Google and Regulation

Logo of the United States Federal Communicatio...

Logo of the United States Federal Communications Commission, used on their website and some publications since the early 2000s. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

AT&T said last week that they were not required to give access to Google Fiber to their poles in Austin Texas. AT&T owns about 20% of the poles there with the City owning the rest. And from what I can see, AT&T is right. This all comes down to various regulations, and it appears that Google is doing everything possible to not be regulated in any way. It seems they have set up a business plan that lets them claim to escape regulation. Let me look at the nuances of what they are doing.

There is a federal set of rules that say that pole owners must provide poles to any certified telecommunications provider. According to the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the states have the right to grant certifications to carriers. Every state provides at least two kinds of carrier certifications – CLEC and IXC. CLEC is the acronym for Competitive Local Exchange Carrier and is the federal term used to describe competitive telephone providers. IXC is the acronym for Interexchange Carrier and is the certification given to companies that only want to sell retail long distance.

Some states have other categories. Some states have a certification for a Competitive Access Provider (CAP) or for a Carrier’s Carrier, These two certifications are generally given to companies who only want to sell services to other carriers. They may sell transport, collocation or other services that only carriers can buy.

A company must obtain a CLEC or CAP certification if they want to gain all of the rights that come with such certification. This includes access to poles and conduits of other carriers, the ability to interconnect with other carriers, the ability to collocate equipment in the offices of other carriers. A CLEC certification also grants a company the right to bill ‘telecom’ products to customers, meaning traditional telephone or traditional TDM point-to-point data services. These are generally rights that anybody who is building a network or providing traditional telecom services must obtain before other carriers will talk to them. But along with those rights come some obligations. Certified carriers are subject to paying some regulatory fees and collecting other fees and taxes from their customers. Regulated companies have to follow rules that dictate how they can disconnect non-pay customers. Regulated companies in some states even have some light regulations concerning pricing, although there are very few rules anywhere dictating how a competitive carrier prices their services.

So strictly, AT&T is completely within their rights to not even talk to Google about pole attachments since Google does not have or plan to obtain a certification. As it turns out, AT&T reports that they are talking to Google anyway and are negotiating a deal to let them on the poles. And honestly, that steams me a bit, because this is how big companies treat each other. I am sure that there is enough business between AT&T and Google that AT&T doesn’t see any sense in going to war over this kind of issue. They would also be seen in Austin as holding up progress and further, Google could always get the certification if push came to shove. But if this was any company smaller than Google, then AT&T would be refusing to even open a discussion on pole attachments or any of the other issues associated with being certified. AT&T would insist that any other company jump through all of the regulatory hoops first. This I know because I have experienced it numerous times. I guess it pays to be as big as Google.

AT&T would also be required to provide access to the poles if Google was a cable TV company. This is a designation that is granted by the local community and the City of Austin could negotiate a cable franchise agreement with Google. But Google is taking the stance that they are not a cable TV company. They are claiming instead that they are a video service provider because they deliver two-way cable TV service, meaning that the customer’s settop box can talk back to Google since they offer IPTV. This is taking advantage of a loophole in the law because today every large-city cable system is two-way since customers in those systems have the ability to order Pay-per-view or video-on-demand from their settop boxes.

But Google does not want to be a cable provider, because there is one nuance of the FCC rules that say that anybody getting a franchise agreement would essentially have to sign onto the same rights and obligations as the incumbent cable company. The big catch in those rules is that Google would have coverage obligations to cover the whole City and they instead want to pick and choose the neighborhoods they serve. Google would also have to collect franchise fees from customers for their cable TV product, and such fees are around 3% of the cable bill in most places.

State regulators and cities are both willing to overlook these regulatory nuances for Google because they are so big and because they promise to bring gigabit data speeds. But these same rules never get overlooked for smaller companies, and so I guess regulations only really affect the small guys any more.

The Future of Interconnection

A Verizon payphone with the Bell logo.

A Verizon payphone with the Bell logo. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

AT&T and Public Knowledge both testified yesterday at a House Communications Subcommittee hearing about the transition of today’s PSTN to an all-IP network.

