FCC Grants TCPA Exemption to Schools, Utilities for Emergencies

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By Lydia Beyoud

Aug. 4 — The Federal Communications Commission in a declaratory ruling issued Aug. 4 granted Edison Electric Institute, the American Gas Association and Blackboard, Inc. narrow exemptions to penalties under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991. The exemptions will allow schools and utilities to make robocalls or robotexts related to public safety or emergencies,

Customers who provide their phone numbers to utilities grant permission to the utility to contact them for service disruption and repair notifications, or nearby electrical power work, the agency said. Similarly, schools, many of which Blackboard serves as a communications web portal between administrators and students' families, can contact students' guardians when they fail to show up for school or for other emergencies, the FCC said.

The commission approved the item 5-0 with Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel dissenting in part. Rosenworcel said in a statement that the FCC has the authority to grant narrow TCPA exemptions to promote safety and prevent emergencies, but added that the agency should exercise that discretion “sparingly.”

Declaratory rulings are frequently used as safe harbors by other companies not party to the rulings, though they aren't legally binding. That could provide cover for other utilities or parties to make robocalls or robotexts related to emergencies or public safety. That could in turn lead to an increase in unwanted robocalls and robotexts, which are the foremost consumer complaint to the FCC.

“The Commission goes a step too far when it deduces from its conclusion that schools may make certain calls in emergency situations—that any third party can also make a robocall or send a text message to any person under the auspices of an emergency,” Rosenworcel said.

“The Commission takes the unorthodox approach of creating a third party carve-out and burying it in a footnote without proper notice or a full examination of its likely result,” she added.

Republican Commissioner Michael O'Rielly said in a statement the ruling demonstrates that the FCC's interpretation of the TCPA framework is “overly restrictive, unrealistic, and unworkable.”

Without exemptions such as those granted to schools and utilities, consumers risk losing valuable time to react to emergency situations, he said. The TCPA rules don't allow for reliable relief to parties with limited resources, he said.

“If parties have to spend resources to come before the Commission to ensure that they won’t face needless liability for such vital messages, then the Commission’s framework has missed the mark by a very wide margin indeed,” O'Rielly said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Lydia Beyoud in Washington at lbeyoud@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Keith Perine at kperine@bna.com

For More Information

Text of the declaratory ruling is at http://src.bna.com/hsJ.

Text of Rosenworcel's statement is at http://src.bna.com/hsL.

Text of O'Rielly's statement is at http://src.bna.com/hsM.

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