FCC Grants Tracfone Waiver of DTV Consumer Education Requirement

The FCC has regulations in place which require all Eligible Telecommunications Carriers (“ETCs”) to notify their Lifeline and Link-Up customers about the digital television (“DTV”) transition through the use of bill notices or monthly stand-alone mailers and publicity campaigns. See FCC Orders Telephone Lifeline Providers to Include Digital TV Transition Information in Customer Bills. ETCs are entities authorized to receive federal Universal Service support through the Universal Service Administrative Company to offer Lifeline discount telephone service and Link-Up discounted installations. TracFone, which has received ETC status in several states for its wireless SafeLink Lifeline service, including New York, (see TracFone Launches “Safelink” Wireless Lifeline Service in New York) had sought a waiver of this requirement.

The FCC previously required monthly DTV transition notices to contain, at a minimum, the following message:

The nationwide switch to digital television broadcasting will be complete on June 12, 2009, but your local television stations may switch sooner. After the switch, analog only television sets that receive TV programming though an antenna will need a converter box to continue to receive over-the-air TV. Watch your local stations to find out when they will turn off their analog signal and switch to digital-only broadcasting. Analog-only TVs should continue to work as before to receive low power, Class A or translator television stations and with cable and satellite TV services, gaming consoles, VCRs, DVD players, and similar products.

Information about the DTV transition is available from your local television stations, www.DTV.gov, or 1-888-CALL-FCC (TTY 1-888-TELL-FCC), and from www.dtv2009.gov or 1-888-DTV-2009 (TTY 1-877-530-2634) for information about subsidized coupons for digital-to-analog converter boxes.

As a prepaid wireless service provider which does not send monthly bills, TracFone’s waiver request told the FCC that it can not meet the notification requirements as written. Instead, it offered to provide DTV transition notices with every handset sent to its Lifeline customers. In addition, in lieu of sending monthly stand-alone notices, TracFone proposed to send text messages to its Lifeline customers twice monthly, at no charge to those customers. However, due to size limitations of text messages, TracFone proposed that these messages would not include the minimum information required, but would instead state “Be ready for the DTV transition 6/12/09. Call 1-888-CALLFCC for add’l information.” TracFone claimed that its “alternative notification proposal will reach consumers more effectively than mailing notifications because its Lifeline customers will view the messages directly on their wireless handsets and will likely read the contents of the text messages before deleting them.”

In a decision released on April 10th , the FCC held that good cause exists to grant the waiver request. The FCC found that

TracFone’s circumstances are unique because, unlike other ETCs, it automatically adds prepaid airtime minutes to its Lifeline customers’ handsets. As such, it does not have an opportunity to provide the minimum information required. . . in a traditional billing statement. Furthermore, it is unable to provide the minimum information via text message to its Lifeline customers’ handsets, the manner in which it usually communicates with its customers, because of the capacity limitations of text messaging.

The agency did amend TracFone’s request by asking the company to change “DTV” to “digital TV” in the text message to avoid confusion. It also supported TracFone’s efforts to reach its customers about the DTV transition twice a month, rather than the required once a month.

The DTV transition is slated for June 12, 2009.

Lou Manuta

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