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FCC Set to Press Forward on 'White Spaces,' But Pulls Comprehensive Overhaul of Telecom Payments

WASHINGTON, November 4 – The Federal Communications Commission on Monday deleted one of the four big-ticket items that it planned to tackle at its Tuesday open meeting, but resisted pressure to spike a rule that would force broadcasters to share the vacant spaces between television channels.

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News: Special Election Day Report

By Drew Clark, Editor, BroadbandCensus.com; and Drew Bennett, Special Correspondent, BroadbandCensus.com

WASHINGTON, November 4 – The Federal Communications Commission on Monday deleted one of the four big-ticket items that it planned to tackle at its Tuesday open meeting, but resisted pressure to spike a rule that would force broadcasters to share the vacant spaces between television channels.

In pulling FCC Chairman Kevin Martin’s plan to overhaul both the universal service fund and inter-carrier compensation system – or the rates that telephone companies pay each other to connect calls – Martin ran up against a four-commissioner revolt against his plan.

In dueling press releases on Monday, Martin blamed his fellow commissioners for seeking a one-month delay of the plan. He said that they will not “be prepared to address the most challenging issues” come December.

The other four commissioners – two Republicans and two Democrats – cited the need to circulate the comments more widely. “Any reform proposal [must] receive the full benefit of public notice and comment – especially in light of the difficult economic circumstances currently facing our nation,” said the four commissioners.

But Martin hasn’t backed down yet from his goal to force broadcasters to share the “white spaces” on the television dial. Broadcasters’ fears of interference have kept stations far, far, apart on the television dial. For example, in Washington, no more than four of the 21 channels between 30 and 50 are occupied: 32, 45, 47 and 50. That leaves 17 available as white spaces.

The channel numbers vary from city to city, and will likely change with the transition to digital television (DTV) on February 17, 2009. Still, a lot of vacant frequencies remain vacant in the airwaves.

Martin has resisted pressure from broadcasters and their allies – including the major football leagues, Broadway producers and mega-churches, including House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell, D-Mich. – and is apparently siding with the high-tech companies, including Google, Microsoft, Phillips and others, that seek to use the frequencies for transmitting broadband signals over low-power devices.

The commission is apparently set to accept a report of the agency’s Office of Engineering and Technology that would set technical parameters for the operation of such devices.

Additionally, the FCC is apparently also pressing forward to authorize the merger of mobile provider Sprint with Clearwire, a providers of wireless broadband, and the merger of Bell company Verizon and regional telecommunications company Alltel.

Pushing for Telecommunications Changes on Election Day

The universal service fund and intercarrier compensation (USF and ICC) regimes combine to dictate, to a large extent, the revenue and subsidy flows between large, integrated telecommunications providers that serve comparatively wealthy and urban populations on the one hand (Verizon, for example) and smaller rural carriers who serve comparatively lower-income customers in areas where deployment and service costs are high on the other (like Century Tel).

Among the key policy components of the inter-carrier compensation and universal service regimes the prices that rural carriers charge to terminate wireline voice services, the methodology by which subsidies are extracted from urban carriers to contribute to the USF, and the expansion of services that are eligible to receive universal service funding.

While most telecommunications stakeholder groups agree that inter-carrier compensation rates and universal service funding methods need to be changed, there was a great deal of discontent over the impact that Martin’s proposed rule changes would have on carriers that serve low-income and rural consumers, often at the highest costs.

Additionally, critics charged that Martin was rushing to overhaul a portion of telecommunications regulation that could severely impact the landscape of the industry for years to come – on the heels of his departure from the commission with a new presidential administration.

The National Telecommunications Cooperative Association reacted positively to news that the USF/ICC item had been pulled. The group, which represents rural telephone co-ops, praised the four commissioners “for recognizing the importance of due process and in providing all interested parties the opportunity to fully review and comment on the proposal.”

OPASTCO and the Western Telecommunications Association, which also represent rural carriers, were dismayed by the news. “OPASTCO and WTA believe that a delay in the vote for the comprehensive plan, as negotiated by the two associations,… will have extremely negative consequences for rural carriers and the rural customers they serve,” the organization said in a statement.

