Entries in America's Broadband Connectivity Plan (11)

Thursday
Dec222011

August – October 2011: FCC Yields to no Earthquake, Hurricane or Industry Consensus 

Exactly How Many New Jobs will Broadband Create?

Part 3 of “2011: The Regulatory Year in Review.” Autumn was intense—no doubt about that. From the early August release of the Public Notice on the ABC Plan to the October 27 FCC vote on the USF Order, these 3 months were chock-full of excitement. One trend I noticed during this time was the overwhelming number of job creation claims associated with government and private sector broadband initiatives. Sure, broadband helps create jobs and certainly provides new possibilities for individuals to further their educations, start businesses at home, and conduct commerce on an international scale. But will a few government decisions and one colossal merger create literally millions of new jobs? Or is “broadband = tons of jobs” just the catch phase of the year?

August 2011: August began with the Public Notice on the ABC Plan and ended with a rapid-fire comment cycle. In between these events, we saw several natural disasters and an unprecedented FCC blog post on USF/ICC reform signed by all 4 Commissioners proclaiming that the Public Notice “marks the final stage of our reform process.”

On August 4 in Jefferson, Indiana, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski announced “jobs4america,” “a new coalition of forward-looking businesses committed to bringing thousands of new jobs in America.”  If you are keeping a tally of broadband-related job creation claims, add 100,000 to the list—primarily broadband-enabled call center jobs, including home-based call centers. Genachowski applauded a new call center in Indiana, adding “So broadband really is enabling new economic opportunities, creating jobs and revitalizing communities—including some communities that thought their best days might be behind them.” Of course, he made sure to mention his recent trip to rural Diller, Nebraska. A fact sheet about jobs4america lists 575 broadband-enabled call center jobs that have actually recently been created, and another 17,500 or so “job creation goals over the next two years.” So… 100,000? Seems like a stretch.

The job claims didn’t stop with the FCC—President Obama also pledged to bring new jobs to rural America at an August 16 Town Hall meeting in Peosta, Iowa. Obama’s visit complemented a White House Rural Economic Forum and the release of a White House Rural Council report, “Jobs and Economic Security for Rural America.” One of the primary goals of the Council is to deploy broadband to 7 million rural Americans currently unserved, which will help enable distance learning, health care, and of course—new jobs! (The ILEC Advisor: Obama Pledges Rural Jobs and Economic Growth).

Finally, who will ever forget AT&T’s preposterous claim that the merger with T-Mobile will create 96,000 jobs? Certainly not anyone who lived in DC these past few months, as AT&T blanketed the media with commercials and print ads touting this alleged benefit of the merger.  On the same day that AT&T ceo Randall Stephenson told CNBC that the company would bring 5,000 international call center jobs back to the U.S, the Department of Justice slapped AT&T with the allegedly-shocking news (to AT&T anyway) that it had filed a suit to block the deal. (The Deal Advisor: Surprise, Surprise…DOJ Says “No Way” to AT&T – T-Mobile Merger).

September 2011: DC was still shaking and drying out from the August hurri-quake in early September, and the FCC responded by holding a public safety workshop on network reliability and outage reporting. Genachowski stated, “The hurricane and earthquake also shed light on ways we can continue to enhance our work to ensure the reliability of communications during and following disasters… Our experience with these events will inform our pending rulemaking on outage reporting… [and] our separate but related inquiry on network reliability.” Meanwhile, another threat to public safety has emerged over the last couple years in the form of rural call termination problems, but the FCC has moved much slower to address this issue than they did to address two East Coast natural disasters that caused very little disruption to communications networks. A large portion of the FCC’s September agenda was dominated by public safety, disaster preparation and network reliability topics.

A significant step in developing the White Space spectrum occurred on September 14 with Genachowski’s announcement of a 45-day public trial of the Spectrum Bridge Inc. White Space database. Genachowski explained, “Unleashing white space spectrum will enable a new wave of wireless innovation. It has the potential to exceed the billions of dollars in economic benefit from Wi-Fi, the last significant release of unlicensed spectrum, and drive private investment and job creation.” No word on how many hundreds of thousands of jobs the White Spaces may create, but definitely look for more progress on White Space spectrum development in 2012.

