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The Commission and its Enforcement Bureau enforce the Communications Act and the Commission's rules and orders in two primary ways: (1) by initiating investigations, and taking appropriate action if violations are found; and (2) by resolving disputes between industry participants either through mediation and settlement, or adjudication of formal complaints.

FCC-Initiated Investigations

The Bureau generally opens an investigation after receiving information about a potential violation from any number of sources, and gathers the information it needs through a Letter of Inquiry, or LOI. The LOI requires the recipient to answer questions and produce documents relevant to evaluating whether a violation has occurred, and if so, the nature and scope. Especially in field investigations, the Bureau may also gather information through physical inspection of facilities. Where necessary, the Bureau also has the power to compel the production of information and testimony through administrative subpoenas. The existence of an investigation is generally nonpublic until the Commission takes enforcement action.

If an investigation reveals that a party has violated a legal requirement that the Commission enforces, the Commission may take several different actions. The agency may propose a penalty through issuing a Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture, or NAL, which advises the party how it has violated the law and the amount of the proposed penalty. The party has an opportunity to file a response, which the Commission will evaluate and address a subsequent order. The Communications Act establishes the maximum amount that the Commission may impose for a penalty against a particular violator, and the factors it must consider in determining the appropriate penalty. The Commission's rules include more information about how the agency may exercise its discretion under the statute. If a party wishes to resolve a potential violation outside of the NAL process, it may engage in settlement discussions with Commission staff; if successful, these discussions generally result in a Consent Decree, which include as core elements a compliance plan that is designed to prevent recurrence of the violation that led to the enforcement action, as well as an appropriate voluntary financial contribution to the U.S. Treasury.

The Commission can also impose a forfeiture through a hearing process, or take a number of other enforcement actions that do not include a financial penalty or contribution. Subject to certain exceptions, the Commission cannot issue a forfeiture to a party who is not a conventional regulatee of the Commission (i.e., a party other than a broadcaster, cable operator, or telecommunications carrier), unless the agency has previously issued a citation to the party about its violation, and the party subsequently engages in the same conduct. Examples of other non-monetary enforcement tools available to the Commission include admonishments, Notices of Violation (NOVs), cease and desist orders, and, in extreme cases, license revocations.

Mediation & Complaint Adjudication

The Commission's other enforcement process involves resolving disputes between industry participants, either through mediation or adjudication of formal complaints. The former process is a confidential one where Commission staff acts as mediators to disputes that parties elect to present before them, with the hope that the staff can facilitate resolution.

A party may elect to file a formal complaint against a common carrier, which triggers a process similar to federal court litigation. The parties remain free to settle their differences at any point, but if they do not, the Commission will resolve the controversy by issuing a ruling on the matter. A formal complaint may proceed on an expedited track, either because the law requires the Commission to act within a certain time period, or because one or more of the parties requests that the Commission accept the case on its "accelerated docket," and the Commission does so. Damages are available to complainants in appropriate cases.