Universal Service Fund

On January 30, 2019, Geoffrey Starks was sworn in as the newest FCC Commissioner, restoring the agency to its full complement of five Commissioners for the first time since the summer. In announcing his swearing in, Commissioner Starks stated he intends to focus on strong FCC enforcement “protecting the most vulnerable and holding wrongdoers accountable.” He added that he will “serve the public interest by encouraging innovation, competition, and security, as well as advancing policies to increase the quality, availability, and affordability of our country’s communications services.” Commissioner Starks joins Commissioner Rosenworcel as one of the two Democratic Commissioners at the FCC. He fills the seat vacated by former Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, who left in June 2018 after nearly nine years at the FCC, including a stint as acting Chairwoman in 2013. Commissioner Starks will complete Ms. Clyburn’s five-year term, which expires at the end of June 2022. Although Commissioner Starks’ swearing in is not expected to result in any immediate FCC policy shifts, his addition provides a strong voice in favor of Open Internet regulation, Universal Service Fund reform, and enforcement.
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In a move certain to inflame the ongoing trade dispute between the United States and China, Justice Department officials announced criminal charges against Chinese telecommunications equipment manufacturer Huawei, several of its affiliates, and its chief financial officer for alleged theft of trade secrets from U.S. telecommunications providers, bank fraud, obstruction of justice, and other violations. The two indictments issued on January 28, 2019, represent just the latest pushback against foreign telecommunications interests by U.S. officials, citing national security concerns and unfair trade practice claims. The FCC already proposed rule changes last year that would prohibit the use of Universal Service Fund support to purchase equipment or services from foreign companies deemed national security threats, primarily targeting companies from China and Russia. Congress also recently passed legislation prohibiting federal agencies and those working with them from using components provided by Huawei and other Chinese manufacturers. With the Trump Administration reportedly poised to issue an executive order effectively barring American companies from using Chinese-origin equipment in critical telecommunications networks, domestic service providers should keep a close eye on their supply chain security and potential liability when working with foreign entities. A criminal conviction on these charges could lead to broader restrictions on trade in U.S. export-controlled products with the company. Given the presence of encryption in telecom equipment, export controls on such products are relatively widespread
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In this edition of Full Spectrum’s recurring series on FCC enforcement, Partner Steve Augustino and Associate Brad Currier highlight some of the major developments in FCC enforcement in 2018 and discuss potential next steps in the year ahead.

Part one of this episode focuses on the big picture in 2018 and the FCC’s use of

Just before suspending most operations due to the ongoing partial federal government shutdown, the FCC announced its tentative agenda for its next open meeting, scheduled for January 30, 2019. While the January agenda is brief compared to the jam-packed meetings that typified 2018, the FCC plans to adopt items to advance new anti-spoofing measures combating manipulated caller ID information and take further action to address the management and handling of 911 calls for the IP Captioned Telephone Service (“IP CTS”) that aids communication by those with hearing loss. Rounding out the notable meeting items, the FCC would adopt a mechanism to phase down legacy high-cost support for price cap carriers as well as competitive carriers previously subject to the “identical support rule” and transition such support to the winners of the recent Connect America Fund (“CAF”) Phase II auction.

You will find more details on the significant January meeting items after the break:


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The FCC plans to take aim again at unwanted texts and robocalls at its next meeting scheduled for December 12, 2018. Unwanted robocalls and texting consistently top the list of complaints received by the FCC and that has driven much regulatory attention by the agency in recent years. Specifically, at its December meeting, the FCC intends to classify most text messaging as an “information service” to preserve service providers’ ability to block robotexts and other unsolicited messages. The FCC’s anticipated action comes after years of debate regarding the proper regulatory treatment for text messaging and could have far-reaching impacts by exempting such services from the standard “common carrier” rules applicable to most legacy telecommunications. The FCC also plans to order the creation of a reassigned numbers database that would allow robocallers and others to check in advance whether a particular number still belongs to a consumer that has agreed to receive prerecorded calls. Rounding out the major actions, the FCC released draft items that would: (1) set the stage for the next Spectrum Frontiers auction of high-band spectrum; (2) offer additional funding to rural broadband recipients of Connect America Fund money if they increase high-speed offerings; and (3) issue the FCC’s first consolidated Communications Marketplace Report, providing a comprehensive look at industry competition. The December items cover many priority Pai FCC topics and would affect service providers of all sizes while tackling longstanding consumer protection and broadband deployment issues. You will find more details on the significant December items after the jump:

