A Quick and Dirty Guide to Researching FCC Dockets

Note: the information offered here, like everything else on this blog, is for general educational purposes only and you shouldn’t treat it or rely on it as legal advice!

Policy practitioners and lawyers who might have filed comments at other agencies that rely exclusively on the Federal Register and regulations.gov often get stymied when it comes to the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC uses its own proprietary filing and document management systems for managing rulemakings that can be a little inscrutable if you haven’t encountered them before, so here are a few quick tips I acquired over years of submitting FCC filings when I was active as a clinical professor. (Note that this discussion is specific to commenting on public rulemakings; the FCC has a whole raft of other databases and systems for various other things that I won’t cover here.)

The FCC, the Federal Register, and the eRulemaking Program

In theory, the process for public comment should be relatively standardized across the government. The Administrative Procedure Act requires notices of proposed rulemaking to be posted in the Federal Register, and the General Services Administration runs the eRulemaking program, which provides standardized document distribution and comment submission via regulations.gov.

For various historical reasons that I won’t get into here, the FCC posts only summaries of rulemakings to the Federal Register, and often much later than they’re posted on the FCC’s own systems. Say I’m engaged in the good civic practice of watching what the FCC is up to via the (awesome!) RSS feed on federalregister.gov, and I stumble across the FCC’s notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) on junk video service fees, published to the Federal Register on Jan. 5, 2024. As it turns out, this NPRM was actually voted out by the FCC at the December 13, 2023 Open Meeting and released on December 14, Moreover, the FCC actually released a draft of this NPRM several weeks before that on November 22, 2023 (a standard practice in recent years piloted by Chairman Ajit Pai in 2017). That means that relying on the Federal Register puts me more than a month behind the curve. Moreover, what’s published in the Federal Register is missing stuff that FCC practitioners rely on, like paragraph numbers, and supplemental materials like statements from the Commissioners. And if I try and file comments on regulations.gov, I won’t be able to find a place to do it.

Staying in the Loop

So, what’s a better way to keep tabs on what’s happening? It’s challenging to find a reliable and foolproof way to avoid missing anything I might be interested in, but one good practice for close FCC watchers is to subscribe to both the FCC’s Daily Digest, a daily, well, digest sent via e-mail of most all of the important documents, usually but not always including rulemaking announcements, that a Commission releases on a given day, and the “FCC Recent Releases (Combined)” RSS feed, which is on the FCC’s lengthy list of internal feeds. (It’s also possible to manually review headlines on the FCC’s homepage, though this is pretty suboptimal for obvious reasons). The reason it’s important to follow both is that the FCC is inconsistent about including items in the Daily Digest; indeed, neither the November 22 nor November 24 Digests include the news release of the Open Meeting agenda with the link to the draft NPRM on junk video service fees—maybe it got lost in the shuffle with the Thanksgiving holiday on November 23?—but it is included in the list of headlines, and I’m nearly positive in the RSS feed, though I can’t verify for sure. (There’s also a rather inscrutable announcement in the Daily Digest on Nov. 22 that the Media Bureau is opening a docket for the NPRM, but it’d be hard to know what this was if I wasn’t aware of the draft item dropping.)

Okay, so it might not be super obvious that the Open Meeting agenda might include these draft items. As the saying goes: you didn’t know, now you know. But the release of the draft is generally intended for more inside-baseball telecom nerds; it’s not finalized upon release, which means often that ex parte lobbying to change the draft can happen right up until the imposition of the Sunshine Period. And the ex parte rules are complex and not for the faint of heart.

So let’s set aside drafts, which are released only for items voted out at open meetings, and focus on adopted NPRMs (and their close cousin, the Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (FNPRM)). These are typically released in the Daily Digest and the recent releases after they are voted out at a monthly Open Meeting or “on circulation,” which is the method for releasing rulemaking items outside of an Open Meeting.

Searching for Active Rulemakings

But isn’t there a way to find recent, active rulemakings on the FCC’s site without being the kind of nerdy telecom lawyer/professor type that reads all the headlines every single day? Well, okay. The FCC does make available a list of the ten most popular rulemakings ranked by number of comments filed, as well as a somewhat more comprehensive list of recent rulemakings (H/T Eric Null).

But what if I can’t find what I’m looking for there? Perhaps the news is making the rounds about some kind of comment period that’s open at the FCC. Maybe it came via one of those ace reporters that was smart and well informed enough to find out about the rulemaking but doesn’t care about the eternity of bad karma that will befall them for putting their byline on a story that DOESN’T LINK TO OR ATTACH THE DOCUMENT EVEN THOUGH THE REPORTER FOUND IT, IT’S RIGHT THERE, FOR THE LOVE OF [CHOOSE YOUR DEITY] PLEASE JUST POST. THE. LINK.

Anyway, if I kinda have a general idea of what I’m looking for, I can search the FCC’s repository for official FCC documents: EDOCS. From the EDOCS quick search, the “Full Text Search” box might yield a result. Though it sounds scary, the button for EDOCS Advanced Search pulls up a bunch of pretty useful options, including the ability to search the title and description of a document separately.

