Justia Utilities Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Communications Law
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Petitioner TruConnect Communications, Inc., sought designation from the Vermont Public Utility Commission as an eligible telecommunications carrier (ETC) to provide affordable telecommunications service to qualifying Vermonters under the Federal Lifeline program. The Commission granted TruConnect’s application subject to certain conditions, including a condition that required TruConnect to provide a free cellular handset to its customers. TruConnect appealed, arguing that the condition was imposed on clearly erroneous grounds. After review, the Vermont Supreme Court agreed and reversed and remanded for the Commission to revise its order. View "In re Petition of TruConnect Communications, Inc." on Justia Law

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To connect a California caller to a California recipient, long-distance carriers must purchase access to local exchange services provided by local carriers (switched access services). Long-distance carriers have no control over which local carrier will provide switched access services and “have no choice but to use this service." In its complaint to the Public Utilities Commission, Qwest (a long-distance carrier) alleged that local carriers discriminated against it by providing other long-distance carriers, AT&T and Sprint, with discounted rates for switched access services. Qwest was not charged more than the rates set forth in the local carriers’ tariffs. The Commission concluded Qwest showed that it was similarly situated to AT&T and Sprint and that there was no rational basis for treating Qwest differently with respect to the rates. The court of appeal affirmed, rejecting challenges to the Commission failing to conduct an additional evidentiary hearing, finding Qwest was similarly situated to the Contracting Carriers without considering various factors the Commission identified in earlier Decisions; treating differences in the cost of providing service as the only “rational basis” for different rates; concluding Qwest is entitled to refunds; and in determining for the first time during the rehearing that switched access is a monopoly bottleneck service. View "Bullseye Telecom, Inc. v. California Public Utilities Commission" on Justia Law

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Blanca Telephone Company was a rural telecommunications carrier based in Alamosa, Colorado. To be profitable, Blanca must rely in part upon subsidies from the Universal Service Fund (USF), a source of financial support governed by federal law and funded through fees on telephone customers. And in order to receive subsidies from the USF, Blanca must abide by a complex set of rules governing telecommunications carriers. The Federal Communications Commission began an investigation in 2008 into Blanca’s accounting practices, and identified overpayments Blanca had received from the USF between 2005 and 2010. According to the FCC, Blanca improperly claimed roughly $6.75 million in USF support during this period for expenses related to providing mobile cellular services both within and outside Blanca’s designated service area. Blanca was entitled only to support for “plain old telephone service,” namely land lines, and not for mobile telephone services. The FCC issued a demand letter to Blanca seeking repayment. to Blanca seeking repayment. The agency eventually used administrative offsets of payments owed to Blanca for new subsidies to begin collection of the debt. Blanca objected to the FCC’s demand letter and sought agency review of the debt collection determination. During agency proceedings, the FCC considered and rejected Blanca’s objections. Before the Tenth Circuit, Blanca challenged the FCC’s demand letter. And Blanca claimed the FCC's decision should have been set aside because: and subsequent orders on a number of grounds. Blanca claims the FCC’s decision should be set aside because: (1) it was barred by the relevant statute of limitations; (2) it violated due process; and (3) it was arbitrary and capricious. The Tenth Circuit concluded the FCC’s debt collection was not barred by any statute of limitations, Blanca was apprised of the relevant law and afforded adequate opportunity to respond to the FCC’s decision, and the FCC was not arbitrary and capricious in its justifications for the debt collection. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the FCC. View "Blanca Telephone Company v. FCC" on Justia Law

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The Communications Act of 1934 restricts the rates that telecommunications carriers may charge for transmitting calls across their networks, 47 U.S.C. 201(b). Iowa-based Aureon is a joint venture through which local carriers connect to long-distance carriers such as AT&T and has “subtending” agreements with participating local carriers. AT&T alleged that Aureon imposed interstate and intrastate access charges that violated the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) transitional pricing rules; improperly engaged in access stimulation (enticing high call volumes to generate increased access charges); committed an unreasonable practice by agreeing with subtending carriers to connect calls involving access stimulation; and billed for service not covered by its 2013 interstate tariff. The FCC found that Aureon violated the transitional rule.The D.C. Circuit reversed in part. The transitional rule applies to all “competitive local exchange carriers,” and Aureon falls into that category but the rule applies to intrastate rates so Aureon’s 2013 increase of its interstate rate was not covered. The court remanded the question of whether Aureon’s subtending agreements qualify as access revenue sharing agreements. The court affirmed the FCC’s determination that Aureon’s interstate tariffs apply to traffic involving any local carriers engaged in access stimulation. The FCC erred in refusing to adjudicate AT&T’s unreasonable-practices claim. View "AT&T Corp. v. Federal Communications Commission" on Justia Law

