Communications Law

Communications law is the practice of law that relates to the exchange of information using technology. It’s any law that involves the regulation and use of electronic telecommunication. Communication law includes technologies like radio, television, cable and broadband internet. It involves the creation of rules and policies that govern use of these technologies.

Communication regulations govern both public and private communications. Lawmakers create these regulations with the goal of making communication technologies accessible to all Americans at a reasonable price. Most communications law and regulation in the United States involves the federal agency the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

Major areas of telecommunications law

Telecommunications law governs the way that Americans use technology to communicate. There are many requirements to meet before a telecommunications company can lawfully sign on for the first time. Here are some of the areas of telecommunications regulations:

Radio regulation

Some of the earliest electronic telecommunication in the United States regulated radio. Radio is still popular in the United States today. Regulations govern who uses radio signals and what radio signals they can use. There are even regulations that govern the placement and use of utility poles.

Content regulation

The United States aggressively prohibits public broadcast material that regulators see as obscene. In addition, some broadcasters must comply with mandatory children’s programming requirements. They may have to cover local events or news. They must also make sure that they offer equal opportunity for diverse viewpoints.

Ownership regulations

Lawmakers don’t want any one telecommunications company to have too much power in a single market. For that reason, there are limits to how much of the market share any one television company can own in a single market. All broadcasters have to make sure that they comply with ownership limitations and stay wary of violating antitrust prohibitions.

Licensing regulations

Most telecommunications companies need a license to do business. Practicing telecommunications law often involves the important task of deciding who gets a license and under what terms. Lawyers help their clients apply for the necessary licenses, and government telecommunications lawyers make decisions regarding the license applications.

Major telecommunications laws and cases

Communications Act of 1934

The purpose of the Communications Act of 1934 was to create “rapid, efficient, nationwide and worldwide wire and radio communication service.” One major goal of the Act was to make sure that all members of the public have access to telecommunication capabilities at reasonable prices. Another goal was to make sure telecommunication occurs in a way that protects and facilitates national defense.

The law made it mandatory for phone providers to connect all phones to 911. A working 911 connection is mandatory whether or not a user has active or paid phone service. In addition, the legislation created the Federal Communications Commission as a replacement to the Federal Radio Commission. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 largely replaced the Communications Act of 1934.

Telecommunications Act of 1996

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 was the first major piece of legislation addressing broadband regulations. Like the Communications Act of 1934, the goal of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was to encourage telecommunications capabilities for all Americans on reasonable terms. Another major goal of the Act is to allow and encourage competition in the telecommunications industry.

Challenging regulatory power

As government entities create telecommunications law, communications companies may seek to challenge those laws. One major case challenging the power of the FCC is National Broadcasting Co. Inc. v United States, 319 U.S. 190 (1943). In that case, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the FCC’s power to regulate interactions between national broadcast networks and their affiliate stations.

The Federal Communications Commission

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is the federal governing body for telecommunications rules and regulations. The FCC oversees telecommunications in all 50 states, U.S. territories and Washington DC. The FCC’s $388 million budget comes from licensing fees. The FCC is divided into seven different bureaus each with its own function:

  • Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau – creates policies, oversees disability access and responds to questions and complaints
  • Enforcement Bureau – enforces rules and licensing requirements
  • International Bureau – creates international policies and manages international telecommunications issues
  • Media Bureau – regulates cable, broadcast and electronic media
  • Wireless Telecommunications Bureau – oversees domestic wireless telecommunications including mobile phones and spectrum distribution
  • Wireline Competition Bureau – promotes growth and development of wire line telecommunications
  • Public Safety and Homeland Security – ensures critical communications infrastructure for national security

What do private communications attorneys do?

Attorneys who work for private communications companies help their clients navigate the myriad of federal rules and regulations that they need to comply with in order to lawfully conduct business. The first step is often licensing. Most telecommunications companies need a license to conduct business in their industry. In the case of some types of media such as radio, this also includes securing the right to use a certain frequency to broadcast.

Communications attorneys must also help their clients know what they need to do in order to conduct business in lawful ways. For example, when regulations require a broadcaster to give a political candidate whatever amount of air time that they purchase, the communications attorneys must make sure their clients are aware of and in compliance with the requirement. Other telecommunications lawyers might ensure that their clients aren’t in violation of the requirements of net neutrality.

Proposed mergers are another important practice area for communications lawyers. Mergers in the communications industry are common. Because there are restrictions on market share in some telecommunications sectors and general antitrust concerns in all cases, communications lawyers have the critical work of helping their clients expand and merge their companies in lawful ways.

Communications lawyers also deal with routine matters that are common to any business. They may need to assist with contract negotiation for on-air talent. They may need to respond to personal injury lawsuits. When consumers file complaints or lawsuits, they need to appropriately respond. They must help their client comply with tax filings and requirements. Finally, communications lawyers may serve as lobbyists to educate lawmakers on communications issues and ask for legislative changes.

What do government communications attorneys do?

Most communications attorneys that work for the government work for the FCC. They create rules and regulations, review and approve license applications and enforce their rules. There are more than 1,200 employees of the FCC. Some FCC lawyers work in an administrative capacity writing regulations. They might also serve to review license applications or other requests from telecommunications companies.

Other FCC communications attorneys work in litigation. When the FCC believes that a company has violated its rules, it may file an enforcement action or assess a fine. FCC attorneys act on behalf of the FCC to bring these allegations and present the evidence to the person who adjudicates the matter. Administrative law judges might work in communication law to the extent that they hear these kinds of cases. FCC attorneys may also bring their cases to traditional courtrooms throughout the United States.

Why practice communications law?

Communications lawyers have the power to shape telecommunications use throughout the United States and beyond. With almost all Americans using telecommunications each day, communications lawyers have the important task of regulating the methods, ownership and rules of telecommunications services. All communications law operates within the backdrop of First Amendment rights to free speech.

Communications law is technical and challenging. For attorneys who enjoy studying and mastering large amounts of technical information, communications law can provide a welcome challenge. While most federal employees live in Washington DC, they are attorneys throughout the country for the purpose of bringing enforcement actions. Private attorneys have more geographic options because there are many communications companies throughout the United States. Private attorneys also have the opportunity to work for large corporations and enjoy the associated benefits including career advancement opportunities and large-scale, organized benefit plans.