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.

Who is Going to Pay for the IP Network?

Peninsular Telephone Company

Peninsular Telephone Company (Photo credit: Nick Suan)

Small telcos and most CLECs are waiting to see what will come from the changes due to converting to an all IP network for telephony. Today the telephony voice network utilizes TDM (time division multiplexing) technology that was originally developed for copper but that has been upgraded to use fiber. But the FCC has said that this old network is going to have to be upgraded to all-IP, meaning that voice will be carried by Ethernet similar to the way that data is transmitted.

I don’t think anybody is arguing that this kind of shift makes sense. IP trunking is far more efficient in terms of carrying more calls in the same amount of bandwidth. And a lot of companies have already implemented some IP trunking.

The important issue for small telcos and CLECs is how this transition is going to change their costs. In order to understand the possible change, let’s look at how voice traffic gets to and from small telcos and CLECs today.

  • Independent telephone companies connect with larger companies and neighboring companies by physical interconnection at mutual meetpoints. Historically, most of the meetpoints are located at the physical border between two neighboring telephone companies with each company owning the fiber and electronics in their own territory. And each telco is responsible for the costs of their portion of the network. Historically local calls have been exchanged for free in both directions and there are access charges in place for all telcos to get paid by the long distance carriers for using their network and facilities for long distance calls.
  • The rules governing CLECs were established by the Telecommunications Act of 1996. This Act laid forth the basic rule that a CLEC can interconnect with a telco network at any technically feasible point. This idea was fought hard by the large telcos who wanted CLECs to bring traffic to their tandems (regional hub offices). Once a CLEC has established a meetpoint, then it works pretty much the same as normal telco interconnection in that both parties are responsible for costs on their side of the interconnection. Sometimes local calls are interchanged for a fee and sometimes they are free (called bill and keep) and this is negotiated. The CLECs also bill access charges for carrying long distance calls.

There are a number of ways that IP trunking could be implemented, and each of them has financial consequences for small telcos and CLECs:

  • The IP network could be built to mimic the current PSTN. The routes would be roughly the same but the rules of interconnection would stay the same. But with IP trunking the network would be more efficient.
  • The large telcos could establish regional hubs and expect everybody else to somehow get their traffic to those locations. This would be a radical change for small telcos who would have to build or lease fiber from their rural location to the nearest regional hub. For CLECs this would completely undo the rules established by the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and would put all of the cost to get to the hubs onto them.
  • In the most extreme IP network there would be only a few large hubs to cover the whole US. This would be the most efficient in terms of the hubs, but it would require all telcos and CLECs to spend a lot of money to get their voice traffic to and from the hub.

Since I have been working in the industry the RBOCs (now AT&T and Verizon) have tried several times to put the burden and the cost of transporting calls onto the small telcos. But regulators have always stepped in to stop this because they realize that it would greatly jack up the cost of doing business in rural areas. I certainly hope that as we move to a more efficient network that we don’t end up breaking a system that is working well.

The downside to any plan that shifts cost to small telcos is that the cost of providing local and long distance service will increase in rural areas. The consequence of changing the CLEC rules will be less competition. The current interconnection and compensation rules have served the country well. Every caller benefits by having affordable rates to call to and from rural areas. And there is no doubt that higher communications cost would be a major hindrance to creating and keeping jobs in rural areas.