Keep up with the latest developments and legal issues in the telecommunications and emerging technology sectors, with exclusive access to a comprehensive collection of telecommunications law news,...
By Lydia Beyoud
April 11 — A recent $51 million proposed fine is a sign of more to come in Universal Service Fund integrity and fraud enforcement, Federal Communications Commission Enforcement Bureau Chief Travis LeBlanc said April 11.
The Enforcement Bureau issued a notice of apparent liability against Total Call Mobile Inc. on April 7 for allegedly enrolling thousands of duplicate and ineligible consumers into the Lifeline program since 2014.
The case was brought by the bureau's USF Strike Force, a group within the bureau formed in July 2014 to curtail waste, fraud and abuse in all four USF programs.
“The cases that they've been working on and investigations should start coming to fruition this year,” LeBlanc said during a Practicing Law Institute panel in New York.
“We will, I think, continue this year to aggressively police the funds that the FCC oversees or administers from fraud, waste and abuse,” LeBlanc said.
The FCC alleged the company collected about $9.7 million in improper USF payments. While the Total Call case sets a new record for proposed Lifeline abuse fines, the Task Force is looking across the entirety of the program, LeBlanc said.
Pay TV consumer protection work is another of the Enforcement Bureau's highest priorities, LeBlanc said.
The bureau hasn't focused much on consumer protections for cable and satellite subscribers in recent years, but views it as important to do so now, said LeBlanc.
“The complaints that we are seeing from subscribers of cable and satellite services really are high,” he said. Consumer complaints relate to unclear bills, debt collection practices, and quality of service.
Those complaints raise concerns for the bureau, “especially given that the rules that we have on the books that apply to consumer protection in the cable context are pretty strong,” he said. LeBlanc pointed to existing rules on prompt cancelation of service and requirements to protect customers' personally identifiable information.
LeBlanc said fines have gotten larger under his tenure as bureau chief. “However, it's not just because we're looking for the maximum fines,” he said. “It's because we're targeting the most egregious cases” where the most consumers are harmed, he said.
The Enforcement Bureau has often been the focus of congressional scrutiny and the telecommunications industry's ire since LeBlanc, a former senior California state prosecutor, took the helm in 2014. The bureau has proposed a number of record fines during his tenure. The public interest community has supported those actions, but telecom industry observers have criticized the agency and LeBlanc, saying the high proposed fines are either overly harsh or intended to garner good press while ultimately bringing in far less to the Treasury upon settlement.
A number of components factor into the bureau's proposed fines, including repeat offenses, prior conduct, a company's ability to pay and statutory requirements, LeBlanc said. Any of those factors can cause fines to go up or down, he said.
A company's willingness to self-report any violations, offer customer restitution and willingly put compliance measures in place can reduce fines during settlement negotiations, he said.
The FCC recognizes that such measures carry costs for companies, he said. “There's a lot that a company has to do to meet the compliance provisions of a consent decree,” said LeBlanc. The FCC's aim is to make sure the fine is appropriate, given the settlement of the whole, he said, adding that the Enforcement Bureau generally “substantially” reduces proposed fines in order to reach a settlement.
LeBlanc said companies shouldn't simply not respond to an enforcement action. “That really is a bad idea. I think you want to engage,” he said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Lydia Beyoud in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Keith Perine at email@example.com
All Bloomberg BNA treatises are available on standing order, which ensures you will always receive the most current edition of the book or supplement of the title you have ordered from Bloomberg BNA’s book division. As soon as a new supplement or edition is published (usually annually) for a title you’ve previously purchased and requested to be placed on standing order, we’ll ship it to you to review for 30 days without any obligation. During this period, you can either (a) honor the invoice and receive a 5% discount (in addition to any other discounts you may qualify for) off the then-current price of the update, plus shipping and handling or (b) return the book(s), in which case, your invoice will be cancelled upon receipt of the book(s). Call us for a prepaid UPS label for your return. It’s as simple and easy as that. Most importantly, standing orders mean you will never have to worry about the timeliness of the information you’re relying on. And, you may discontinue standing orders at any time by contacting us at 1.800.960.1220 or by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Put me on standing order at a 5% discount off list price of all future updates, in addition to any other discounts I may quality for. (Returnable within 30 days.)
Notify me when updates are available (No standing order will be created).
This Bloomberg BNA report is available on standing order, which ensures you will all receive the latest edition. This report is updated annually and we will send you the latest edition once it has been published. By signing up for standing order you will never have to worry about the timeliness of the information you need. And, you may discontinue standing orders at any time by contacting us at 1.800.372.1033, option 5, or by sending us an email to email@example.com.
Put me on standing order
Notify me when new releases are available (no standing order will be created)