“We worked in good faith with the FCC, communicating with all of the FCC commissioners’ offices to ensure that each office understood the negative affects a plan without these modifications would create,” OPASTCO President John Rose stated.  “Delaying the vote from Nov. 4th will make it virtually impossible for the FCC to achieve such a beneficial comprehensive plan for rural areas.”

Randolph May, President of the market-focused Free State Foundation, said: “It is disappointing that the FCC won’t be voting on Chairman Martin’s plan to fundamentally reform the intercarrier compensation and universal service regimes. In this instance the public has had adequate notice and opportunity to comment on the substance of the proposals put forward by Chairman Martin.”

Wireline Regime Reform: Averting a Byzantine Failure

In 2006, FCC Commissioner Michael Copps commented that inter-carrier compensation “is Byzantine…it’s broken and has been dissolving quickly.” A recent discussion on Capitol Hill sponsored by the Free State Foundation also labeled both regimes “archaic” and featured Commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate who started the session by agreeing that “archaic is certainly an apt description” and submitted that changes to inter-carrier compensation and universal service are long past due.

Following Commissioner Tate at the Free State Foundation’s event, Gerald Brock, Professor of Telecommunication and of Public Policy and Public Administration at The George Washington University, described the long and tortured history of three of the open dockets involved that date back anywhere from seven to twenty years.

Intercarrier compensation rates, for example, were first structured in 1984, when the break-up of “Ma Bell” (AT&T) separated incumbent local carriers from long-distance and regional providers and dictated high access rates that these carriers would charge each other to complete a telephone call that passed over multiple providers’ wires. While these regulated rates are significantly lower today, they still disproportionately favor rural incumbents and are not sensitive to more sophisticated forms of service (like Internet service) that have evolved since the break-up.

The inter-related universal service regime, designed to fund the build-out of rural telephone lines, is also criticized as being cumbersome and punitive by nationally integrated providers who must pay the bulk of the fees. Meanwhile, the services that the fees fund have not evolved either and many telecommunications experts have cited a need for high-speed Internet services to be integrated into the regime.

In a September 22, letter to the FCC, the Mercatus Institute presented results from a variety of studies that show the antiquated access rates to be burdening consumer welfare with at least a $1 billion deadweight loss, as recently as 2002. The Mercatus researchers and other groups concerned with the economic burden placed on regional carriers and their comparatively urban and wealthy customer-base by the current regime recommend the Commission minimize the access charges on price-sensitive services like long-distance wireline telephone calls and wireless calls in general.

In a separate letter, Verizon Communications recommended the Commission set a reduced flat rate access rate for all carriers, all jurisdictions and all service types. In an effort to recover lost revenue for high-cost rural carriers, the regional carrier also recommends the Commission increase the monthly charge for an access line, a reform also referred to as a “numbers based approach” to Universal Service Fund reform.

Given this platform for potential reforms to be examined by the Commission, many interest groups also wanted to see the Universal Service Fund expanded to include broadband services.

Many Industry Groups Want Change to Wait

While an array of industry stakeholders agree with the likes of Tate and Brock that change is overdue, many perceive Martin’s recent efforts to be rushed and overly-ambitious.

“I am concerned that expedited consideration of this draft proposal won’t allow sufficient time for interested parties to review and comment on its impact,” Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. said in a recent letter addressed to the Commission and signed by 60 other lawmakers.

The National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissions (NARUC) echoed the sentiments of this letter and urged the FCC in a press release last week to “allow more time for due process and public comments before it acts on a sweeping proposal that will revamp intercarrier compensation and the Universal Service Fund.”

NARUC, whose members include the state regulatory commissions that play a distinct role in setting compensation and universal service rates along with the FCC, is particularly concerned with the possibility that the federal commission will make the most drastic changes to rules that determine interstate rates that carriers charge and that currently fall under the jurisdiction of state regulatory bodies.

Without an official public statement regarding the exact rule changes that will be considered on November 4, NARUC and others are left to speculate and the association has recommended a stay of 90 days on any decisions and the issuance of a public notice “summarizing the…discrete issues…and proposed legal theories.”

Some groups have even levied cynical charges against the commission that imply a rush towards massive reforms on November 4th that might slip under the national radar in the midst election day.

