On August 13, 2019, the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau announced that it settled a nearly three-year long investigation into whether CenturyLink included unauthorized charges from third-party service providers on customer bills. Also known as “cramming,” the assessment of unauthorized charges is a major source of consumer complaints and frequent focus of FCC enforcement actions. The CenturyLink Consent Decree follows in the wake of a handful of enforcement actions for cramming when accompanied by unlawful carrier switches (“slamming”) and the FCC’s adoption of new rules codifying its longstanding ban on cramming in 2018. The settlement underscores the responsibility borne by carriers for the chargers they place on customer bills – even for services they do not provide – and the need to maintain safeguards to ensure such charges are authorized.
On August 1, the FCC took another step in its ongoing effort to combat deceptive and unlawful calls to consumers. This action once again sets its sights on a common target: concealment or alteration of the originating number on a communication. This practice is known as “spoofing” and, when conducted with an intent to cause harm to consumers, is unlawful. In the August 1 Report and Order, the FCC amended its Truth In Caller ID rules to expand anti-spoofing prohibitions to foreign-originated calls and text messaging services.
Once these rules take effect, the FCC closes a significant gap in its prior rules – calls which originate outside the United States – at the same time that it acts preemptively to prohibit deceptive spoofing in a growing area – text messaging. In the process, the FCC will enhance one of its most commonly used tools in its effort to combat unlawful robocalls – fines for unlawful spoofing. Generally, the FCC has attacked parties that originate unlawful robocalls by fining them for the subsidiary violation of spoofing the unlawful calls. In telecommunications enforcement, spoofing violations are the tax evasion charges to Al Capone’s criminal enterprise.
On August 12, the FCC officially launched the Fraud Division of its Enforcement Bureau with the publication of an Order adopted earlier this year. The new division will be tasked with taking enforcement actions against fraud in the Universal Service Fund (“USF”) and other funding programs that the agency oversees. While February’s brief Order did not address several issues, including how the division would be staffed and the status of the “USF Strike Force,” the FCC answered questions as they prepared to launch.
In the latest edition of Kelly Drye’s Full Spectrum podcast, Partner Steve Augustino and Senior Associate Brad Currier provide details on the Bureau’s new Fraud Division and other takeaways from a recent Federal Communications Bar Association event featuring FCC Enforcement Bureau Chief Rosemary Harold and her deputies. This episode is part of Full Spectrum’s recurring series on FCC Enforcement and can be found here or wherever you get your podcasts.
At its July Open Meeting, the FCC adopted a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“NPRM”) to propose a pilot program within the Universal Service Fund (“USF”) to support broadband connections for telemedicine, or “connected care” for low-income Americans and veterans. Healthcare-related items have received a great deal of attention at the FCC recently, as the agency also adopted an order, which has not yet been released, at its August Open Meeting last week to reform its Rural Health Care Program to focus on telehealth in rural areas. The Connected Care NPRM proposes a three-year pilot at a cost of $100 million to be collected from USF assessments separate from the other USF programs. The NPRM was championed by Commissioner Carr and supported by all five FCC commissioners, although Commissioner O’Rielly expressed some reservations with the fact that the pilot would assess another $100 million on USF ratepayers outside of the individual program caps or budgets. His concerns likely relate to the fact that, at the same time, he is trying to advance a proposal to place an overall cap on the USF, which has received significant opposition. Last week, the Connected Care NPRM was published in the Federal Register, triggering a comment deadline of August 29th and a reply deadline of September 30th.
Even with the dog days of summer upon us, the FCC shows no signs of slowing down on its policymaking priorities in a jam-packed agenda for its next open meeting on August 1, 2019. Headlining the agenda is a proposal to establish a Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (“RDOF”) offering $20.4 billion over a decade to support high-speed broadband deployment to unserved areas. The RDOF would eventually replace the FCC’s Connect America Fund (“CAF”) as the agency’s primary universal service program for high-cost areas. The areas receiving RDOF support would be determined by a new agency-led information collection, requiring more granular service data from broadband providers. As with the CAF, the RDOF proceeding is sure to engender debate in the broadband industry about the appropriate performance benchmarks, auction bidding rules, and data collection mechanisms. In addition to the RDOF, the FCC also plans to adopt items at the August meeting to reform how it allocates Rural Health Care Program funding; streamline licensing procedures for small satellite systems (otherwise known as “smallsats”); establish procedures for the auction of new toll free numbers; implement 911 direct dial and location information requirements on multi-line telephone systems (“MLTS”) often found in offices, hotels, and college campuses; expand the agency’s anti-spoofing rules; and limit the franchise fees placed on cable operators.
