Regulatory Alert – FCC Triples Regulatory Fines

FCC_New_LogoYou should be aware that the FCC recently adopted a new policy that automatically triples fines for violations of payment rules to the Universal Service Fund, the Telecommunications Relay Service Fund, for local number portability  (LNP), for the North American Numbering Plan and for other federal regulatory fee programs.

The largest telecom organizations like USTelecom, CTIA, NCTA and CompTel have filed a joint petition asking the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to reconsider a new policy. In this filing these companies say that the FCC should have opened a proceeding to investigate the matter rather than arbitrarily trebling penalties.

So be aware that this is even more of incentive to be a good citizen and take care in filing paperwork and paying fees to these various federal programs.

 

Changes to the E-rate Program

Indianola_High_SchoolThe FCC recently revised the rules for the E-Rate program which provides subsidies for communications needs at schools and libraries. They made a lot of changes to the program and the rules for filing this year are significantly different than what you might have done in the past. I’ve made a list below of the changes that will most affect carriers and you should become familiar with the revised rules if you participate in the program. Here are some of the key changes to the program from a carrier perspective:

  • Extra Funding. There is an additional $1 billion per year set aside for the next two years for what the FCC has called Internal Connections. This means money to bring high-speed Internet from the wiring closet to the rest of the school. This might be new wiring, WiFi or other technologies that distribute high-speed Internet within a school.
  • Last Mile Connections. It’s also possible to get funding for what they call WAN / Last-Mile connectivity. This would be fiber built to connect a school to a larger network such as one for a whole school district.
  • Stressing High-Speed Connections. The target set by the FCC is that a school should have at least 100 Mbps per 1,000 students and staff in the short run and 1 Gbps access in the long run. It is going to be harder to fund older slower connections even for very few poor schools. As a carrier you need to be planning on how to get connections that meet these requirements to schools if you want to maintain E-rate funding.
  • Things No Longer Funded. One of the ways the FCC will fund the expanded emphasis on higher bandwidth is by not funding other items. The fund is going to focus entirely for the next few years on funding things that promote high-speed connections, so they will no longer fund “Circuit Cards/Components; Interfaces, Gateways, Antennas; Servers; Software; Storage Devices; Telephone Components, Video Components, as well as voice over IP or video over IP components, and the components, such as virtual private networks, that are listed under Data Protection other than firewalls and uninterruptible power supply/battery backup. The FCC will also eliminate E-rate support for e-mail, web hosting, and voicemail beginning in funding year 2015”.
  • Combining Schools and Libraries. For the first time it will be possible to combine the funding for a school and library that are served by the same connection / network.
  • Eliminating Competitive Bidding for Low-Price Bandwidth. A school does not need to go to competitive bid if they can find a connection of at least 100 Mbps that costs $3,600 per year (or $300 per month) or less.
  • Eliminating a Technology Plan. There is no Technology Plan now required for applying for Internal Connections (in-school wiring) or for providing WAN connections.
  • Simplifying Multi-Year Contracts. Subsequent years after the first year of a multi-year contract will require less paperwork and have a streamlined filing process.
  • Simplifying the Discount Calculation. The discount can now be calculated on a per school-district basis and not per school within the district. The FCC adopts the definition from the Census that defines urban areas to be the densely settled core of census tracts or blocks that met minimum population density requirements (50,000 people or more), along with adjacent territories of at least 2,5000 people that link to the densely settled core. “Rural” encompasses all population, housing, and territory not included within an urban area. Any school district or library system that has a majority of schools or libraries in a rural area that meets the statutory definition of eligibility for E-rate support will qualify for the additional rural discount.
  • Requiring Electronic Filings. All filings will need to be electronic, phased in by 2017.

These are a lot of changes to a fairly complex filing process. CCG can help you navigate through these changes. If you have questions or need assistance please contact Terri Firestein of CCG at tfireccg@myactv.net.