Job fever continued with the September 12 release of the Obama Administration’s American Jobs Act legislative proposal which included a “National Wireless Initiative” to repurpose underutilized spectrum through incentive auctions, reduce the federal deficit, and of course, create jobs (The ILEC Advisor: American Jobs Act Includes Wireless Initiative, Public Safety Network). Despite all of the heavy-duty job creation claims by the FCC, White House and telecom providers; some rural stakeholders warned that the FCC’s proposal for USF/ICC reform will actually eliminate jobs. Impact studies conducted by universities in New Mexico, Kansas, Colorado and Missouri made dire predictions about RLEC jobs, state and local taxes, RLEC wages, and total economic impact in their respective states. Although I was skeptical about some of the calculations, these impact studies definitely carried an important message about the value of RLECs to local and regional economies (The ILEC Advisor: New Mexico Study Depicts Life without USF, State USF Reform Impact Studies Predict RLEC “Death Spiral”).

October 2011: As the death of Steve Jobs rocked the galaxy, Genachowski’s October 6 announcement that the USF/ICC rules would indeed be on the October open meeting agenda launched the telecom industry into one final frenzy.  Unfortunately, Genachowski’s big reveal did little to ease our anticipation as it gave very few solid clues as to what “devils” were lurking in the details of the Order. Genachowski predictably mentioned his visit to Diller, Nebraska and claimed the reforms will “spur billions of dollars in private investment and very significant job creation”— 500,000 jobs to be exact.

We expected the Order would be about 400-500 pages long, and would be released shortly after the October 27 Open Meeting, where it was approved unanimously. We were wrong… Although we had to wait a few more weeks for the rules, the Commissioners revealed enough at the Open Meeting for it to become clear that the ABC Plan/Consensus Framework/RLEC Plan were not adopted in entirety, or really at all. Thus began 3 weeks of general panic. (The ILEC Advisor: Finally – Genachowski’s Big Announcement on USF/ICC Reform).

The FCC threw the RLECs a bone on October 18 with a workshop to address rural call termination problems. The workshop was a good first step to publically bring attention to the pervasive issue, but it almost seemed “too little too late.” After all, these problems have been increasingly occurring for more than a year. Thousands upon thousands of calls have not reached their rural destinations, harming small businesses, threatening public safety and straining family relationships with great aunt Gertrude. Rural panelists urged the FCC to issue forfeitures and fines to companies found intentionally blocking or degrading calls to high-cost rural areas, but so far no actions have been taken. Expect this issue to rear its ugly head in 2012. (The ILEC Advisor: FCC Finally Gets the Message about Rural Call Termination Problems, Rural Panelists Discuss Call Termination Problems – Causes, Effects, Solutions).  

Also notable in October, the Net Neutrality rules finally stopped collecting dust in the Office of the Federal Register storage room. Political polarization over the rules became almost too much to handle. Lawsuits from the left and right popped up faster than you can say “anti-discrimination,” and we can all look forward to a 2012 court showdown between Verizon, Free Press, the FCC and others at the U.S. Appeals Court in Washington. (The ILEC Advisor: Net Neutrality Fight Intensifies – In Washington Anyway).

While not without hurricane-force excitement, the early fall months were certainly the calm before the real storm—look for the final installment of “2011: The Regulatory Year in Review” covering November and December next week!

Wednesday
Dec212011

May – July 2011: The Summer of Consensus and Questionable Reports 

Genachowski’s Potemkin Rural Visit; RLECs and ILECs Suck it up and Play Nice

Part 2 of “2011: The Regulatory Year in Review.” The summer months had a fairly slow start, with some tepid FCC activities and a short lull in the USF/ICC Reform chronicle.  Drama with AT&T/T-Mobile was ongoing, with controversies coming to light regarding AT&T’s paid-for support of the merger. Organizations completely unaffiliated with the telecommunications industry nevertheless waved the AT&T/T-Mobile flag with pride; which rose more than a few eyebrows and even led to a few shakeups and firings in said organizations.  Given the news yesterday that AT&T and T-Mobile will drop the merger completely, it is actually a little funny to look back at the year and all of the bickering and moaning that occurred over this doomed betrothal (more to come on that topic the next installment). The stand-out event of the summer was without a doubt the ILEC-RLEC “Consensus Framework” for USF/ICC Reform, which like AT&T/T-Mobile, seemed like a sure-bet to the parties involved at first but slowly dissolved largely due to the FCC’s stern agendas.