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We attended the Audit Committee meeting at USAC’s quarterly business meeting this morning.  While much of the discussion concerned internal controls USAC has in place to oversee its functions, the business update portion of the meeting gave us a snapshot into contributor and beneficiary audit activity at USAC.  The presentation gave us some insight into a likely increased amount of activity over the next few months.

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As summer begins to wind down, the FCC will begin considering whether to revise or eliminate decade-old regulations, including certain rules related to the Universal Service Fund (“USF”), equipment authorization procedures, and disabilities access. The FCC kicked off its review with a Public Notice under the Regulatory Flexibility Act, which requires federal agencies to reexamine regulations within 10 years of their adoption to assess the continued need for the rules, the rules’ complexity, and whether the rules overlap or conflict with other federal regulations. The purpose of the review is to ensure that older, unnecessary rules do not remain on the books, lowering the compliance burden for smaller businesses. Although the FCC rarely eliminates a rule outright as part of this review, the comments received can help the agency identify improvements for future rulemakings or flag potential compliance issues.

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The FCC will focus on 5G spectrum and the infrastructure supporting next-generation broadband services at its meeting planned for August 2, 2018. Continuing its push to make more spectrum available for flexible wireless use to support 5G technologies, the FCC teed up two major spectrum-related items for its August Open Meeting, which comes hot on the heels of its July 12 meeting. The items would open up 1.55 GHz of spectrum for commercial use through two auctions, with the first auction set to begin later this year. The FCC also plans to take a major step forward in supporting broadband deployment by adopting a long-anticipated “one-touch make-ready” regime for pole attachments, while taking aim at deployment moratoria. Rounding out the major items, the FCC will seek comment on launching a $100 million Connected Care Pilot Program. The proposed items maintain the trend of jam-packed Summer FCC meetings (which will then take a break until September 26) and will be sure to generate input from all communications industry sectors. You will find more details on the significant August FCC items after the jump:

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Echoing concerns raised by other parts of the federal government over the past several years, the FCC, at its open meeting on April 17, 2018, adopted a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“NPRM”) to consider a rule which would prohibit Universal Service Fund (“USF”) support from being used “to purchase or obtain any equipment or services produced or provided by a company posing a national security threat to the integrity of communications networks or the communications supply chain.”  The NPRM seeks comment on issues such as how such a rule can be implemented and enforced, what types of equipment and services should be covered, and how manufacturers covered by the rule are to be identified and made known to USF recipients.  Although this is only the start of the proceeding, the FCC’s action could have a broad-reaching impact for some communications equipment manufacturers and create potential liabilities for entities participating in any of the federal USF programs.  All companies purchasing equipment from certain countries – principally China and Russia – may be affected, even if they don’t receive federal USF money.

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Nearly a year after it ordered sweeping deregulation of the business data services (“BDS”) market, the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) proposed new rules that would allow certain small rural carriers to move from longstanding rate-of-return regulation to price cap regulation for their BDS offerings.  The transition would reduce the regulatory obligations of such carriers, including the need to prepare and file complex cost studies, which the FCC stated would allow carriers to rededicate resources to building and maintaining networks in underserved areas.  The FCC also proposed removing pricing restrictions on lower-speed BDS offerings in areas with sufficient competition and sought input on whether pricing restrictions for higher-speed DBS offerings also should be eliminated.

Unlike prior BDS actions, where the issue was hotly contested for years and deregulation passed on a party-line vote, the proposed rulemaking was supported by all five Commissioners, at least for purposes of gathering a record. It’s not clear if this unanimity will hold throughout the proceeding, but the FCC may be on the verge of turning a page in its focus on these services, which are a bedrock for both retail offerings and for competitive carriers extending their networks.


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