SW Legal studies in Business

Courts Must Defer to Reasonable Agency Interpretation of Unclear Statutes
Description Supreme Court held that the FCC's assertion that it had the authority to regulate cell phone service and high-speed Internet service was a reasonable interpretation of the federal statute that gives it authority over telecommunications services that are attached to poles. Courts must defer to agencies when their interpretation of an ambiguous statute is reasonable.
Topic Administrative Law
Key Words Ambiguous Statute; Reasonable Interpretation; Telecommunications
C A S E   S U M M A R Y
Facts The Pole Attachments Act requires the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to set reasonable rates, terms and conditions for certain attachments to telephone and electric poles. This includes "any attachment by a cable television system." The FCC interpreted the Act to cover pole attachments for wires that mixed high-speed Internet service and traditional cable television service, and to also cover attachments by wireless communications providers. When challenged by Internet and cell phone service providers, the appeals court held that the FCC did not have the authority to regulate such service. The FCC appealed.
Decision

Reversed. Courts must accept an administrative agency's reading of an ambiguous statute if it is a reasonable interpretation. The addition of internet access by existing cable television providers is an additional use of an attachment that is clearly controlled by the statute. The subject matter here is complex, technical, and dynamic since the nature of the service has been changing. Agencies have authority to fill gaps in regulatory authority when the statutes do not specifically cover the matter. Wireless carriers, such as cell phone services, are "telecommunications service" that are covered by the statute. While they do not have as much wire as do traditional services, they do have equipment attached to the poles related to telecommunication, so it is reasonable that the statute would apply to them as the FCC determined.

Citation National Cable & Telecommunications Assn. v. Gulf Power Co., 122 S.Ct. 782 (Sup. Ct., 2002)

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