Both parties agreed that there were five areas that must be addressed to maintain a functional telephone network:

  • Service for everybody
  • Interconnection and competition
  • Consumer protection
  • Reliability
  • Public Safety

I want to look a little more at the issue of interconnection and competition. Today a large percentage of my clients have interconnection agreements with the incumbent telephone companies. Most of my clients are CLECs but a few are wireless carriers, and each negotiates interconnection under a different set of FCC rules.

Interconnection is vital to maintain competition. Interconnection basically covers the rules that define how voice traffic gets from one network to another. The agreements are very specific and each agreement defines precisely how the carriers will interconnect their networks and who will pay for each part of the network.

For the most part, the rules of Interconnection adopted as part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 work well and there are probably over 2,000 companies using these agreements to interconnect with each other.

There is a lot of danger that changing the interconnection rules could harm and force competitive companies out of the market. Let me just revisit a little bit of history to talk about what I mean. A long time ago the FCC decided that interconnection for local calls between incumbents should be free, and so incumbent telephone companies don’t charge each other to exchange local minutes. However, I can think of at least five times during my career when the RBOCs like AT&T tried to put in reciprocal charges for this traffic. That means that both parties would pay each other the same amount for terminating local calls from the other. Sounds okay until you recall that AT&T basically serves all of the metro areas in the country while smaller telcos serve the rural areas. Still today there is a lot more calling made from rural areas into metros than in the other direction, and if such a change was made the rural companies would be sending big checks to the RBOCs for ‘free’ calls

And the RBOCs have tried to do similar things to competitive carriers with interconnection. The FCC’s interconnection rules say that a competitive carrier can choose to interconnect with a larger company at ‘any technically feasible point’, and yet every few years the RBOCs try to change interconnection agreements to force carriers to carry the traffic to the RBOC hubs. Again, this is a matter of money and the RBOCs want the competitive carriers to pay for everything.

Changing to an all-IP network is likely to open up the same battles. Rather than maintain a system today of many tandem offices in a state, it is not impossible that the RBOCs will have only one hub in each state, or even only one hub in each region of many states. And if they make that kind of change you can expect that they will then expect competitive carriers to pay to carry all if their traffic to and from such hubs. I can tell you that such a change would devastate the business plan of many competitive carriers and would greatly reduce competition in the country.

The FCC has to be diligent in making the changes to IP. Everybody agrees that the technological change needs to be made. It’s more efficient. But we can’t let a technology change be grounds for a land-grab by AT&T and Verizon in an attempt to quash competition. They will, of course, claim that they are not trying to do that, but during my 35-year career I have seen them try exactly that kind of change a whole lot of times. And there is no doubt in my mind they will try to do it again.

Finding a Broadband Partner

Logo of the United States National Telecommuni...

Logo of the United States National Telecommunications and Information Administration, an agency in the Department of Commerce. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The NTIA issued a notice last week that asks if they should continue the BroadbandMatch website tool. This tool was created during the stimulus grant process and the original goal was to connect partners for applying or implementing the broadband grants. And the process worked. One of the components of the grants was the requirement for matching funds and there were many grant applicants with a great idea who had to find a partner to supply the matching funds. A significant percentage of the stimulus grants involved multiple parties and many of them found their partners using this tool.

On the NTIA tool a company would describe what they were trying to do and would describe the kind of partner they were looking for. And the main reason this worked was that the government was giving away billions of dollars for fiber construction, and so a lot of companies were looking for a way to get in on the action. Many of the companies involved in the grant process were new companies formed just go get the grants. The NTIA tool gave companies who were not historically in the telecom business a way to find potential partners

The NTIA asks if they should keep this service going, and if so how it ought to work. I will be the first to say that I was surprised that the tool was even still around since it was clearly designed to put together people to make stimulus grants work. The only way a tool like this can work now is if everybody in the industry knows about it and thinks to look there when they are interested in making an investment.

But I am going to guess that if I didn’t know that this tool was still active that hardly anybody else does as well. It was great for the purpose it was designed for, but one has to ask if this is going to be a place where companies look when they are seeking a partner. It has been my experience that outside that grant process, which was very public, that most people want to keep the process of forming new ventures as quiet as possible to avoid tipping the competition too early. And so, without the billions of public dollars that made the grants attractive I can’t see this tool being of much interest.