Regulatory Alert: Rural Call Completion

Seal of the United States Federal Communicatio...

Seal of the United States Federal Communications Commission. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The FCC took action on October 28 to address a growing problem of calls that are not completed to rural areas. The Commission adopted new rules that are aimed to remedy a growing problem of calls that are not completed.

The FCC noted that the situation was “serious and unacceptable” and that every call that is placed should be terminated. The FCC note that “Whatever the reason, the consequences of failed calls can be life-threatening, costly, and frustrating. Rural businesses have reported losing customers who couldn’t call in orders, while families attempting to contact elderly relatives have worried when they hear a ring – but no one picks up on the other end because the call never actually went through.”

The FCC surmises several reasons for uncompleted calls:

  • They think that some providers are not routing to rural areas to avoid higher than average terminating access charge rates. The access rates in rural areas are still much higher than rates for major metropolitan areas, which reflects the higher cost of doing business in rural areas. Terminating rates can still be as much as two cents per minutes higher. However, the FCC has always said that it insists that every call must go through, and if they ever got evidence of a specific carrier boycotting an area due to high rates I suspect they would levy high fines.
  • They think that much of the problem is due to the fact that calls can be routed through multiple carriers. They note that the best industry practice is to limit to two the number of intermediate carriers involved in routing a call. I know there are a lot of new carriers in the market today, such as multiple new companies marketing voice services like IP Centrex who search for the lowest cost way to route calls. One has to suspect that the long distance carriers beneath some of these carriers have gotten very creative in terms of routing calls to save costs.
  • Some carriers have been sending a ring tone to the calling party before the call has actually been completed. One has to suspect that this is done so that the caller can’t hear all of the intermediate switching going on to get the call completed. The problem with doing this is that the caller will hang up after a few unanswered rings, often before the call has even been completed.

The FCC took several concrete steps to fix the problem. These new rules will be effective in a few weeks once the final rules are published. The new rules are:

  • False audible ringing is prohibited, meaning that a telephone provider cannot send a ringtone to the caller until the call has actually been answered.
  • Carriers with over 100,000 voice lines, and who are the carrier that determines how calls are routed must collect and retain calling data for a six month period.
  • Carriers who can certify that they follow best industry practices, such as not routing calls through more than two intermediate carriers, will be able to get a waiver for some or all of the storage and reporting requirements.
  • Carriers who can demonstrate that they have all of the mechanisms in place to complete rural calls can also ask for a waiver from the storage and reporting requirements.

Regulatory Alert: FCC Reminds ACS Providers (Advanced Communications Services) of Filing for CVAA Compliance

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The FCC recently issued a public notice reminding Advanced Communications Providers (ACS) and equipment manufacturers that they need to provide evidence that they are complying with the Twenty First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA). The FCC is now implementing Section 255 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that requires telecom products and equipment be accessible by people with disabilities.

The FCC defines an ACS provider in Section 3(1) of the Act to mean a carrier that provides one of the following: (A) interconnected VoIP service; (B) non-interconnected VoIP service; (C) electronic messaging service; and (D) interoperable video conferencing service. The FCC also defines advanced communications services providers to include all entities that offer advanced communications services in or affecting interstate commerce, including resellers and aggregators. Such providers include entities that provide advanced communications services over their own networks, as well as providers of applications or services accessed (i.e., downloaded and run) by users over other service providers’ networks.

The CVAA law was enacted in 2010 and is aimed to ensure that people with disabilities have access to advanced communications services. This requirement by the FCC is somewhat unusual in that it applies to telecom providers who are otherwise largely unregulated.

And there are a lot of nuances to be in compliance:

  • There must be a filing done for each corporate entity that provides ACS services and you can’t just designate somebody at the parent company to cover all of your subsidiaries.
  • You must provide an affidavit of compliance by a company officer.
  • It must be filed electronically.

The original deadline for these filings was April 1, but we believe a lot of entities who should have filed did not. If you provide any form of VoIP you need to comply with these rules or face eventual fines.

