Carrier of Last Resort

Every once in a while I see a regulatory requirement that makes me scratch my head. One of the requirements of the current CAF II reverse auction is that every winner must become an Eligible Telecommunications Carrier (ETC) before receiving the funding – and I wonder why this is needed? This requirement is coupled with another puzzling requirement that anybody taking this funding must provide telephone service in addition to broadband. Since the purpose of the CAF II program is to expand rural broadband these requirements seem incongruous with the purpose of the program.

The ETC regulatory status was created by the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Congress created this new class of carriers to mean any carrier that is willing to provide basic services within a specified geographic area (and in 1996 this was specified as providing voice service) and for that willingness to serve would be eligible to receive any available subsidies.

While this is not in writing anywhere, I’m guessing that these requirements are part of the ongoing plan to erode the rural carrier of last resort obligation (COLR) for the big telcos. Carrier of last resort is a regulatory concept that is applied by regulators to utility infrastructure providers including telco incumbents, electric, gas and water providers. The textbook definition of carrier of last resort is a utility provider that is required by law to serve customers within a defined service area, even if serving that customer is not economically viable. Further a COLR is required to charge just and reasonable prices and generally has legal hurdles that make it difficult to withdraw from serving within the defined service area.

We are seeing rural carrier of last resort obligations eroding all over the place. For example, the FCC is proposing rules that will allow copper providers to tear down copper networks with no obligation to replace them with some alternate technology.

I think this requirement in the CAF II reverse auction is along the same vein. All of the areas covered by this auction are within the historic regulated footprint of one of the large telcos. Except for the Verizon service areas, where Verizon did not accept the original CAF II funding, these are the most remote customers in this auction are in very rural areas. These are the customers at the far end of long copper lines who have no broadband, and likely no quality telephone service.

Anybody accepting the CAF II reverse funding must file for ETC status for those census blocks where they are getting funding. This is a requirement even if the auction winner is only going to be serving one or two people within that census block. Census blocks are areas that generally include 600 – 800 homes. In cities a census block might be as small as a block or two, but in rural areas a census block can be large.

My bet is that the large telcos are going to claim that they no longer have carrier of last resort in any rural area where there is now a second ETC. They will ask regulators why they need to serve a new home built in one of these areas if there is another carrier with similar obligations. If that’s the case, then this reverse auction is going to remove huge chunks of rural America from having a carrier of last resort provider. It’s likely that incumbent telcos will use the existence of a second ETC to avoid having to bring service to new homes.

I have an even more nagging worry. ETC status is something that is granted by state regulatory commissions. In granting this status it’s possible that some states are going to interpret this to mean that a new ETC might have some carrier of last resort obligations. If the incumbent telco tears down the copper network, it’s not unreasonable to think that state regulators might turn to the new ETC in an area to serve newly constructed homes and businesses.

I would caution anybody seeking ETC status as part of getting this funding to make sure they are not unknowingly picking up carrier of last resort obligations along with that status. If I was making such a filing myself I would query the regulators directly to get their response on the record.

I will be the first to tell you that I could be off base on this – but this feels like one of those regulatory requirements that could have hidden consequences. I can’t think of any reason why this program would require a new provider to supply telephone service other than for letting the large telcos off the hook to do so. I know that many companies going after this funding would think twice about taking it if it means they become the carrier of last resort.

Carrier-of-Last-Resort Obligations

Earlier this month the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia upheld FCC orders that still require large telcos to be the carrier-of-last-resort provider of telephone service for at least some of their service territory. The ruling is the result of appeals made by CenturyLink and AT&T that required them to provide telephone service to new rural households.

The idea of carrier of last resort has been part of the telephone industry for nearly as long as the FCC has been regulating the industry. The concept was a key component of spreading the telephone network to all corners of the country – the Congress and the early FCC understood that the whole country was better off if everybody was connected.

Over the years the FCC and various state regulatory commissions ruled that telcos had to make a reasonable effort to connect rural customers. Telcos always had the option to petition against adding customers in really hard to reach places like mountaintops, but for the most part telcos routinely added new homes to the telephone network.

Carrier-of-last-resort started to weaken with the introduction of competition from the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Since that time the big telcos have been able to walk away from carrier-of-last-resort obligations in most of their territory. This court order ruled that in areas where the telcos are still receiving federal high cost support that the telcos are still obligated to connect homes that request service.

I worked for Ma Bell pre-divestiture and there was a real pride in the telephone industry that the network reached out to everybody. Telcos then also deployed huge numbers of pay telephones throughout the network to reach those that couldn’t afford phone service – even though they lost money on many of the payphones. The Bell company and the smaller independent telcos made it their mission to extend the network to everybody.

This order made a few comments, though, that puzzled me. They point out that many of the high-cost areas served by the big telcos are up for new funding from the upcoming CAF II auctions. Any winners of that auction are required to file to become the Eligible Telecommunications Carrier (ETC) for any areas they receive funding. The discussion in the court order implies that these new ETCs will become the carrier-of-last-resort in these areas.

That surprised me because there are plenty of carriers that have ETC status and yet are not the obligated carrier-of-last-resort. The best example is the same big telcos examined in this case who are the ETC of record for their whole footprints but now only have carrier-of-last-resort obligations for the last most rural areas covered by this case. There have been stories for years of people who built new homes, even in urban areas, and are refused service by both the telco and cable company. The cable companies have no carrier-of-last-resort obligations, but it’s clear that in many places the telcos have been able to walk away from the obligation.

I think that companies seeking the CAF II reverse auction funding might be surprised by this interpretation of the rules. Being carrier-of-last-resort means that a carrier is obligated to build to reach anybody in the covered area that requests telephone service. The reverse auction doesn’t even require total coverage of the covered census blocks and that seems to be in conflict with the court’s interpretation. The reverse auction census blocks are some of the most sparsely populated areas of the country and building to even one remote customer in some of these areas could be extremely expensive.

Unfortunately, the carrier-of-last-resort obligation only applies to telephone service and not to broadband. It would be nice to see this concept applied to broadband and the FCC missed a good opportunity to do this when they handed out billions of federal dollars in the CAF II plan. With that plan the big telcos are only required to make their best effort to reach customers with broadband in the areas that got the CAF II funding – I’m hearing from rural people all over the country that a lot of the CAF II areas aren’t seeing any upgrades. For the most part the idea of carrier-of-last resort and universal coverage are becoming quaint concepts of our past.