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In an appeal by allowance, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court considered the level of deference courts had to afford an administrative agency’s interpretation of its enabling statute. Additionally, the Court considered whether the Commonwealth Court erred in concluding that Distributed Antenna System (DAS) networks were public utilities under the Pennsylvania Public Utility Code (Code), thereby reversing the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission’s (PUC) interpretation of the definition of “public utility." This case involved the status of DAS networks as public utilities in Pennsylvania. Appellees, Crown Castle NG East LLC (Crown Castle NG) and Pennsylvania-CLEC LLC (Pennsylvania-CLEC) (collectively Crown Castle), operated DAS networks. Crown Castle’s DAS networks provided telecommunications transport services to Wireless Service Providers (WSP), such as AT&T Wireless, Verizon Wireless, T-Mobile, and others. The WSPs offered "commercial mobile radio service" (CMRS) to retail end-users. The Supreme Court agreed with the Commonwealth Court that DAS network operators did not provide CMRS because DAS network operators “own no spectrum, need no phone numbers, and their contractual relationship is solely with the WSPs, not with the retail cell phone user. . . . [T]he DAS network operator has no control over the generation of that signal [that it transports for the WSPs].” Accordingly, the Court concluded that DAS network operators did not furnish CMRS and were not excluded from the definition of public utility by Section 102(2)(iv). Further, the Court concluded the Commonwealth Court did not err in holding that the PUC’s interpretation of a clear and unambiguous statutory provision was not entitled to deference. Further, the Commonwealth Court properly concluded that DAS network service met the definition of “public utility” and is not excluded from that definition as it did not furnish CMRS service. View "Crown Castle NG East LLC, et al v. Pennsylvania Utilities Commission" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court reversed in part the judgment of the court of appeals reversing the judgment of the district court affirming the conclusions of the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) that CPS Energy violated both Tex. Util. Code 54.204(c)'s uniform-charge requirement and section 54.204(b)'s prohibition of discrimination, holding that the PUC could reasonably have concluded, as it did, that CPS Energy violated the plain terms of section 54.204(b).The PUC concluded that a utility that invoices different telecommunications providers a uniform rate nevertheless violates section 54.204(b) if it fails to take timely action to ensure that all pole attachers actually pay the uniform rate it invoices. The court of appeals reversed, holding that if a telecommunications provider does not pay the rate the utility uniformly charges, any discriminatory effect is the telecommunication provider's fault, not the utility's. The Supreme Court reversed, holding that the PUC's finding that CPS Energy failed to make any serious or meaningful effort to collect from AT&T Texas was supported by substantial evidence, and the effect on Time Warner Cable was clearly discriminatory. View "Time Warner Cable Texas LLC v. CPS Energy" on Justia Law

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The issue before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in this case concerned whether counties could advance common law claims seeking legal redress against telecommunications companies for alleged deficiencies in their administration of fees associated with 911 emergency communication services. The Supreme Court concluded the Legislature balanced counties’ interests against those of other co-participants enlisted under the 911 Act and provided sufficient indicia evincing its intention to centralize enforcement authority in the relevant state agency. "Although we realize that the County may have been disadvantaged by PEMA’s apparent failure to act, this unfortunate circumstance does not control the judicial construction of a legislative enactment." Thus, the Court reversed the Commonwealth Court, and reinstated the order of the court of common pleas. View "Co. of Butler v. Centurylink, et al.." on Justia Law

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Cobb and Gwinnett Counties, Georgia, sued telephone companies for their failure to collect and remit to the Counties a charge imposed on subscribers to offset the cost of 911 services. The telephone companies raised various defenses to the Counties’ suits, including that the 911 charge was a tax that the Counties were not allowed to collect by a lawsuit like this one. The trial court rejected that argument and allowed the cases to proceed, but the Court of Appeals vacated that aspect of the trial court’s ruling and remanded because further development of the record was needed to determine whether the charge was a tax. The Georgia Supreme Court concluded the charge was indeed a tax regardless of more factual development, and the Counties lacked legal authority to collect that tax in this lawsuit. View "BellSouth Telecommunications, LLC v. Cobb County et al." on Justia Law

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The Supreme Judicial Court affirmed an order of the Public Utilities Commission granting in part and denying in part a petition for a certificate of public convenience and necessity (CPCN) to operate as a competitive local exchange carrier. Enhanced Communications of Northern New England, Inc. appealed. The Supreme Judicial Court affirmed, holding (1) after after finding that Enhanced met all three criteria set forth in section 4(A) of chapter 280 of the Commission’s regulations, the Commission could nonetheless deny Enhanced’s petition for a CPCN on public interest grounds; and (2) the Commission lawfully denied Enhanced’s petition on public interest grounds. View "Enhanced Communications of Northern New England, Inc. v. Public Utilities Commission" on Justia Law

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Petitioners sought review of the FCC's order governing the rates that utility companies may charge telecommunications providers for attaching their networks to utility-owned poles. The Eighth Circuit denied the petition, holding that the term "cost" in the Pole Attachments Act, 47 U.S.C. 224, was ambiguous and the same "cost" definition need not be used to determine the upper bound for cable rates under section 224(d) and the rate for telecommunications providers under section 224(e). Therefore, the statute permits, but did not require, the Cable Rate and the Telecom Rate to diverge. The court rejected petitioners' argument that the FCC's interpretation of the statute rendered section 224(e) superfluous; concluded that the order constituted a reasonable interpretation of the ambiguity in section 224(e); and denied the petition for review. View "Ameren Corp. v. FCC" on Justia Law