The filing requires the following:

  • A description of the effort the company will undertake to discuss your services with customers with disabilities.
  • A description of the features and other ways that your products will be made accessible to customers with disabilities.
  • A description of how people with disabilities would most likely be able to use your products.

So, if you provide VoIP – even on a resale basis – you need to make this filing.

If you want to know more about the specific filing requirements, or if you want assistance in making this filing contact Terri Firestein at (301) 788-6889.

Regulatory Alert: Cap on USF Fee Charged to End Users

Seal of the United States Federal Communicatio...

Seal of the United States Federal Communications Commission. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a footnote to WC Docket No. 13-76, adopted and released March 26, 2013, In the Matter of July 2, 2013 Annual Access Charge Tariff Filings (establishes procedures for the 2013 filing of annual access charge tariffs and Tariff Review Plans) the FCC reminds carriers of the requirement to apply FCC rule 47 C.F.R. §54.712 where applicable.

The footnote references 47 C.F.R. §54.712 :

Contributor recovery of universal service costs from end users.

(a) Federal universal service contribution costs may be recovered through interstate telecommunications-related charges to end users. If a contributor chooses to recover its federal universal service contribution costs through a line item on a customer’s bill the amount of the federal universal service line-item charge may not exceed the interstate telecommunications portion of that customer’s bill times the relevant contribution factor.

We believe that some contributors to federal USF that want to recover their contribution costs through a line item on a customer’s bill are going to have a problem complying with this Rule. We can think of two circumstances that may place a carrier in violation of this Rule:

  1. If a carrier has tariffed a Subscriber Line Charge (SLC) in their FCC interstate access tariff and bills it to their end users monthly that revenue is considered Interstate revenue. Carriers should ensure that the amount they are charging customers as a USF contribution recovery fee does not exceed the tariffed SLC charge times the current USF contribution factor (17%). The current 17% relevant contribution factor is higher than it was in past years so carriers should look at this again as the contribution factor changes.

For example, if your SLC charge is $4.00, then the most you could charge for a USF fee to end users based upon that amount is $4.00 X 17% = $0.68. So do the math and compare your USF recovery fee to 17% of your SLC charge. If the USF recovery fee exceeds that amount you have a problem, which will be discussed below.

  1. Some CLECs opt to not tariff or bill its end users a SLC charge. Until recently, USAC required that these CLECs to impute a SLC charge for USF 499 reporting purposes and to report the revenue as 100% interstate revenue.

However, recently the FCC informed USAC that they could no longer require CLECs to impute the SLC and report it as interstate revenue. This means that CLECs that do not have a SLC charge in their access tariff, and who do not expressly charge a SLC on the bill do not have any customer revenue that can be explicitly assigned to the interstate jurisdiction absent measuring interstate long distance usage. In such a case, the CLEC can’t bill a USF recovery fee to a customer who doesn’t make any interstate long distance calls. And they can only charge a USF recovery fee up to 17% of whatever a customer does spend for interstate long distance calling.

This creates a dilemma for carriers who find themselves in either of the two circumstances mentioned above. How does one bill the USF fee to customers since every one of them has a different amount of Interstate usage?

One thing that is important to remember is that the FCC does not mandate that a carrier bill its end-user customers a USF contribution recovery fee. It is optional for a carrier to recover its USF contribution from its end users. In other words, a carrier may treat its USF contribution as an expense.

We believe this footnote was included in the March Order for a reason, that the FCC suspects there are carriers who are violating the rule. So you can expect USAC to be auditing contribution recovery fee calculations in the near future.

So, if you are in violation of this rule, what are possible solutions for getting back into compliance?

