Enforcement, Investigations & Audits

In this two-part edition of Full Spectrum’s recurring series on FCC enforcement, Partner Steve Augustino and Senior Associate Brad Currier highlight a recent trend and cover some of the most interesting late-summer enforcement items.

Part one of this episode focuses on the significance and implications of Commissioner-led investigations, such as Commissioner O’Rielly regarding E-Rate overbuilding

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.

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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.


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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

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:


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A new report from the Wall Street Journal on FCC robocall enforcement set off a minor scrum over the effectiveness of the FCC’s TCPA efforts under Chairman Pai. The report claimed that, despite recent eye-popping enforcement actions and policy proposals aimed at curbing unwanted calls, the FCC collected only a fraction of those fines so far. Out of $208.4 million in fines issued since 2015 for violations of the FCC’s robocalling and associated telemarketing rules, the agency collected just $6,790, or less than one-hundredth of one percent. None of the over $200 million in robocall-related fines imposed under Chairman Pai’s leadership have been collected to date, including the record-setting $120 million penalty issued last year against a robocalling platform and its owner for placing over 96 million “spoofed” marketing robocalls.

This report prompted commentary from Commissioner Rosenworcel, who tweeted that these “measly efforts” were “not making a dent in this problem” and called for carriers to provide free call blocking tools to consumers. In our view, however, the report really doesn’t relate to the vigor – or alleged lack thereof – of FCC robocall enforcement efforts. Instead, the small amount of assessed fines that are actually collected starkly demonstrates the internal and external hurdles faced by the FCC, which impact all types of enforcement actions, not just robocalls. The report likely will rekindle Congressional criticism of FCC enforcement processes and calls for more systematic solutions to the problem of unwanted calls.


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In February 2019, the FCC issued an Enforcement Advisory warning marketers of LED signs that their products must be authorized, properly labeled, and contain the required user disclosures before being marketed in the United States. The Enforcement Advisory followed a slew of enforcement actions in 2018 totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars in penalties against

After multiple enforcement actions totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars in penalties against importers and retailers of LED signs last year, it appears that the message has not been fully received. To the contrary, the FCC is back at it in enforcing its equipment marketing rules against importers and retailers of LED signs in 2019. In a recent Enforcement Advisory, the FCC again warned companies marketing noncompliant LED displays that they may be subject to costly investigations and significant monetary penalties. As we previously reported, these warnings should put all importers and retailers of LED signs – many of whom may not know FCC rules apply to them – on notice that their products should be authorized, properly labeled, and contain the required user disclosures before being marketed in the United States. The FCC often uses Enforcement Advisories to set the stage for future enforcement action and the agency appears poised to move forward with another wave of enforcement actions in the coming months. It is therefore critical that companies assess their equipment marketing compliance procedures now to avoid Commission enforcement later.

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Back for its 10th year, our most popular webinar offers an in-depth discussion on the federal Universal Service Fund for participants in USF programs and for contributors to the Fund. This webinar will address major developments in the four support funds and discuss the pressures on the USF contribution system in an era of 20% contribution rates. In addition, as usual, we will offer tips and insights into managing audits and investigations in these highly scrutinized programs.

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On February 4, 2019, the FCC announced a plan to create a new division housed in its Enforcement Bureau, dedicated to prosecuting fraud in the agency’s Universal Service Fund (“USF”) programs. Citing to recent USF-related proposed fines and voluntary settlements, the FCC asserted that the creation of a specialized Fraud Division was necessary to combat misuse of funds under the High Cost, E-Rate, Lifeline, and Rural Health Care programs that make up the USF. The FCC’s brief, two-page Order leaves many questions unanswered about the proposed Fraud Division’s ambit and the status of the “USF Strike Force” that preceded it. However, the Order signifies that the FCC plans to redouble its fraud enforcement efforts in 2019 following recent setbacks on the USF rulemaking front. As a result, eligible telecommunications carriers and other recipients of USF support should keep a close watch as the scope and function of the new Fraud Division starts to take shape.
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