The August agenda items impact all corners of the telecommunications industry. You will find more details on some of the most significant August meeting items after the break:
At Wednesday’s July Open Meeting, the FCC approved a Report and Order (“Order”) to modify the regulatory framework and allocation plan for the 2496 – 2690 MHz (“2.5 GHz”) band—at 194 megahertz, the largest band of contiguous spectrum below 3 GHz. The objective of the Order is to make more mid-band spectrum available for commercial use and facilitate the development of 5G services—a key spectrum policy priority for this FCC and the Trump Administration. The Order will allocate unused spectrum in the band and remove educational use requirements to free it up for non-educational commercial entities.
Continuing its push to free up spectrum to support next-generation 5G services, the FCC plans to move forward on auctions of both mid- and high-band spectrum for commercial mobile use at its next open meeting scheduled for July 10, 2019. First, the FCC would establish new licensing rules for the 2.496-2.690 GHz band (“2.5 GHz Band”) currently used for educational television services to facilitate the auction of the spectrum next year. The FCC contends that the 2.5 GHz Band, which represents the largest contiguous block of mid-band spectrum considered for auction to date, has largely gone unused and should be opened up for commercial use. Second, the FCC would adopt application and bidding procedures for the auction of spectrum at 37.6-38.6 GHz (“Upper 37 GHz Band”), 38.6 GHz-40.0 GHz (“39 GHz Band”), and 47.2-48.2 GHz (“47 GHz Band”). This auction would be the FCC’s third auction of high-band spectrum, following the recent auctions of 24 GHz band and 28 GHz band spectrum. As we previously noted, this auction is complicated by the presence of incumbent licensees in the 39 GHz Band, who would be offered incentive payments to accept modified licenses or leave the Band under the FCC’s plan. Rounding out the major July actions, the FCC expects to seek comment on establishing a three-year, $100 million universal service pilot program to support telehealth services as well as eliminate pricing regulation and other restrictions on certain legacy data transport services offered by price cap carriers.
You will find more details on the most significant July meeting items after the break:
The FCC’s proposed rulemaking to establish an overall budget cap on the Universal Service Fund (“USF”) was published in the Federal Register on June 13, 2019, which sets the comment deadline on July 15, 2019, and the reply comment deadline on August 12, 2019. As we previously highlighted, the notice of proposed rulemaking (“NPRM”) will consider a USF cap separate and above the individual budgets for each of the four USF programs, although the NPRM does not propose a specific budget, primarily raises questions about how to proceed, and does not contain any proposed rules.
A request to extend the NPRM comment period has been filed by the Education and Library Networks Coalition, but the FCC generally does not grant such requests.
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Full Spectrum’s “Inside the TCPA” offers a deeper focus on TCPA issues and petitions pending before the FCC. Each episode tackles a single TCPA topic or petition that is in the news or affecting cases around the country. In this episode, Partner Steve Augustino and Associate Chris Laughlin discuss the FCC’s efforts to reduce the volume of illegal robocalls. Steve and Chris refresh the audience on illegally spoofed calls and discuss the FCC’s efforts to urge carriers to implement call blocking and call authentication techniques, including the SHAKEN/STIR framework.
To listen to this episode and subscribe, please click here.
On Friday, May 31, 2019, the FCC released a much-anticipated notice of proposed rulemaking (“NPRM”) to consider the adoption of an overall budget cap on the Universal Service Fund (“USF”), separate from any individual budgets for each of the four USF programs. The NPRM is in response to years-long advocacy on the part of Commissioner O’Rielly to impose budgets on USF spending, and it comes over dissent of the two Democratic Commissioners. While Commissioner O’Rielly justified the proposal as responsible stewardship of public money and said it would not limit funding in the near future, Commissioners Rosenworcel and Starks criticized the proposal as undermining the goals of Universal Service and, at worst, creating a “universal service hunger games” among the support programs.
The release of the NPRM was our first look at the specifics of a proposal that broke a month ago. The NPRM does not propose a specific budget, primarily raises questions about how to proceed, and does not contain any proposed rules. Nevertheless, opponents of the proposal have been most vocal since word of the NPRM came out, and we expect those USF stakeholders to continue in opposition to the approach. Meanwhile, proposals to reform USF contributions remain stalled (and lacking any consensus), while the contribution factor hovers around 20% of assessable revenues.