Big gap between FCC press releases and final enforcement

23 December 2015 by Steve Blum

I’m coming to get ya. Honest.

The Federal Communications Commission is barking but not biting, according to federal lawmakers in both houses and on both sides of the aisle. According to a Politico article, the hefty fines that the FCC has said it’s imposing on a wide variety of transgressors haven’t been, and may never be, collected.

The problem seems to be that the FCC’s enforcement bureau issues press releases announcing big fines, without having finished its investigations or getting to the point that the money is actually collectable. It’s happened with the monster $100 million penalty imposed, sorta, on AT&T this past summer for the way it manages mobile data services and on four fines against convention centers and hotels for blocking mobile WiFi hotspots.

Those are just recent examples. In 2013, the FCC said it was imposing about $100 million in fines against companies that had defrauded its low income lifeline telephone subsidy program, but hasn’t followed through, according to the Politico article

“I am beyond confused as to why not one dime of that has been collected,” Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said at FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel’s renomination hearing last month. “We might as well have a big flashing sign that says, ‘Doesn’t matter, do whatever you want in the Lifeline program because we’re not even gonna bother to collect the money. And we’re gonna keep paying you.’”

The press releases mark the first step in the enforcement process, not the last. The FCC has to finish investigating, which can take years, companies can challenge findings, and the federal justice department has to do the actual collecting. And the final amount could be wildly different, and likely far less, than the amount touted in the initial announcement.

In its defence, the FCC says it “has collected 86 percent of the actual fines it has imposed over the last two years”. But it doesn’t say what percentage of the headline grabbing press release numbers it represents. There’s clearly some bite there, but there’s even more bark.