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.

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.