, high-band 5G spectrum has a shorter wavelength than spectrum used for 4G, making it more difficult for these signals to penetrate solid objects such as walls and windows.  To overcome the distance and signal penetration challenges, 5G will require vast networks of small-cell sites located on a diverse array of real estate platforms, with the small-cells anchored by larger cell towers.  To streamline the deployment of small-cells, the FCC in March adopted new rules to reduce regulatory impediments to building out small-cell infrastructure, and in September adopted rules requiring state and local governments to approve or deny small-cell applications within prescribed time periods.  Not surprisingly, the new rules are unpopular with local governments, who object to any federal interference with their local site review processes.

There are numerous potential innovations and business models that can utilize 5G’s faster speeds, lower latency, and increased connection capacity.  Most agree that 5G will deliver seamless 4K video streaming and instant downloads of large files, but it could also dramatically change how users, including machines, access the Internet.  Currently, the primary option for residential and enterprise broadband customers is cable or fiber.  With speeds of up to 20 gigabits per second (and no need for wire infrastructure), 5G could disrupt the delivery of fixed Internet access as we know it.

5G will also allow the Internet of Things to flourish.  Specifically, it will allow vastly more “things” to connect to cell sites and remain connected to the Internet without the need to connect through smartphones or Wi-Fi.  4G can connect about 2,000 devices per square kilometer, while 5G will connect about one million over the same area.  For example, 5G could facilitate thousands of driverless cars in the same city talking to each other to coordinate efficient traffic flow without the need for passengers to open an app on their phone, or even to have a phone.

Another potentially transformative use of 5G is remote medicine.  For example, given the high speed and low latency of 5G, medical procedures could be performed using robot arms controlled by doctors in a different part of the country or world, harnessing almost instantaneous data transmission and lowering geographic barriers to treatment.  Similarly, augmented and virtual reality gaming, shopping, and other experiences should blossom under 5G.

Rollout of 5G will be gradual.  Following pilot programs in 2018 in select cities, wireless carriers are expected to launch the first iterations of widespread 5G networks in the United States in 2019.  5G-enabled smartphones are also expected to be released in 2019.  The first 5G networks will likely use low (600 to 900 MHz) and mid-band (2.5 to 4.2 GHz) spectrum already possessed by wireless carriers, rather than the high-band spectrum that will make up the majority of spectrum auctioned by the FCC for 5G use.  As a result, initial 5G networks will only scratch the surface of 5G’s potential, delivering speeds ranging from 10% faster than 4G to three times as fast.  Mature iterations of 5G networks that use high-band spectrum are expected to arrive in 2-4 years.

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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 Cracks Down on Call Spoofing Operations with Multimillion-Dollar Fine
  • New Jersey Utility Company Investigated for Improper Use of Private Land Mobile Radio
  • FCC Issues Repeated Notices to Florida LPFM Licensee Over Transmitter Issues

Call Me Maybe? FCC Proposes $37.525 Million Fine for Illegal Spoofing Operation

In response to the growing menace of ”spoofed” calls, the FCC issued a $37.525 million Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture (“NAL”) to an Arizona telemarketer alleged to have made over 2.3 million spoofed calls over the past two years.

Section 227(e) of the Communications Act (“Act”) generally prohibits “call spoofing,” the practice of causing a false number to appear on a caller ID display to disguise the caller’s identity.  Section 227(e) of the Act and Section 64.1604 of the FCC’s Rules make it unlawful to knowingly transmit misleading or inaccurate caller ID information “with the intent to defraud, cause harm, or wrongfully obtain anything of value.”  Further, the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (“TCPA”) and Section 64.1200 of the FCC’s Rules prohibit marketing calls to numbers listed in the National Do-Not-Call-Registry (“DNR”).  Consumers can add their home and mobile phone numbers to the DNR in order to avoid unwanted telemarking calls.

The FCC was tipped off to the Arizona company’s spoofing operation by a whistleblower who had formerly worked in the company’s telemarketing phone room.  According to the employee, the company purchased a call directory and plugged the directory’s numbers into a telemarketing platform that would dial the numbers.  The company then modified its caller ID information to display the phone numbers of prepaid phones it had purchased from a big box store.  To avoid suspicion, the company regularly searched the Internet for complaints associated with the prepaid phone numbers and removed from rotation any numbers that had garnered a large amount of complaints.  If a consumer tried returning a telemarketing call originating from a prepaid phone, company policy instructed employees to hang up on or otherwise avoid complaining customers.  In addition to the prepaid phones, the company also used unassigned numbers and numbers assigned to unrelated private citizens.  As an example, the NAL describes an innocent consumer whose number was spoofed by the company and who received several calls a day for months from consumers attempting to complain about the company’s calls.

The FCC began its investigation by subpoenaing the company’s call records from the telemarketing platform.  According to the NAL, the company made 2,341,125 calls using 13 separate phone numbers.  Unsurprisingly, none of the 13 numbers were actually assigned to the company.  However, the FCC was able to match these numbers to dozens of complaints filed with the Federal Trade Commission from DNR registrants who had received unwanted calls.

According to the whistleblower, the company’s illicit behavior earned it nearly $300,000 per month.  The FCC alleges that the company’s spoofing and sophisticated prepaid phone operation show the company knew that what it was doing was wrong and sought to evade law enforcement and civil suits by hiding its connection to the illegal marketing scheme.

Pursuant to Section 227(e) of the Act and Section 1.80 of the FCC’s Rules, the FCC may impose a fine of up to $11,278 for each spoofing violation.  Previously, the FCC has applied a base fine of $1,000 per call in large-scale spoofing operations.  Out of the total 2,341,125 spoofed calls, the Enforcement Bureau was able to specifically examine and confirm the nature of 37,525 calls, and thus proposed a fine of $37,525,000.

In addition to the NAL, the FCC also issued a separate Citation and Order that cites the company for violating the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, as many of the call recipients were registered with the DNR.  The FCC uncovered 45 instances where the company dialed DNR registrants; however, it may not impose a monetary fine against parties not regulated by the FCC until: (1) the FCC issues a citation to the violator; (2) the FCC provides the violator a reasonable opportunity to respond; and (3) the violator continues to engage in the cited conduct.  The Citation and Order warns the company that any future violations could result in hefty fines.

The past year has seen several enforcement actions aimed at large scale robocall and spoofing operations.  The FCC asks consumers to report any illegal calls or text messages, and advises against answering calls from unknown numbers or giving out personal information.

A Failure to Communicate: FCC Investigates New Jersey Utility Company for Private Land Mobile Radio Violations

The FCC’s Enforcement Bureau issued a Notice of Violation (“NOV”) to a large New Jersey utility company for operating its Private Land Mobile Radio (“PLMR”) in an unauthorized manner and failing to regularly transmit station identification information. Continue reading →