But this leads me to ask how a company can find a partner for a new telecom venture? The most normal type of partnership I see is one made between people with technical expertise looking for investors and people with cash looking for opportunities. So how do these kinds of partners find each other?

At CCG we have helped numerous carriers find partners and the following, in our experience, is what has worked and not worked:

  • Put out a formal request for a partner. This may mean issuing an RFP or an RFI or advertising somewhere to find interested parties. I have not found this process to be particularly fruitful, because it normally doesn’t uncover any potential partners that you didn’t already know.
  • Get to know your neighbors better. I have found that most partnerships end up being made by people in the same geographic area. It is not uncommon for the parties to not know each other well before the partnership, and sometimes they are even competitors. But there is a lot more chance that people in your region will best understand the potential for local opportunities.
  • Don’t be afraid to cross the line. Commercial CLECs and independent telephone companies are usually dismayed by municipalities that get into the telecom business. But generally those cities are just hungry for broadband and in almost every case they would prefer that a commercial provider come and build the infrastructure in their community. So crossing the line and talking to municipalities might uncover the best local partnership opportunities. If a town wants broadband badly enough (and many of them do) then they might be willing to provide concessions and cash to make it work.

Of course, this doesn’t even begin to answer the question of how to make a partnership work, which I will address in later blogs this week.

The FCC’s Data Collection Effort

Character for children of FCC"Broadband"

Character for children of FCC”Broadband” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The FCC just changed the way that they are going to gather data from carriers about voice and data usage in the US. To some degree they seem to be throwing in the towel and just giving up.

I have blogged before about the massive inadequacies of the National Broadband Map. This is an FCC-sponsored effort to show the availability of broadband on a geographic basis. This sounds like a laudable goal, but the carriers decide what information they want to supply to the mapping process, and so the map is full of what can only be described as major lies from the largest carriers. They claim to have broadband where they don’t and at speeds far greater than they actually deliver.

The FCC announced new rules for their data collection process that is done using FCC Form 477. This revised effort by the FCC is going to make their data gathering more like the process that is used to collect data for the National Broadband Map. They are no longer going to try to collect actual data speeds in tiers, but instead will be collecting only advertised speeds for data – the fastest advertised speed for landline providers and the slowest advertised speeds for wireless providers. For the life of me I can’t imagine how this data can be of the slightest use to anybody.

I just recently worked with a client in a small town in Oregon. The incumbent providers there are the biggest telephone company and cable company in the state. In both cases, they advertise the same speeds in this small town that they advertise in Portland. But in this town, as in most or rural America, the actual speeds delivered are far slower. They think the fastest cable modem speeds in the town are from 3 – 5 Mbps download and the fastest DSL is not much over 1.5 Mbps. And yet both carriers advertise products at many times those speeds.

This would just be a big annoyance if it wasn’t for the fact that the FCC and others use the data gathered to talk about what a great job the carriers are doing in this country to supply broadband. I recently saw an announcement that 98% of households now have broadband availability. And since the FCC’s definition of broadband is now a download speed of 4 Mbps and an upload speed of 1 Mbps, this makes it sound like the country’s broadband problems are being solved. But announcements of this sort are based upon lies and exaggerations by the carriers.

And since the whole point of this data gathering effort is to formulate policies to spur the carriers to do better, letting the carriers self-report whatever they want is like asking the fox to go count the eggs in the henhouse every morning. There is no practical penalty against a carrier advertising any speed they want or reporting falsely to the FCC. And it’s a lot easier, as it is with the Oregon example, for the incumbent providers to gear all of their advertising in a state around the urban markets. I have no idea if those incumbents in Oregon can actually deliver the advertised speeds in Portland, but I know for a fact that they do not do so outside of Portland.