May 2011: May was a big month for USF/ICC Reform reply comments and ex parte filings, but little else. Republican FCC Commissioner Meredith Attwell Baker announced early in the month her intent to leave the Commission for a lucrative lobbying position at Comcast, just months after she voted in favor of the Comcast-NBCU merger. Naturally, watchdogs cried foul and even demanded a Congressional investigation. The “revolving door” is nothing new as prominent FCC staff circle back and forth around the DC telecom lobby scene, but Baker’s announcement definitely had a bitter taste given the large public opposition to the Comcast-NBCU deal.  In her official farewell statement, Baker explained that she had not been contacted by Comcast until mid-April, long after the deal was done, and “I have not only complied with the legal and ethical laws, but I have also gone further. I have not participated or voted any item, not just those related to Comcast or NBCUniversal, since entering discussions about an offer of potential employment.” Meanwhile, the revolving door keeps spinning…

Chairman Genachowski’s May 18 trip to Diller, Nebraska topped my Hot List for the year, but largely because I was endlessly entertained by the big kerfuffle made out of this beltway-insider visiting fly-over country for all of a couple hours. “It’s Nebraska, not the moon,” I said. In late 1700s Russia, the story goes that “Potemkin villages”—fake settlements with all the bells and whistles—were constructed for the sole purpose of impressing Empress Catherine II when she visited the rural countryside. Genachwoski’s visit was the opposite of a Potemkin village—it was a Potemkin visit. The whole ordeal seemed like the FCC’s way of satiating the rural telecom industry (and rural Americans) by saying, “Hey, we understand what you are going through every day, and your unique needs, because we visited one of your communities!” Personally, I saw right through the façade, but nonetheless it was a nice effort. Genachowski visited locally-owned businesses and an RLEC, where he even posed for photo-ops in the CO. His overall messages was that rural businesses require broadband in order to succeed, which is absolutely no surprise for the RLECs who have been providing broadband to local businesses for years.

June 2011: The month with the longest days can basically be summed up in one word: reports. In the span of a few weeks, the FCC released three “big” reports of varying significance and quality. The first, “Information Needs of Communities: The Changing Media Landscape in a Broadband Age” (by Steve Waldman), I admit I did not pay much attention to. The gist was that broadband is important for a vibrant media experience and “a free democracy comprised of important and empowered citizens.” In response to this report, resident media champion Commissioner Copps proclaimed that “it is imperative that the FCC play a vital role in helping to ensure that all Americans have access to diverse and competing news and information that provide the grist for democracy’s churning mill.” Copps zoomed in on an alleged “crisis” identified in the report that “more than one-third of our commercial broadcasters offer little to no news whatsoever to their communities of license.” Basically, we need more local news and more ways to protect local media from Big media—Copps explained, “Localism means less program homogenization, more local and less canned music, and community news actually originated in the market where it is broadcast.”

The June 22 report, “Bringing Broadband to Rural America: Update to Report on a Rural Broadband Strategy” was more relevant to RLECs but generally lacked substance.  This 29-page document from the FCC and USDA was a Congressionally-mandated update to a much more comprehensive 2009 report “describing a ‘comprehensive rural broadband strategy.’” Again, the gist of this report was fairly straightforward—all Americans should have access to broadband, and we just aren’t doing a good enough job in rural America despite making “significant progress” in the last two years. The key take-away of this report was that it provided some extra ammunition for the FCC’s USF/ICC Reform decision, as it self-served the FCC’s reform principles of accountability, fiscal responsibility, and market-driven incentives.  Genachowski proclaimed that it was “not acceptable” that 28% of rural Americans lack broadband, as found in the report.

