Licensing and authorisation
What licences/authorisations are required to provide telecoms services?
The licences and authorisations required vary depending on the service provided. Both commercial and non-commercial uses of spectrum require licensing or complying with rules for unlicensed devices. Owning and operating a radio station requires a licence from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Submarine cables also require a licence and approval from the FCC. Television stations, satellites and transmitting satellite earth stations can all require licences and approval from the FCC. Further, devices that emit radio waves such as WiFi routers or mobile phones, generally require equipment authorisation from the FCC and must comply with FCC standards. These licences or authorisations require FCC approval to be transferred or assigned, which provides the regulatory authority for FCC review of mergers of telecoms firms. Landline telecoms companies are typically licensed at the state level for their intra-state services, with the FCC holding Section 214 licensing authority over their interstate and international services. Cable systems generally hold FCC licences for certain types of transmitting equipment, but their operating authority is typically provided at a local level.
What are the eligibility, documentary and procedural requirements to obtain a licence/authorisation?
The procedure involves filing for a licence. The application must contain information about the applicant and the proposed use of the licence, including:
- ownership information;
- technical and operational parameters; and
- any previous disciplinary issues with the FCC or felony convictions.
Applicants must also demonstrate that granting the licence will be in the public interest. For licences that are being assigned or transferred, the statutory standard is whether the transfer is in the public interest.
Validity period and renewal
What is the validity period for licences/authorisations and what are the terms of renewal?
The term for a licence or authorisation varies, as do the requirements for renewal. For example:
- satellite licences are valid for 15 years;
- cable television relay service licences are valid for five years;
- wireless licences for spectrum use are valid for 10 years; and
- broadcast licences are valid for eight years.
For most spectrum licences, renewal is generally contingent on meeting certain build-out requirements. If those build-out requirements are met, there is generally an expectation that the renewal will be granted. Renewal requirements for broadcast stations and radio stations require public notification with specified language to allow the public the opportunity to comment on whether the station has served the public interest. Operating authority for a licensee continues even after a licence has expired if there is a valid pending renewal application.
What fees apply?
FCC licences are subject to application and annual regulatory fees. The FCC maintains a list of fees on its website (www.fcc.gov/licensing-databases/fees/regulatory-fees). Telecoms carriers must also contribute to a variety of funds such as the Universal Service Fund, the Telecommunications Relay Service and the North American Numbering Plan Administration, among others.
What is the usual timeframe for obtaining a licence/authorisation?
There is no set timeframe. An application for a new licence, if unopposed, can be processed and granted within 30-45 days. For assignments or transfers of licences, there is a 180-day timeframe, but the process can be longer if the assignment or transfer is highly contested or shorter if uncontroversial or a pro forma transfer or assignment.
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