The FCC is also changing the way that they gather information about VoIP lines. But I think the day for them to be able to gather any meaningful data about business phones in the country is over. There is such a proliferation of IP Centrex and other VoIP technologies that the carriers don’t even know what is being delivered. Consider this:

  • It’s now possible to use one number for a thousand lines in a call center or instead to give a thousand numbers to one phone.
  • There is a proliferation of resellers in the market who buy numbers and 911 from larger carriers so that they don’t have to become a CLEC. And these resellers can then deliver a wide variety of business voice services over anybody’s data connection. These carriers will not be reporting what they are doing to the FCC because most of them are not certified as carriers but rely on the certification of the CLEC that gave them numbers.  Nobody in the FCC reporting chain is going to know about or report these kinds of customers and lines. And it gets worse because I know of many cases now of resellers of these resellers. Literally almost anybody can become a carrier overnight reselling these services. It’s back to the wild west days we used to see with long distance resale. I’m expecting to go to a telecom convention soon and see the shark-skin suits again.

CCG Number Portability

I don’t write too many blog entries that are direct sales pitches for CCG services. I will admit that many of my blogs hint at the services we offer, but the main intentions of these blogs is to plant ideas for small carriers that we have found to be useful. But this is one of those sales pitch blogs, and if you do number portability you should read it. We now offer the fullest range of number portability products in the industry and we think we have the best prices. The main benefit for small carriers is that we don’t require annual minimums, so if you don’t do a lot of ports we are going to be your best solution. We offer two different number porting products – traditional number porting and LSR service. And in a related service we now offer directory listing update service.

Service Provider LSR Number Porting Service

Before you can port a number you must determine who owns the number and get the owning carrier to release the number to you. This process is referred to in the industry as the LSR porting process. CCG offers the only turn-key LSR porting product in the country and we can interface with any carriers to complete the porting LSRs.

This is the process of notifying the owner of numbers that you are porting their numbers away and is not the same as the process of updating the NPAC database. Rather, this is coordinating the transfer of telephone numbers with the RBOCs, CLECS, cable companies, independent telephone companies or wireless companies that own the numbers. This step is something that must be done before the number port can occur. There was never a lot of need in the past for this service, but now there is such a proliferation of numbers owned by many different service providers that you can’t assume that the numbers you want to port belong to an incumbent carrier.

Product Detail. CCG does the following for each LSR Number Port:

  • CCG will determine who owns the telephone number(s). For example, while you may be trying to port a customer that is using a CLEC like Vonage or Level3, you might find that the numbers actually belong to some other CLEC. We also routinely find that businesses can have numbers that belong to multiple service providers even if they are being billed by just one.
  • CCG will obtain the needed Customer Service Record (CSR) used to verify the porting data provided by your customer and confirm the desired due date.
  • CCG will interface with the “old service provider” LSR system to request a number port. We have found that every carrier has unique LSR processing systems and we can efficiently process with any service provider.
  • We will monitor the porting process. We will troubleshoot any porting requests that are not porting properly and we will escalate as needed to meet your due date. We will notify you when the port is complete and forward you the carriers FOC. We will provide you with documentation that each port has been processed and is complete.

NPAC SOA Number Porting Service

We also now offer the traditional number porting product where we can help you change the ownership of the number in the Neustar database. This allows you to gain control of numbers that previously belonged to another LEC, CLEC or wireless provider. We offer quick turnaround to make sure that you meet your desired service cut date.

In this process you will give CCG access to your database at Neustar. But unlike some other consultants providing this service we also can get you access to the same database and the reports and troubleshooting tools at Neustar.

We can be your turn-key interface in the Neustar Number Portability Administration Center (NPAC) database. We think our prices for this service are the best in the industry. And for small carriers we have no annual minimum commitment. If you only do a few ports per year you should give us a call.

Directory Listing Update Service.

We now also offer a service to update the directory listings for new customers. These updates are very inexpensive for customers who want to keep their directory listing the same as before. But we can also handle complex directory updates.

We also will make sure that you know when the annual directories will be published and we can help you verify all of your listings for accuracy before the directory hits the street each year.

Finally, we can bundle all of these services into a turn-key package that makes it easy for you to add new customers.

Contact Terri Firestein at CCG at 301 788-6889 to learn more about these services and to get a price quote.

Open Access: Europe versus the US

Europe - Satellite image - PlanetObserver

When cities build fiber networks in the US, one question they always ask is if they can make their system open access. By this, they mean that they want to build a fiber network, but they prefer not to be in the telecom business and instead would prefer to attract multiple providers to the network to use the fiber and compete for customers. The cities just want big bandwidth for their citizens and most cities would prefer to not compete in the telecom business.