If I search the title field for “junk fees,” the first result is a link to the landing page for the NPRM. Neat! From here, I can download the NPRM in various formats, as well as important associated documents like the statements from the Chairwoman and other Commissioners. I’m going to take a note of a few important numbers:

Federal Register Citation: 89 FR 740
DA/FCC #: FCC-23-106 (also available on the NPRM itself)
Docket No: 23-405 (also available on the NPRM itself)

These numbers are pretty useful to have on hand. Why’s that?

  • Anytime the Federal Register citation is live for an NPRM or FNPRM, I can look up the Federal Register notice on federalregister.gov and confirm the official comment filing dates (which usually count off from the date of Federal Register publication—here, the NPRM itself just says that comments are due “30 days after date of publication in the Federal Register.”) Of course, if the Federal Register cite isn’t included on an NPRM or FNPRM, that likely means it hasn’t been published yet—or the FCC hasn’t updated EDOCS yet, so I always double-check federal register.gov
  • Second, the DA/FCC number (23-106) is the official index number for the document on EDOCS, so if I write that down I can quickly find my way back to the landing page. (This is also on the NPRM itself.) Via the fine folks at the Georgetown Law Library, DA numbers are for items issued by bureaus on Delegated Authority, while FCC numbers are for items issued by the full Commission.
  • Third, sometimes I’ll see something called an “FCC Record” number here, often in the form “XX FCC Rcd. XX,” though it’s not yet published for this NPRM. This is the number that’s assigned when it’s published in the official FCC Record, which old-timey telecom lawyers used to buy in print for an exorbitant price from the U.S. Government Bookstore. That’s not so essential these days, but if I have access to Westlaw or another electronic service it’ll let me do various neat tricks including finding the appellate record, citing sources, and so forth.

But the most important thing is the docket number.

(Side note: the different prefixes for docket numbers indicate which FCC Bureau “owns” the docket; the GLL folks have a helpful list of abbreviations; “GN” might also appear for dockets that more than one Bureau owns, while rulemaking proceedings based on petitions for rulemaking are prefixed with “RM.”)

First, if I search EDOCS using the docket number (23-405), it’ll show me not only the NPRM, but every official document posted in this docket. Here, there’s not much—just a notice about the Media Bureau opening the docket, the NPRM itself, and a helpful reminder about the comment deadlines (which is just belt and suspenders on the Federal Register notice, but it’s helpful belt-and-suspenders if I see it here first). But some dockets can drag on for years or even decades with lots and lots of items from the FCC, so it’s helpful to be able to dig around and find related documents.

(Note, unfortunately, that the draft item I mentioned earlier isn’t posted to the docket; drafts aren’t official / finalized, so they don’t get added. Fooey.)

Searching for Comments

The other cool thing that the docket number lets me do is search for comments and other filings that other parties have submitted (and submit my own, though I won’t get into that here) on the Electronic Comment Filing System (ECFS), the FCC’s proprietary alternative to regulations.gov and the place where all filings not from the FCC itself are found (though FCC documents sometimes show up there too—read on). As of today, looks like 29 filings have been submitted on the junk fees NPRM. Neat! A few things to call out:

  • The “Proceedings” field in the search box here is a fancy auto-complete thingy that I can actually use to hunt for proceedings if I know a word in the formal name of the docket.
    • Unfortunately that’s not much help here, as the proceeding is wonkily titled “Promoting Competition in the American Economy: Cable Operator and DBS Provider Billing Practices.”
  • If I click “+Advanced Search,” I can refine my search for just about any field in the database, as well as exclude “Express Comments” (which are usually short text-only submissions that don’t get much attention from the FCC).
  • Note that there’s a nifty link at the top called “Search for Proceedings” that’ll let me search ECFS for proceedings. I don’t usually start here, but it’s not a bad idea to try if EDOCS is a bust.
  • Once I’ve run a search, If I click the “Commission Documents” link on the left side of the search results, it’ll take me back to the EDOCS search results, which can be a handy way to see those documents if I start searching for something on ECFS instead of EDOCS (H/T Brian Fung for this tip). Commission documents are also shown in a little window off to the right of the search results.
  • There’s an RSS link at the top, which can be a handy way to keep tabs on new filings in a docket (though I have to be careful not to search for anything other than the docket number).
    • Sometimes the FCC will post a courtesy copy of a document in ECFS in addition to EDOCS, which is another way to get notice when something important drops in a docket I’m following (though it doesn’t always happen and there’s often a delay, so I can’t rely on it).
    • Building up a stable of RSS feeds is a good way to track a whole bunch of dockets at once!
  • If there are a lot of comments to sort through, I can download a Comma-Separated Values (CSV) file by clicking the down arrow icon at the top of the results. Neat!
  • As I’m scrolling through, I can click on the main link to a comment to go to a landing page for a filing (which includes a bunch of metadata), or I can just click the document link itself.
    • I have to be aware that some filings have multiple attachments.
    • Combining this with the appropriate modifier key for opening a new tab or downloading the file can be a fast way to queue a bunch of comments that I need to read all at once.
  • Most filings will include the docket number somewhere in the filing, which is a fast way to find the NPRM or FNPRM or other filing in the docket if I’m starting from searching for a filing.

There’s a whole bunch more to FCC practice than this, but these are at least the basics of how I get around the primary document systems.