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FCC begins review of media ownership rules, classifies text messages

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FCC begins review of media ownership rules, classifies text messages

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission kicked off its quadrennial review of media ownership rules at its Dec. 12 monthly open meeting.

One rule, as part of the agency's Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, limits a single entity from owning multiple television stations in the same market, with a few exceptions. Another rule places limits on the number of radio stations an entity can own in a market. The third rule up for review is the agency’s dual-network rule, which prohibits a merger between any of the four largest broadcast networks. The agency is required by Congress to review media ownership rules every four years.

Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, the lone Democrat on the commission, expressed concern that the notice could open the door toward the elimination of these rules. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said that by asking for feedback on these rules, the agency’s NPRM does not offer any policy proposals or tentative conclusions.

The agency also voted to classify Short Message Service messages and Multimedia Messaging Service messages as information services, rather than telecommunications services under the Communications Act.

In 2018, the agency reclassified broadband as an information service under Title I of the Communications Act, which gave the agency less authority over internet service providers. Pai said the ruling sides "firmly with consumers," and was necessary to limit spam text messages.

"We shouldn’t allow unwanted messages to plague wireless messaging services in the same way that unwanted robocalls flood voice services," he said. "But that’s precisely what would happen if we were to classify text messaging services as telecommunications services and subject them to common-carrier regulation under Title II."

Title II regulatory powers, which are more stringent than Title I authorities, relate to common carriers, or companies that transport information, services or goods, such as public utilities and telcos.

Republican Commissioner Brendan Carr said that the agency took a "common sense step" to clarify that SMS and MMS text message services are like Facebook Inc.'s WhatsApp Inc. and Snap Inc.'s Snapchat in that they are not Title II telecom services.

Rosenworcel opposed the agency’s action, saying it granted phone carriers the legal right to block text messages and censor the content of messages.

"This agency did the same thing with internet service last year," she said at the open meeting. "On the one-year anniversary of the FCC's misguided net neutrality decision, which gave your broadband provider the power to block websites and censor online content, this agency is celebrating by expanding those powers to also include your text messages."

On Capitol Hill, Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., led a Dec. 7 letter with 10 senators to the FCC asking the agency to classify text messages as a telecommunications service and alleging that if text messages are classified as an information service, phone carriers would be able to block any text messages they want.

The letter also cites a 2007 instance, in which Verizon Communications Inc. reportedly blocked mass text messages from NARAL Pro-Choice America. The mobile carrier reportedly said it had the right to block messages that are controversial or promote an agenda. Verizon later reversed its decision to block text messages.

As part of its effort to boost 5G and expand mobile broadband, the agency also voted to proceed toward an incentive auction in 2019 that will free up more spectrum in the upper 37 GHz and 39 GHz bands and additional spectrum in the 47 GHz band.