“A ‘phony crisis’ is being manufactured by FCC Chairman Kevin Martin and some on Capitol Hill who want to change the USF fee on long-distance to a flat per-line charge that would increase phone taxes  by up to $700 million for 43 million U.S. households, most of them low-income seniors, rural residents and minorities,” said the report by the Keep Universal Service Fund Fair Coalition.

On the other hand, the agency faces a November 5 deadline to resolve issues concerning the termination of service bound for a dial-up internet providers.

Leveling the Playing Field or Tilting it Further?

Whenever the agency follows-through on the intercarrier compensation and universal service funding mechanisms, then the revenue flows between providers in the telecommunications industry could be dramatically shifted.

NARUC asked the Commission to consider whether reforms to the regimes will “increase wireless/cellular or broadband deployment in unserved or underserved high cost areas, or actually undermine deployment” and whether they will “put upward pressure on local rates.”

Some say that a “numbers based approach” to universal service reform may lower some consumers long-distance rates and it would also, according to Verizon’s letter, raise the monthly flat rate for owning a residential phone line from $6.50 to $10.50.

Consumer groups claim that the reaction to such a rate-hike by consumers in low-income areas would be to forgo telephone adoption altogether, cutting off a segment of the population from vital communication services, even in the case of an emergency.

Groups like the Mercatus Institute, however, counter with studies that reveal consumers to be more price-sensitive to long-distance charges then to flat rates for line ownership and are pushing for a numbers-based approach to reduce deadweight losses to overall consumer welfare that would be complimented by programs that ensure emergency connectivity for consumers who lack access otherwise.

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FCC

FCC Encouraged to Limit Data Collection on Affordable Connectivity Program, Others Want More

One trade group warns about providers leaving the program if data collection too onerous.

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Photo of Jonathan Spalter, CEO of US Telecom, from ISE

WASHINGTON, August 9, 2022 – The Federal Communications Commission is being warned not to overly burden internet service providers with its Congress-mandated order to collect pricing and subscription rates data from participants in the Affordable Connectivity Program.

Under the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act, the FCC is required by November 15 to adopt rules to collect annual data relating to the price and subscription rates of each internet service offering by a provider participating in the broadband subsidy program, which offers up to $30 per month for low-income households (up to $75 per month on tribal lands) and a one-time $100 off a device.

But a number of submissions are warning the FCC against rules that require any additional data collection efforts beyond the scope of the law so as not to unduly burden providers and, at least one other trade group said, push providers away from participating in the program.

Telecommunications company Lumen, for example, recommended the commission limit the scope of the annual reporting to monthly pricing and to exempt “excessively granular” requirements, such as promotional rates, grandfathered plans, or subscriber-level data, which the commission is proposing to collect.

Communications companies and industry groups want to limit data collection

T-Mobile said in its submission that Congress told the FCC to rely on the broadband consumer labels, which are due this November, for pricing. The commission asked for comment on the interpretation of the IIJA requiring a reliance on price information displayed on the consumer labels.

For subscription information, T-Mobile urges the commission to look at data collection from the Universal Service Administrative Company – which administers high-cost broadband programs for the Universal Service Fund – to avoid “adopting a largely redundant collection that would impose additional burdens” on all parties.

“The IIJA leaves the Commission no discretion to collect any additional price information, and the statute does not require collection of data on other service plan and network characteristics,” such as speed and latency and data allowances, the submission said.

“Collection of this additional data would create additional burdens and is unnecessary,” the submission added.

Similar limitations were also proposed by telecom Starry Inc., which pushed for privacy protection by collecting data at a higher level (such as the state) and working with information collected in other transparency efforts, such as the consumer labels.

Industry association IMCOMPAS, which represents internet and competitive communications networks, told the FCC in a submission that data collection should be limited to the state level to protect consumer privacy and proprietary information of the providers; streamline other data collection, including the consumer labels; and provide instruction on how to providers to better understand the data collection rules.

Concurring with this position is the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association, which said data collection must be simple and should not go to a level of detail that goes beyond what the IIJA calls for. The trade group, which represents small providers, said such data collection beyond that required in the law could burden companies with small teams.

The included data, WISPA said, should be an annual aggregate of items including broadband plans subscribed to by ACP customers, number of subscribers for each plan, and pricing minus promotional rates, taxes, discounts or pricing breakdowns for bundled services. Any additional onerous collection could see providers leave the program, it added.

