Enforcement, Investigations & Audits

The FCC proposed sweeping reforms to its process for suspending and debarring entities from participating in its largest funding programs, including the four Universal Service Fund (“USF”) programs, at its meeting on November 22, 2019. If adopted, the proposed rules would mark a sea change in FCC enforcement, allowing the FCC to cut off funding more quickly and for a wider range of alleged misconduct. The FCC also would expand the scope of these rules to cover its Telecommunications Relay Service (“TRS”) program and National Deaf-Blind Equipment Distribution Program (“NDBEP”), in addition to the High-Cost, Lifeline, E-Rate, and Rural Health Care USF programs.

The proposed rules also would impose new disclosure obligations on support recipients and require them to verify that they do not work with suspended/debarred entities. In addition, the proposed rules would create a federal reciprocity system, in which entities suspended/debarred from participating in funding programs administered by other agencies similarly would be prevented from participating in the FCC’s programs (and vice versa). The proposed rules would impact nearly every USF participant and warrant close attention. The FCC has not announced comment deadlines on its proposals, but they will likely occur in early 2020. While the FCC’s proposals are just the first step towards actual rule changes, the agency has shown every indication that it will continue moving full speed ahead on USF reform in the coming year.


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The FCC plans to follow last month’s major 911 location accuracy item with another significant public safety rulemaking at its next meeting scheduled for December 12, 2019. Under the FCC’s plan, all telecommunications carriers and interconnected VoIP service providers would be required to transmit calls to 988 to 24-hour crisis services maintained by the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Veterans Affairs. In addition, the FCC anticipates launching two rulemakings aimed at opening up more mid-band spectrum for commercial and unlicensed uses to meet growing consumer demand for wireless broadband. The meeting agenda also includes an item addressing contentious issues surrounding intercarrier switched access charges. Moreover, the FCC will vote on three enforcement actions at the December meeting. Although, per normal practice, the agency provided no specifics on the planned enforcement actions, enforcement meeting items normally entail large fines in high-profile FCC focus areas like robocalling. While not as jam-packed as prior meetings, the December agenda underscores the FCC’s steadfast focus on public safety and spectrum reallocation in 2019.

You will find more information on the most significant proposed December meeting items after the break:


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After a long road that included questions over the scope of FTC and FCC jurisdiction, AT&T finally settled one of two cases challenging the unlimited data plans it offered to consumers.   On Tuesday, November 5, 2019 the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) moved to settle its October 28, 2014 complaint against AT&T Mobility, LLC (“AT&T” or “Company”) in which the FTC asserted that the Company was reducing the data speeds of customers grandfathered into unlimited plans after they had used a certain amount of data. The stipulated order, approved 4-0 by the FTC and awaiting final approval from the United States District Court for the Northern District of California, will require AT&T to dole out $60 million to eligible customers and prohibit the Company from portraying the amount or speed of mobile data in its plans, including unlimited, without disclosing any material restrictions accompanying such plans.

As we covered extensively in several previous blog posts, one of the primary consequences of the case were questions about the limits of the FTC’s jurisdiction. The case mirrored a time when the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) took opposing positions in successive administrations regarding whether mobile data services and other Broadband Internet Access Services (“BIAS”) were subject to FCC regulation. One of the central questions underlying the case was which agency, the FCC or the FTC, could regulate AT&T’s mobile data practices. After the FTC won a Ninth Circuit decision that its jurisdiction reaches to non-common carrier activities of common carriers (and the FCC concluded that mobile BIAS was not a common carrier service), AT&T agreed to settle the FTC case. However, so long as the jurisdiction of particular services remains in doubt, or is subject to changing FCC positions, service providers will face potential overlapping enforcement activities by the two agencies.


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The FCC plans to prohibit the use of Universal Service Fund (“USF”) support to purchase equipment or services from foreign entities that it determines pose national security risks at its next meeting scheduled for November 19, 2019. As we previously reported, the ban may severely impact participants in all federal USF programs and involve a costly “rip and replace” process to remove foreign-made equipment from domestic telecommunications networks. The FCC also expects to move forward on its heavily-anticipated E911 vertical accuracy (i.e., z-axis) proceeding and adopt new requirements for wireless carriers to better identify caller locations in multi-story buildings. Rounding out the major actions, the FCC anticipates proposing new rules for suspending and debarring entities from participating in USF and other funding programs; removing longstanding unbundling and resale requirements for certain telecommunications services; and widening the contribution base for the Internet Protocol Captioned Telephone Service (“IP CTS”) to include intrastate revenues.

The draft items cover the gamut of telecommunications issues, affecting everything from the construction of next-generation 5G networks to legacy intercarrier competition rules, and should be closely watched. You will find more details on the most significant November FCC meeting items after the break:


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On October 7, the Enforcement Bureau (“EB” or “Bureau”) of the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC” or “Commission”) took action to enhance the method by which public safety and enterprise wireless providers file interference complaints and receive initial responses. In a Public Notice, the Bureau announced that a new interference complaint intake portal, which the Bureau sees as a “backstop” when private resolution efforts fail, is now operational for these types of spectrum users. The action was in response to the Commission’s 2015 Field Modernization Order, in which the FCC called on the Bureau to ensure that EB’s field offices respond to radiofrequency interference (“RFI”) complaints filed by public safety and industry users in a timely fashion.

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Featuring keynote remarks from FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly

Date/Time: Wednesday, October 2, 3:00 – 5:30 PM
Location: Kelley Drye & Warren LLP, 3050 K Street NW

This seminar will feature background presentations on the Universal Service Fund (“USF”) programs, remarks from FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly and a conversation with experts on the future of the USF programs. Attendees are encouraged to ask questions and participate in the discussion as we take a deeper dive into the issues.


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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