  1. Decide to not bill the USF surcharge to your customers and pay USAC out of your own pocket (not recommended).
  2. If you tariff and bill a SLC charge today you can increase it to make it large enough to cover the USF contribution (assuming your SLC is not capped).
  3. If you don’t tariff and bill a SLC consider putting one in your access tariff. This would require breaking it out on the end user bill as a separate line item. However, note that by doing this you would be increasing the amount of your USF contribution paid to USAC if you are a contributor. Or, if you are not a contributor today it could make you into one.
  4. Increase your local rates by an amount that would cover the USF contribution. This is probably the best solution, except for possible competitive consequences. However, if you discontinue the USF fee and raise rates by the same amount you will not be increasing the customers’ bills overall.
  5. Pass the USF fee onto only those customers who have enough interstate long distance usage to cover the USF fee. The trouble with this idea is that it is hard to do correctly and it also means you would be charging the largest USF fee to those who make the most long distance. That is probably not a great idea from a competitive perspective.

We recommend you review the USF fee you are billing customers and ensure it passes the FCC “test”. If you need help to do this review please contact Terri Firestein at (301) 788-6889.

Regulatory Alert: FCC Acts on Numbering Issues

Seal of the United States Federal Communicatio...

Seal of the United States Federal Communications Commission. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At today’s FCC Open Meeting the FCC approved the release of a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) and Notice of Inquiry (NOI) on expanding direct access to telephone numbers for wholly VoIP providers like Vonage.  Vonage was also granted a waiver to conduct a limited 6 month trial involving 145,000 numbers.  The Wireline Competition Bureau is responsible for reporting back to the Commission at the conclusion of the trial.

Disassociating telephone numbers from geographic locations will also be part of this NPRM and NOI.

Check back as CCG will monitor this proceeding. We will be posting the NPRM and NOI when they are released.

Regulatory Alert: Annual Access Charge Reform Tariff Filings Coming Due

Seal of the United States Federal Communicatio...

Seal of the United States Federal Communications Commission. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The second year of access reform is here again and most LECs and CLECs will need to file revised access rates by July 1. However, you should be aware that many State Commissions have their own requirements and time frames that need to be addressed in advance of the FCC’s date. As an example, the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio is directing that all affected ILECs and CLECs file the appropriate intrastate tariff amendment application or letter of compliance on or before May 1, 2013. This alert is to warn that in many states you are not going to have the luxury of waiting until July 1 to file your rates.

These filings are due to FCC Report and Order (WC Docket No. 07-135) which adopted a transitional intercarrier compensation restructuring framework for both intrastate and interstate interexchange and reciprocal compensation telecommunications traffic. In its recent March 26, 2013 release (WC Docket No.13-76) the FCC established procedures for the 2013 filing of annual access charge tariffs and Tariff Review Plans (“TRP”) for price cap ILECs, rate-of-return ILECs and CLECs that benchmark rates to price cap or rate-of-return ILECs. The Order sets an effective date of July 2, 2013 for the July 2013 annual access charge tariff filing. The Order establishes May 17, 2013 as the date that price cap ILECs must file their short form TRP. Affected ILECs and CLECs may make their tariff filings on either a 15 or 7 day notice (prior to the effective date) therefore affected ILECs and CLECs filing on a 15 day notice must file on June 17, 2013 and those filing on a 7 day notice must file on June 25, 2013. All filings must be made using the FCC’s Electronic Tariff Filing System (“ETFS”).

You also need to be aware that as part of the annual access charge tariff filing carriers will need to include the universal service charge contribution factor for the third quarter which begins on July 1, 2013. Note that in accordance with 47 C.F.R. § 54.712 of the FCC’s rules “…if a contributor chooses to recover its federal universal service contribution costs through a line item on a customer’s bill the amount of the charge may not exceed the interstate telecommunications portion of that customer’s bill times the relevant contribution factor.”

If you need help with these filings let us know. CCG also offers a service we call Regulatory Compliance where we notify our clients each year of every regulatory filing they need to make. It’s affordable and a great way to make sure that you meet all of your regulatory filing requirements.  Call Terri Firestein at CCG if you need help or want more information. She is at (301) 788-6889.