The FCC voted unanimously yesterday to adopt a Notice of Inquiry (“NOI”) that may have a profound impact on the delivery of communications services in residential and commercial buildings, shopping malls and other multiple tenant environments (“MTEs”). This proceeding will revisit FCC rules and policies developed during the last 17 years, focusing on whether changes need to be made to enhance broadband deployment and consumer choice. Building owners and managers, communications service providers, and tenants all have a stake in the outcome of this inquiry.

In a nutshell, current FCC policies favor competitive access by telecom and video service providers (with some exceptions), and prohibit exclusive contracts between service providers and building owners that would limit such access. These rules also cover access to in-building wiring and the conduits and rights-of-way within these properties that are owned or controlled by the service providers. The rules apply to regulated service providers because the FCC generally lacks jurisdiction over building owners and managers.

The most recent FCC order, issued in 2010, approved the use of exclusive marketing and bulk billing arrangements between video providers and building owners. Exclusive marketing arrangements give video providers the exclusive right to market services to residents in a building. Bulk billing arrangements permit the video provider to serve each resident of the building, usually at a significant discount from the retail rate. The billing for services is often included within the rent, whether the resident uses the services or contracts with another service provider.

The FCC initiated this proceeding in response to allegations from fixed and mobile broadband service providers that they face challenges in expanding their service footprint because of MTEs with exclusive contracts. There are also arguments that state regulations intended to encourage competitive access actually hinder the ability to provide competitive services. In one pending proceeding, a group of service providers has asked the FCC to preempt an ordinance recently adopted by the City of San Francisco requiring building owners to give competing service providers access to existing wiring upon request from a resident, which the complaining service providers and many building owners contend will deter investment in the communications infrastructure of new buildings and is impractical because of space limitations in many older buildings.

Unlike the earlier proceedings which were focused on specific markets (telecommunications or video services) or types of buildings (resident or commercial), the NOI will cover all services and all types of MTEs. Indeed, for the purpose of this proceeding, MTEs include both commercial and residential premises such as apartment and condominium buildings, shopping malls, gated communities, mobile home parks, garden apartments and other centrally managed residential real estate developments, or any multi-unit premise occupied by two or more distinct units. Most buildings are covered by this proceeding.

Some of the specific questions on which the FCC seeks comment include:

  1. Whether there are state and local regulations that may inhibit broadband deployment and competition within MTEs;
  2. Whether the FCC should revisit its decision approving exclusive marketing and bulk billing arrangements;
  3. Whether revenue sharing agreements, exclusive wiring arrangements or other types of contractual provisions are affecting broadband competition within MTEs;
  4. Whether there are statutory or jurisdictional considerations that should guide the FCC’s actions in this proceeding; and
  5. Whether the proposed reclassification of broadband internet access as an information service will impact the FCC’s legal authority to address broadband deployment within MTEs.

Comments in this proceeding will be due July 24, 2017 and reply comments will be due August 22, 2017. The NOI process is a first step toward the development of new rules. Once the NOI comment cycle is completed, the FCC may issue a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking proposing rule changes, requiring another round of comments before new rules could be adopted.