Ending the month was the ironically-titled “Fifteenth Annual Mobile Wireless Competition Report,” where the FCC made no definitive conclusion (in 308 pages) about the state of competition in a report where the FCC was explicitly directed to make a definitive conclusion about the state of competition in the wireless market…. So much for that goal… Nevertheless, the Big 4 (and others) used the report to prop up their own agendas—be it proof that the industry is totally competitive or totally not competitive. AT&T cherry-picked certain data from the report to depict a vibrantly competitive wireless industry to boost their assertion that the merger with T-Mobile would not be anticompetitive. Lack of conclusion aside, this report did contain some interesting factoids about the wireless market in general. (The ILEC Advisor: How do You Measure Wireless Competition?).

July 2011: July was all about reaching an industry consensus for USF/ICC reform. The FCC asked for it, and RLECs/ILECs delivered, albeit too late for the FCC’s impossibly high standards of time. At the beginning of July, it still appeared as though a consensus was a million light-years away—reply comments, ex parte filings, and a series of high-profile events on the topic in DC did little to ease my mind even though a comprehensive “Consensus Framework” kept being promised. Mid-month, the Rural Associations came out swinging with a far-reaching advocacy campaign called “Save Rural Broadband,” aimed at getting consumers to contact their Congressional offices  with their concerns about being left behind in the Great Broadband Race of the 2010s. (The ILEC Advisor: Comments Show Little Consensus on USF Reform Issues, Rural Associations Launch “Save Rural Broadband”).

On July 29, the long-awaited Consensus Framework was finally released for public inspection. Called America’s Broadband Connectivity Plan (ABC Plan), this proposal was the baby of the 6 largest price cap ILECs, but “supported” by the Rural Associations.  It presented what the involved parties believed was a reasonable and appropriate framework for price cap ILECs, if used in conjunction with the RLEC Plan for rate-of-return companies. Both sides made compromises—including the Rural Associations’ reluctant acceptance of a $0.0007 access rate. The ABC Plan was widely criticized by basically any party who wasn’t directly involved in its creation. (The ILEC Advisor: Price Cap Carriers Release “ABC Plan” for USF with Rural Support).

Finally, the FCC attended one of those pesky consumer issues in July- “mystery fees,” and “cramming”—“the illegal placement of an unauthorized fee onto consumer’s monthly phone bill.” The FCC proposed rules that would require telecommunications providers to clearly notify consumers how to block third-party charges on their bills, among other measures. Between the mystery fee crackdown, July proposals to improve VoIP E911 availability and reliability, and the December rules barring uber-loud TV commercials, the FCC certainly stepped up in response to various consumer pressures throughout the year.

Coming up next in “2011: The Regulatory Year in Review,” we will reminisce about all the fun we had in that tumultuous time between when the Consensus Framework was released and the USF/ICC Order was approved—you don’t want to miss this!

Sunday
Oct092011

Response to USF/ICC Rules Varied, but Everyone Wants More Details

Genachowski’s Speech Prompts Industry-wide Reactions—to What, Exactly?

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski presented a sneak-peek at the FCC’s highly anticipated USF/ICC reform rules on October 6, but many industry stakeholders are still scratching their heads trying to figure out specific details of the yet-unreleased draft rules. Genachowski made a point to say that the draft rules are not a carbon copy of the ABC Plan/RLEC Plan/Consensus Framework, but he did not specify exactly what parts of the industry plans would be included or rejected (see The ILEC Advisor: Finally – Genachowski’s Big Announcement on USF/ICC Reform for a summary of his full speech). I guess we will all just have to keep waiting…

Key USF/ICC stakeholders wasted no time in releasing statements about Genachowski’s speech. Although the reactions ranged from approval to frustration, one thing was clear: everyone wants more information as soon as possible.  Some statements were quite vague, and others seemed to make assumptions about the unseen rules inferred from Genachowski’s remarks. The ILEC Advisor has been covering different industry perspectives on USF reform over the last few months, and most of the reactions to today’s announcement were consistent with the mountain of comments and ex parte filings that have accumulated since February’s NPRM.