Industry groups US Telecom and NCTA – Internet and Television Association similarly urged a simple annual report that captured undiscounted monthly pricing of each broadband service offering and the number of customers subscribed. The Competitive Carriers Association and the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association also recommended a limited data collection approach.

ACA Connects, a trade group representing small and medium-sized independent operators, said the FCC should direct providers to report numbers of ACP households “that are applying their benefit to each speed tier along with the standard price of each tier on a state-by-state basis” – rather than the FCC-proposed continuous collection of subscriber-level data via the National Lifeline Accountability Database, it said, adding the commission should be mindful of the time it takes for completion, as smaller providers have limited resources.

Others pushing for subscriber-level, more data

The cities of New York and Seattle, in their submissions, said the FCC should collect subscriber-level information to assess different service adoption rates on different plans over time – publishing categories based on price, plan and performance by the zip code. It added it is not seeking information about the households itself, and said this would not be a privacy concern as others have pointed out.

Similarly, the Connecticut Office of State Broadband said the commission should go beyond the IIJA requirements by mandating information including performance of the plans and whether a device is offered.

For the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, data collection on the ACP should include data beyond what’s included in the consumer labels, and should include other items such as installation, equipment, service, miscellaneous, data and usage fees, and state and local taxes.

In a joint submission, non-profit media group Common Sense and internet advocacy group Public Knowledge recommended data collection that is necessary to monitor the ACP, which include promotional rates, taxes, overage costs and device and equipment costs. This way, they say, the FCC can get a better idea of how much is going toward internet access after applying the subsidy. They are also asking for the commission to collect information on whether the subsidy is being used to upgrade or discount current service, and how customers are becoming aware of the program.

The commission is currently trying to get more Americans on the program, which has over 13 million households signed up. That number, the commission said last week, should be much higher. As such, it ordered the development of an outreach program to market the subsidy.

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Universal Service

Universal Service Fund in Need of Reform, Said Panelist at Broadband Community Summit Event

The Universal Service Fund’s base is shrinking.

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Photo of Carol Mattey speaking.

HOUSTON, May 3, 2022 – As funding for the Universal Service Fund continues to fall year over year, the Federal Communications Commission is evaluating options to reform it.

During Broadband Communities Summit 2022, Principal Consultant for Mattey Consulting LLC, Carol Mattey anticipated what kind of changes to the Universal Service Fund that stakeholders could expect in the coming years.

The Universal Service Fund is responsible for funding several high-profile financial benefits including the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, the Connect America Fund, E-Rate, the Lifeline Program, and the Rural Healthcare Program.

The USF is funded through compulsory service provider contributions. Though those contributions have historically been based on providers’ interstate and international telecommunications service revenues, critics of the program argue that providers are increasingly able to dodge these contributions by reclassifying their sources of revenue.

A common misconception for dwindling contributions is cord cutting, Mattey said. As more people drop landlines, there is simply less voice revenue – but that is only part of the issue.

Mattey said that while information revenues have increased through consumer use of the internet, voice revenues have fallen. This disparity has caused the telecommunication contribution to skyrocket and could be nearly 30 percent in 2022.

Mattey explained that most companies simply bill their consumers to offset that amount, and as a result, the contribution has been disproportionately burdened by the elderly who are more likely to use landlines.

When addressing potential reforms, Mattey pointed to three most likely possibilities being considered: broadband internet access revenue, a flat fee per voice and broadband connection, and a flat fee per phone number.

“Any reform needs to be simple and must be able to be audited,” she said. “The current system is not equitable.”

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FCC

Petition Challenges Constitutionality of Roles FCC, USAC Play in Universal Service Fund

The legal brief comes at a time when the FCC studies the future of the fund.

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Illustration from Consumers' Research

WASHINGTON, April 19, 2022 – A petition filed last week is requesting a U.S. appeals court find unconstitutional the process by which the Universal Service Fund is funded and how its administration has been delegated.

The petitioners, including non-profit research house Consumers’ Research and communications service provider Cause Based Commerce Inc., plead to the U.S. court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit that Congress handed the Federal Communications Commission under the Telecommunications Act of 1996 unfettered delegatory authority to raise revenues for the roughly $8-billion annual program that seeks to expand basic telecommunications services across the country – including to low-income Americans, schools and libraries and rural healthcare.

