FCC Dispute Resolution
We all would like to believe that customers will be delighted with our telecommunications services and that there will never be disagreements between telecommunications partners. But in reality, there will always be dissatisfied customers no matter what extraordinary measures carriers take; and there will always be at least some level of tension between partners in a joint telecommunications venture.
When the central issue of the disagreement involves U.S. telecommunications law, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) can get involved in some form. Naturally, carriers that are licensed or regulated by the FCC are most likely to make an effort to get matters resolved on their own to keep their records clean with the FCC. However, this article discusses three options that customers have to resolve matters with FCC involvement; namely, informal complaints, formal complaints and mediation.
Matters Subject to Complaints
Matters subject to complaints typically fall into several categories, such as: unwanted calls from telemarketers; unsolicited fax advertisements; unsolicited commercial messages to wireless devices; marketing of unauthorized equipment; selling of equipment or services not accessible to consumers with vision, speech or hearing impairments; and obscene, indecent or profane material in radio and television broadcasts. However, when disputes are among carriers, the subject matter can involve any issue subject to FCC regulations. These matters can be as wide ranging as Universal Service Fund issues and electromagnetic interference.
An informal complaint is just that: a complaint with no required formal structure. It can be as simple as a letter to the FCC outlining the alleged violation of a given telecommunications carrier. There is no fee for filing an informal complaint and the complainant is not required to appear before the FCC. Moreover, the complaint can be made online.
The FCC imposes certain consumer protection requirements on telecommunications service providers. For instance, specific FCC rules ensure that telephone bills clearly indicate the services for which consumers are billed, prevent telephone companies from switching consumer service without permission (slamming) and prevent the disclosure of calling records without permission.
Telecommunications companies that receive an informal complaint have 30 days to respond to it and to provide a copy of that response to the FCC. The FCC reviews all responses, but it does not issue rulings or decisions. Rather, if the FCC finds that there has been a violation of the U.S. Communications Act, it may refer the matter to the FCC Enforcement Bureau to conduct its own investigation and possibly impose sanctions.
Complainants that are not satisfied with the response to an informal complaint may file a formal complaint. Formal complaints must be filed within six months of the date of the response to the informal complaint and there is a $200 filing fee. To convert an informal complaint into a formal complaint, the complainant must show proof that it has made a good faith effort to settle the matter.
Formal complaint proceedings are similar to court proceedings. Each party must comply with certain procedural rules, appear before the FCC and file documents that address legal issues. Parties filing formal complaints are usually represented by attorneys or experts in telecommunications law. A formal complaint is essentially a paper hearing. There are no witnesses and no jury. Qualified FCC staff from the Market Dispute Resolution Division rule on procedural matters, and all facts are supported by affidavits. The formal complaint process is time consuming and complicated.
Mediation takes place at FCC offices in Washington, D.C. Mediation is free and it typically lasts a day. Qualified FCC staff participate and meet with the parties separately and jointly. The FCC gives views and can make recommendations regarding the merits of the case. However, the FCC will not make a decision. It will be up to the parties to work out a settlement.
Raul Magallanes runs a Houston-based law firm focusing on telecommunications law. He may be reached at +1 (281) 317-1397 or by email at raul@ rmtelecomlaw.com.