Here’s a rundown of reactions—good, bad and indifferent (in no particular order):

  • Shirley Bloomfield, NTCA ceo: “As this long-running process draws to a likely close in the coming weeks, we will continue to press for common-sense reforms that recognize the unique challenges faced by small carriers and the consumers they serve in rural areas across the country.”
  • Kelly Worthington, WTA executive director: “We look forward to seeing the details of the Chairman’s proposals. Only then will we be able to determine whether rural networks will be strengthened by the reforms.”
  • Matthew M. Polka, America Cable Association president and ceo: “The Chairman’s plan locks in a sole-source contract worth billions over 10 years to a handful of incumbent large telecom companies to deploy broadband at maximum speeds that are below average. It favors one small group of providers over others to the disadvantage of consumers. By excluding thousands of broadband providers willing, able, and eager to compete to provide service to consumers living in rural areas where government support is provided, it will deprive these communities of receiving the best possible service at the lowest possible price.”
  • Steven Berry, Rural Cellular Association president and ceo: “Chairman Genachowski delivered a fine policy speech highlighting the many reasons USF reform is imperative. I am glad to see he is focused on consumers and bringing broadband solutions to all Americans, but details remain elusive, and we must carefully review the proposal… I can only hope that wireless solutions have an opportunity to flourish in this new plan.”
  • Matt Wood, Free Press policy director: “We hope that Chairman Genachowski is sincere in his pledge to give the American people something better than the industry’s profit-padding wish list. But knowing how doggedly these companies pursue what they want, no matter how much it harms the public, we’re going to be vigilant and make sure that the Commission abides by that promise.”
  • Tony Clark, NARUC president, and John Burke, NARUC Telecommunications Committee chair: “We are very anxious to get additional details on the mechanisms for Intercarrier Compensation reform, including how Voice over Internet Protocol traffic will be integrated into the system to avoid arbitrage opportunities. Indeed, some elements of the speech raise a host of unanswered questions but also the specter of long term and serious unintended consequences for consumers.”
  • Bob Quinn, AT&T vp-federal regulatory & chief privacy officer: “FCC Chairman Genachowski deserves credit for bringing this important issue to this point. We and many others are committed to working with him and the entire Commission as it works to bring this opportunity for a fair, reasonable plan across the finish line.”

A common point of tension seems to be whether or not the FCC’s plan will be good for consumers. However, what is best for consumers—lower telephone rates, or expanded broadband availability?  More importantly, can both of these lofty goals be achieved in one fail swoop? If, for example, access rates were reduced significantly, would the big telcos pass the savings along to consumers directly, pocket the extra cash, or reinvest it in the network? I imagine these questions will not be answered until after the rules are implemented.

It is not just industry groups reacting to the FCC’s proposed rules (whatever they may be). Congress is weighing in as well. A bipartisan October 4 letter to Genachowski signed by Representatives Lee Terry (R-NE), Mike Ross (D-AR) and 33 mostly rural representatives states, “It’s our judgment that the FCC must act swiftly yet carefully to enact reforms that allow all Americans – particularly those in hard-to-serve rural communities – access to the burgeoning services and opportunities that are being created via innovation in broadband technology.” The Representatives “urge the FCC to maintain the key elements of the America’s Broadband Connectivity and Joint Rural Association proposals,” which “clearly [create] a path forward for comprehensive USF and intercarrier compensation reform.”

While it is admirable that so many Democratic and Republican Representatives came together in support of the Consensus Framework, the FCC’s final rules might not have a VIP pass in the Senate. On October 5, the Senate Commerce Committee announced an October 12 hearing on the FCC’s USF/ICC reform efforts. Apparently, “Congressional Democrats have expressed concerns that the plan won’t sufficiently protect consumers.” I wonder if the Senate Commerce Committee will actually see the plan before the hearing next week, or if they have already seen it? It seems premature to set a hearing about rules that have not even been approved or reviewed by the public, but there doesn’t seem to be much love between Congress and the FCC these days.  

The draft rules were supposedly circulated to FCC Commissioners, as the rest of us anxiously await more details. Let the speculation continue!