Open Access works well in Europe but has been a failure in the US. Why does it work there and not work here? The main reason it works in Europe is that a number of high-quality service providers are willing to use somebody else’s network, especially a fiber network, to provide service. In Europe ISPs are willing to compete side-by-side with other ISPs even though there is no inherent advantage of one service provider versus another when they are all on the same network.

A perfect example of a European open access network that attracted competition is the one built in Amsterdam. Much of the basic infrastructure has been built by the City, although there have been some private partners recently building some additions to the network. But all parts of the network are fully open access. There are thirteen major service providers offering services on the Amsterdam fiber network – Canal Digitaal, Concepts, KPN, Fype, Online NL, Ligbrandt, Scarlet, Tele2, Telfort, UPC, Vodafone, XS4ALL, and Ziggo. In addition there are around 25 other ISPs who serve smaller niches of customers, often with specialty products such as medical monitoring or small business service.

A few of these service providers are large incumbent providers that had monopolies in their own countries before the formation of the European Union. For example, KPN is the incumbent provider for the Netherlands. Vodafone was an incumbent provider in Germany.

It’s easy to contrast this with the US. There have been a number of cities that have built open access networks in the US and who then tried to lure ISPs to serve in the networks. Some of the open access networks include Tacoma, Provo, Utopia (small towns in Utah), Chelan PUD and a number of other smaller PUDs in Washington state. In none of these cases did a large or incumbent cable provider or telephone company agree to bring service to these fiber networks. In every case the cities that built the networks had to scramble to find local ISPs who were willing to tackle the business. And in almost all cases the Cities had to give a lot of help to these local ISPs in the early days to help them succeed. The ISPs that have operated on US open access networks are generally small, local and under-capitalized. None of the US competitors are of the size or strength of the competitors in Europe.

Why do the big telcos and cable companies in Europe step up and compete against each other while the ones in the US do not? On the European side of the equation, the competitive attitude goes back to the beginning of the European Union. The European Union built slowly since the early 1970’s, but it took on most of its current membership by the early 1990’s. In the mid-90’s there were various treaties signed which opened the borders between European nations, both physically and in terms of commerce. Before that time almost every European country had a monopoly telecom provider. But when the gates were opened to competition, a few of them crossed borders to compete and soon everybody jumped into the competitive fray.

But in the US I can’t find one example of an incumbent cable company competing against another incumbent cable provider. And the large telephone companies barely compete against each other. They fight hard for things like the contract to serve the US government, but overall they barely compete in each other’s territory. And even in most of the US where there are two providers, a telco and cable company, for the most part both parties charge high prices and do not compete heavily with each other. The system in the US is referred to in economic terms as an oligopoly, where a few large providers have divvied up the market to mutual benefit. While there is competition, it is nothing like the real competition seen in Europe.

But I must grant that it probably would be difficult for a large US telephone or cable company to provide service on somebody else’s network. These companies are highly decentralized and it often requires groups from many states to come together to provide service to a new customer. The processes used by the large incumbents are so specific to the way they do things on their network that it might just be too costly for them to modify those processes to serve on a different network.

But whatever the reasons, Europe enjoys tremendous competition for customers, particularly where somebody has built a fiber network. But in the US no such competition exists, other than in metro areas where CLECs still vigorously compete for large business customers in highrises.

Choosing the Lesser of Two Evils?

FTTH fiber-to-the-home

FTTH fiber-to-the-home (Photo credit: dvanzuijlekom)

Today our guest blogger is Ron Isaacson, a former employee and still a good friend of CCG’s.

A number of years ago, the large ILEC in our area installed fiber optic lines in our neighborhood and soon started offering their FTTH product line in the area. The cable provider had already been in the neighborhood for a while and was already fiercely pushing their bundled service packages. We finally were going to have the competitive market version of a boxing match. SWEET!!

Our family had “Dish” TV service, satellite access that worked most of the time – except when bad weather interrupted the signal. We had dial-up Internet through a local ISP, back when the bandwidth offered on dial-up was still relatively decent, and we had our telephone service through a local CLEC. Being a telecom consultant I liked splitting services between the different vendors because no one monopolist had their claws fully in my back pocket. I might have been paying a little more for this split service, but it made sense to me.

