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.


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The FCC plans to adopt an order eliminating the controversial rural “rate floor” that restricts the amount of Universal Service Fund (“USF”) support received by some carriers to build and maintain networks in underserved areas at its next meeting scheduled for April 12, 2019. The rural rate floor, which requires carriers receiving Connect America Fund (“CAF”) support to charge a minimum monthly rate or risk losing subsidies, has been a longstanding target of criticism by Chairman Pai as well as consumer groups, Tribal authorities, and rural carriers. The proposed order follows a nearly two-year freeze in the rate floor implemented soon after Chairman Pai assumed leadership and would avoid an almost 50% increase in the rate floor scheduled to take effect in July 2019. Rate floor elimination would provide significant regulatory relief to rural carriers by increasing flexibility over service rates, while reducing associated reporting and customer notification requirements.

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At the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) December Open Meeting, commissioners voted to approve a Declaratory Ruling (“Ruling”) that classifies native forms of wireless messaging, short message service (“SMS”) and multimedia messaging service (“MMS”), as information services, and declares that such services are free from regulation as commercial mobile services. The FCC’s objective with the Ruling is to remove uncertainty for messaging service providers about applicable regulations and also enable wireless messaging providers to adopt more rigid efforts to block spam and spoofing messages.  This action comes only a few months after Commissioner Mike O’Rielly publicly called for the FCC to finally act on the pending classification proceeding.

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After more than twenty years, VoIP’s unclassified status may be coming to an end. Last month, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision in Charter Advanced Services LLC v. Lange in which it considered whether an interconnected VoIP service offered by Charter can be regulated like a telecommunications service by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (“MPUC”). The court recognized that the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) has repeatedly failed to resolve the issue of VoIP service regulatory classification. However, the Eight Circuit upheld the district court’s finding that Charter’s VoIP service is an information service that is federally preempted from state regulation based on its interpretation of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (the “Act”) and FCC orders.

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In the largest forfeiture ever imposed by the agency, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued a $120 million fine against Adrian Abramovich and the companies he controlled for placing over 96 million “spoofed” robocalls as part of a campaign to sell third-party vacation packages.  The case has received significant attention as an example of the growing issue of spoofed robocalls, with lawmakers recently grilling Mr. Abramovich about his operations.  The item took the lead spot at the agency’s May meeting and is emblematic of the Pai FCC’s continued focus on illegal robocalls as a top enforcement priority.  While questions remain regarding the FCC’s ability to collect the unprecedented fine, there is no question that the FCC and Congress intend to take a hard look at robocalling issues this year, with significant reforms already teed up for consideration.

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Continuing its assault on unlicensed broadcast operations, the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) issued a unanimous Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture (“NAL”) at its September meeting proposing the statutory maximum fine of $144,344 against a pirate radio operator as well as the owners of the property housing the unlicensed station.  The action represents the first time the FCC has found landowners apparently liable for pirate radio operations on their property and the first Commission-level NAL issued against a pirate radio operation.  Imposing penalties on property owners that support pirate operations has been a longstanding goal for Commissioner O’Rielly, and Chairman Pai signaled that cracking down on pirate stations remains a key enforcement priority for the FCC.

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CashThe Federal Communications Commission (FCC) reduced the penalty assessed against a long distance carrier by over $6 million in a Forfeiture Order issued earlier this week, after the carrier demonstrated an inability to pay the proposed fine.  In doing so, the FCC provided rare insight into how it assesses inability to pay claims raised by enforcement action targets and balances such claims against other forfeiture adjustment factors.  The Forfeiture Order provides the most recent detailed guidance about how a company’s finances can impact the FCC’s forfeiture analysis, but offers little comfort to low-margin businesses with limited net revenues.

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Wi-Fi management or blocking practices have once again seized the enforcement spotlight at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).  On November 2, the FCC released a Notice of Apparent Liability (Dean NAL) proposing  a $718,000 penalty against M.C. Dean, an electrical contracting company, for allegedly blocking Wi-Fi hotspots at the Baltimore Convention Center.  That same day, the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau (Bureau) released an NAL proposing a $25,000 fine against Hilton Worldwide (Hilton NAL) for its apparent refusal to comply with a Bureau Letter of Inquiry (LOI) investigating the company’s Wi-Fi management practices.  That investigation continues.

The new releases highlight several items of interest: 1) the FCC’s continued focus on Wi-Fi management resulting in blocking activities and alleged malicious interference, 2) the debate among the Commissioners regarding the FCC’s ability to fine companies for such activities under current law and FCC regulations, and 3) the potential expansion of Bureau investigations into the activities of the subsidiaries, affiliates and possibly franchisees of the investigation’s initial target.


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