That offloading of duties with “no formula, ceiling, or other meaningful or objective restrictions” is contrary to the nondelegation doctrine, the petitioners argue, which is a Constitutional limit that does not allow Congress to delegate to other branches its own legislative authority.

“The Framers [of the Constitution] understood ‘that it would frustrate ‘the system of government ordained by the Constitution’ if Congress could merely announce vague aspirations and then assign others the responsibility of adopting legislation to realize its goals,” the petition read.

Congress has improperly given taxation powers and inappropriately delegated power to a private entity, petitioners argue

The petitioners, who name the FCC as a respondent, argue that because the money raised for the fund comes from telecommunications companies, which often pass those costs down to customer voice service bills, Congress has effectively given the FCC taxation powers – a solely legislative authority.

Additionally, they argue that the FCC itself is in violation of the nondelegation doctrine by outsourcing the administration of the USF to a private entity called the Universal Service Administrative Company, which announces the amount needed to be obtained every quarter to meet the fund’s objectives. They argue that because the process for determining the amount and the FCC’s approval of it happens “only days before the new quarter begins,” the FCC has “no option” but to approve whatever USAC says.

“This unaccountable state of affairs has unsurprisingly led to skyrocketing costs, with the contribution rate quintupling since 2002, as well as rampant waste, fraud, and abuse,” the petition said, referring to the percent of voice service revenues that must be collected to support the program.

In one quarter last year, the contribution percentage reached a record high of 33.4 percent of declining voice revenues. Advocates for the USF have been calling for a more sustainable model for the fund, including broadening the contribution base to include broadband revenues and big tech platforms, with others calling for scrapping all that and just adding the required amount from a congressional budget item.

As such, the petitioners say the USF should be floated by money from federal revenues.

“If Congress believes these programs are worthy of funding, it should have to endure the public scrutiny and beneficial debate of raising money and proposing an appropriation for them,” the petition said. “But “[b]y shifting responsibility to a less accountable branch, Congress protects itself from political censure—and deprives the people of the say the framers intended them to have.”

Some argue that general taxation revenues should fund the Universal Service Fund

Advocates of general taxation for the fund, including AT&T and former FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, have often pointed to the added benefit of having congressional oversight to minimize fraud and abuse.

The petitioners have the support of non-profit technology think tank TechFreedom, which filed a brief with the court to boost the position. TechFreedom had by then already submitted comments to the FCC on its study of the future of the USF, arguing that the money should come from general taxation and that the FCC “cannot unilaterally” expand the fund to include contributions from big technology platforms. The FCC’s consultation included a question about that jurisdiction question, with parties including affordable communications advocate Public Knowledge and Carol Mattey, who urged the expansion of the fund to include broadband revenues, arguing that the FCC has jurisdiction to expand the base because it’s in the public interest.

“This double delegation – and, worse, private delegation – has led to lax oversight, runaway budgets, wasteful spending, and outright fraud,” alleged TechFreedom in its brief.

“It was bad enough that Congress handed such broad and ill-defined regulatory power to an independent agency – a government entity not subject to direct control by democratically elected leadership,” TechFreedom said, adding for the FCC to pass that power over to USAC without Congress’s permission  “means that the USF is not subject to any congressionally established procedural guardrails.”

TechFreedom furthers its complaint by arguing that USAC directors “are not properly appointed” and the FCC’s “rubber-stamping of USAC’s proposals violates the Administrative Procedure Act.”

The free markets non-profit the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the think tank the Free State Foundation also filed a joint brief with other professors and institutes arguing that the administration of the USF has effectively usurped Congress’s power to levy taxes via the ability of service providers to pass down the cost of the fund to consumers.

“The Constitution does not permit Congress to circumvent the legislative process by allowing an independent agency (guided by a private company owned by an industry trade group) to raise and to spend however much money it wants every quarter for ‘universal service’ at the expense of every American who pays a monthly phone bill,” the joint submission said.

Intervenors named in the case – who are not parties to it but can submit comments to help the court – include the Benton Institute, the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, the Center for Media Justice, the Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband Coalition, the National Telecommunications Cooperative Association, and the Competitive Carriers Association.

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