However, the FTTH offerings changed the whole equation. Cable offered a full package too, so we had a choice.

Having had previous horrendous customer service experiences with both the ILEC and the cable company we were at a quandary as to which 21st Century telecom service to commit to, so I decided to take a poll: I asked a bunch of my neighbors which service they subscribed to and why, and how were the services provided?

The results were a classic case of monopolistic bad reputations! Either a family absolutely hated the ILEC and had signed up with cable, or they absolutely hated the cable company and had signed up with the ILEC. Apparently, no one truly loved either telecom provider and they just chose the company that they hated the least. (It’s been a few years, hopefully this has changed!) I couldn’t help but thinking that both companies are as bad as the worst of the stories about the airlines!

We chose the ILEC, but the notorious nature of the story was just getting started. Our telephone number, which we had for over 25 years, was an exchange-level “FX” number, meaning that all of the customers with that exchange were billed as if the service was down-county, closer to the metro-area. The rep advised that this was not a problem, that they could still do the switch.

Once the FTTH was installed, the Internet and TV service worked beautifully, but it took another 35 days for the phone service to be re-connected because, and this is a quote, “The fiber can’t handle the FX line.” At this point I laughed and replied, “I beg to differ. The fiber doesn’t know the difference, and doesn’t care….it is your systems that are messed up!”

After 35 days, they decided to run the telephone service over the old copper pair, and bill it as if it was on the fiber. This actually proved to be a good thing when the electric power went out due to an electric utility that also possessed byzantine customer service skills.

Years later the ILEC came back and reconfigured the FTTH to include the telephone service on the fiber. Incredibly, the telecom service that was the most troublesome for the telephone company to install….who knew?

Years later, this experience still shades my view of the ILEC, the gang that proved to me beyond a shadow of a doubt that they can and will shoot themselves in both feet.

Thinking of my installation experience with fiber made me think back to something that had happened to me earlier. Many years ago, in the hay-day of the long distance marketplace during a customer service training seminar, the class discussed the results of a poll showing the reasons that customers cancel their service with carriers. A couple of facts stuck with me: First, 3% of customers die and there’s not much one can do about that. Additionally, about 5 to 10% of customers move, or otherwise change locations. Again, not much (at that time) that could be done about that.

However, over 50% of customers cancel because of rudeness or indifference from customer service personnel in reference to a given incident. There were reasons filling in the rest of the 100%, but those three points stuck out to me – two that you can’t do anything about and one that we definitely can.

The bottom line I took away from that training, and my experience with the telephone company is to be sure that every customer is treated as if their service matters, as if their patronage is appreciated.

One Month Anniversary

I’ve been writing this blog for a month now and so far I have learned the following:

It takes a certain discipline. On many of the topics I am covering I could easily write a white paper, or at least a long dialogue. However, blogging forces you to keep things short. I have found that I will have to break some topics into a series of blogs if I want to cover them fully.

And the trick is in making something short is to not over-simplify it. I have already caught myself doing that. Some telecom topics are complex and can’t be covered adequately in three paragraphs.

So bear with me as I learn this new medium. It has been interesting to write this way and I hope the resulting blog posts are of value to my readers.

There are a lot of topics. When I got the idea of writing the blog my first fear was that I would quickly run out of topics. On the first day I sat and thought hard and made a list of forty topics. It struck me that day that if I wrote those forty blogs that I would be done with this blog after two months.

Luckily, it seems that every time I write something or read something on the Internet that I think of five more related topics. I also now seeing a blog post every time I read a telecom news story.  CCG Consulting as a firm is involved in a huge array of telecom services. This gives me a really wide spectrum of relevant ideas to write about. I don’t know that I can crank out meaningful posts forever, but I think I can do it for years. We shall see.

Some topics are boring as hell. So far I have not found any good way to spice up a blog post about an FCC ruling or about the current nature of access disputes. But sometimes these are the topics that small LECS and CLECs most need to know about. So please just take my most boring blog posts like medicine and just remember they are good for you!

Current Access Disputes

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.

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.