We are seeing more access charge disputes today than we have ever seen. For those who don’t know about access charges they are the fees that an Interexchange Carrier (IXC, or long distance carrier) pays for accessing a local network. Most of the fees are quite miniscule at fractions of a penny per minute, but since there are still a lot of long distance minutes they add up to substantial payments from long distance carriers to LECs and CLECs.
It seems that a number of IXCs have recently adopted a policy of disputing access charges in the hopes of getting out of paying what they should pay. They know that some local telcos won’t dispute their claims even if the dispute is wrong. They also know that the dispute process can be painful and they hope to wear telcos down into making compromises just to get paid something. In my view some IXCs are being bad citizens in that they know they can strong-arm smaller telcos into accepting less than they should be paid.
Over the last year, the following are the sorts of disputes we have been seeing:
- IXC’s are demanding a fully verifiable access bill. By that I mean that they expect every fact on the access bill to be correct. In the telephone industry there are several industry databases and the IXCs want every fact on the bill to match the information in these databases. This includes a lot of different facts from the names of switching offices (CLLI codes), mileages, billing percent splits between various carriers, the company that should be billing (OCNs), etc. There is nothing wrong with expecting the bills to be verifiable. But over time small errors creep into these databases as companies make changes to their networks. In the past the IXCs would see these kinds of issues as clerical issues and not substantive issues and they would often point them out and ask the carrier to fix them. But today the more aggressive carriers are refusing to pay bills until such problems are fixed.
- NECA LATA issue. The NECA tariff which most small telephone companies still use for their Interstate tariff has a prohibition in it that says that a telco cannot carry their traffic to a tandem in a different LATA. This prohibition comes from 1984 when the RBOCs were all part of NECA for a few years. Judge Greene, in the order that divested the RBOCs from AT&T prohibited the RBOCs from carrying voice traffic to another part of the country, and this was left to the IXCs, being mostly AT&T then. However, when the RBOCs all left NECA nobody changed the language in the NECA tariff and so the prohibition is still there. There is no external law or rule that prohibits smaller telcos from carrying traffic to another LATA. Unfortunately, the language in a tariff overrides any industry rules, so if you use the NECA tariff and your tandem is in a different LATA your access bill can be successfully disputed. The only real fix for this is for NECA to fix their tariff or for you to use a different tariff.
- Traffic and mileage pumping. Last year the FCC banned traffic and mileage pumping. Traffic pumping is when a carrier generates bogus traffic simply for the purposes of generating access charges. Mileage pumping is when a carrier rearranges their network to bill extra miles of transport for the purposes of billing more access. Since that ruling I have seen a number of disputes that accused telcos of one of these types of pumping, but in each case the accusation was not true. Since traffic pumping is now a bad word, I believe the IXCs are trying to scare telcos into settling rather than taking a claim of traffic pumping to a regulatory body. If you are accused of this please talk to us, because the chances are high that you are not in violation of this prohibition.
All of these issues can be a problem for a telco since the IXCs are in the driver’s seat. They can withhold payments for access which gives them the upper hand in a dispute. They know it is a costly process for telcos to appeal an access dispute to the next level, which is normally done by filing a complaint at the state Commission. I don’t mean to sound cynical, but I think there are ruthless people in the access departments of some IXCs that are getting bonuses for reducing access payments by any means they can find. Even scarier, there is now a whole industry of access consultants who get paid a percentage of any savings they can find in access bills. Such consultants are highly motivated to use any tactic in the book to get a payday.
And so my warning to LECs and CLECs is to get your access bills into the best shape they can be. Do a careful review between your access bills, your actual network and the industry databases (the LERG and Tariff 4). Eliminate any easy reason for the IXCs to single you out, because fighting your way out of access disputes can be costly and time-consuming. CCG has done hundreds of access charge reviews, so don’t hesitate to call us if you want to do this and need help.