The Ongoing Special Access Battle

eyeballThere is a big battle going on at the FCC over special access rates and the FCC has promised to finally weigh in later this month. Special access in the industry refers to the sale of dedicated TDM circuits like T1s and DS3s. To some extent this is a fight between the big RBOCs and all of the CLECs and other carriers that need special access circuits to reach customers. But this battle actually affects all of us because the businesses you deal with such as banks or other entities (like your local government) are big users of these products.

There are several different issues being contested in the special access investigation currently underway at the FCC. But most of the battle is about the price of special access as well as the unfair practices of the big special access providers like Verizon and AT&T. This whole fight comes down to money and special access is still a major source of revenue for the big telcos. To show you how big, USTelecom, the lobbying arm for the big telcos sponsored a study that said that regulating special access rates could cost 43,560 jobs and $3.4 billion in economic growth over five years.

Special access rates are very high. They were set in the days when TDM circuits were the state of the art technology. We all remember when it could easily cost you $700 per month or more to get a T1 to a business – a lot of money to pay for a symmetrical 1.5 Mbps connection. Last year I looked at the data bill for an urban county and they were still buying millions of dollars of these special access circuits – at nearly full cost. I estimated they could cut their bills by 50% to 60% by shifting to an alternate provider.

But therein lies the big rub with special access. Once you get outside of the main business district in most cities the RBOCs are still the only ones that have wires connected to most buildings. And so as absurd as it sounds, for a huge percentage of geography in the US special access is still the only way to provide dedicated transport to a business (meaning their data doesn’t get commingled with some other business). And this means that special access is what CLECs and other carriers must buy from the telcos if they need access to a given business.

The RBOCs make deals with the largest carriers – Level3, XO Communications and Sprint. These carriers can get a substantial discount on buying special access due to the volumes they purchase. That doesn’t sound unfair until you look into all of the strings that come attached with the volume discounts. For example, Level3 has complained in the FCC docket that there are markets where Verizon requires them to buy 90% of their connections from Verizon – or else not get the discounts. All of the carriers complain about termination charges. Should a customer of one of these carriers move or go out of business the RBOCs still demand that the carriers pay the cost of the circuit for the length of the involved contracts – lengths upon which the RBOCs largely dictate.

And of course, if you are not a huge carrier you don’t get the bulk discount. A business who wants to buy special access on their own (such a bank that wants to connect to multiple ATMs must pay the full tariff rates.

Another part of the battle at the FCC is that the carriers want more access to the fiber and Ethernet services owned by the RBOCs. But the telcos are very judicious about deciding which of their facilities are open to competitors and which aren’t.

Of real concern in the carrier world is the announcement that Verizon wants to buy the fiber assets of XO Communications. Today most businesses and smaller carriers will buy from the big carriers like XO, Level3 or Zayo because it’s cheaper, there’s less paperwork and these companies are far easier to work with than the telcos.

By buying XO, Verizon will be eliminating one of their largest and more vocal opponents. They also will be folding a lot more fiber into the Verizon networks. The fear is that Verizon will either convert the XO network to special access, meaning the price will go up, or they will consider it as fiber needed for Verizon’s own needs only and withdraw the networks from the open market.

In any market where there is a limited amount of fiber built to businesses, removing one of the biggest fiber owners like XO is going to be a big blow to many of those who use it. Many of them are either going to see rate increases or else have to find alternate transport elsewhere.

There is no telling what the FCC will order in this docket. But the position taken by the telcos is typical and a bit scary. They claim that there is vibrant competition available in the marketplace and they accuse the CLECs and carriers of whining to get cheaper prices. They love their monopoly power in most markets and aren’t going to give it up easily.

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