Thursday
Sep152011

Rural Associations Urge FCC to Reject Last-Minute USF “Wish Lists”

The Consensus Framework is an Opportunity for Pragmatic and Meaningful Reform

In reply comments filed last week, NTCA, OPASTCO, WTA and NECA encouraged the FCC to adopt the RLEC Plan without modification, and reject various alternative plans filed in this last comment cycle on USF/ICC reform. The Rural Associations argue that the last-minute alternative plans “provide little, if anything, in the way of detail and even less in terms of how consumers would benefit by their enactment,” and are based mostly on “broad policy statements recast from earlier phases of these proceedings.” The Rural Associations believe that the FCC has in its hands a reasonable, realistic and practical framework for thorough reform with the Consensus Framework (RLEC and ABC Plans), and “The time for concepts and theories is long past. Reform will go nowhere if the industry continues to spiral around high-level policy debates and the grinding of ‘old axes’ in lieu of delving into the gritty details that are essential to complete the reform process.”

The Rural Associations explain that the RLEC Plan has received widespread support, and it presents a much less radical solution than some of the alternatives which propose hard caps on the fund, reverse auctions, and total elimination of access revenue. Furthermore, the Rural Associations explain that “The Consensus Framework represents a detailed, balanced and pragmatic approach to comprehensive reform that is capable of getting the Commission and industry beyond the seemingly endless stalemate.”

Although the Consensus Framework has been criticized by cable, wireless, and other industry sectors as being far from an industry consensus, the Rural Associations make the important distinction that “some of the largest contributors to the USF as well as those who depend the most upon the Fund” participated in the negotiations. In other words, the destiny of the Fund should probably be determined, to some degree anyway, by those companies who keep the fund in existence and use it successfully, like RLECs. At the very least, RLECs should have a primary say in how RLEC funding is distributed, and “The RLEC Plan seeks to preserve the past and present successes of RLECs in bringing quality, affordable voice and broadband services to their high-cost markets.” In addition to maintaining stability for RLECs, the Rural Associations also explain that the RLEC Plan abides by the FCC’s USF/ICC reform guiding principles of responsibility, modernization, fiscal accountability and market-driven policy.

The Rural Associations point to the National Cable and Telecommunications Association’s “Amended ABC Plan” and the Google, Skype, Sprint-Nextel and Vonage “Tech/User Plan” as two examples of late filed, “potentially dangerous” proposals.  The Rural Associations assert that NCTA’s proposal to reduce rate of return to 8.5% and eliminate it completely in 2019 “provides no analysis whatsoever of the impact of this proposal on consumers or the USF itself.”  Throughout this proceeding, the Rural Associations have advocated “methodical and surgical” reforms, and they warn the FCC that “A particular policy approach that may seem ‘visionary’ or ‘progressive’ could turn out to be disastrous if put into practice without a thorough understanding of its implications.”

By contrast, the Rural Associations submitted the RLEC Plan months ago, and the FCC and industry have had ample time to consider the benefits, consequences and estimated short- and long-term impacts of an entire suite of reforms, from the size of the fund to access rates to arbitrage.  The opportunity for heavy-duty analysis does not exist with the late-filed plans, nor do most of the alternative plans cover the entire range of USF/ICC reform topics in great detail.  The FCC’s Public Notice, which specifically asked questions about three alternatives plans (RLEC and ABC Plans, and the Joint Board Plan) should have been a fairly clear hint that the time was up presenting new, radical plans—some members of the industry are even speculating that the FCC had already begun writing the final rules before the Public Notice was released last month.  The Rural Associations recognize that at this stage in the game, it is time to focus on how the plans outlined in the Public Notice will work for the industry at large: “In lieu of leaping into the unknown based upon undeveloped proposals and last-minute plans for purportedly-groundbreaking (and equally damaging) policy shifts, the Commission should adopt the RLEC Plan, as modified by the Consensus Framework.”

The question now is will the FCC accept the Consensus Framework “as is,” or will it be modified in light of the opposition that has emerged in this comment cycle?  The Rural Associations believe that many of the suggested modifications are “unworkable” and would significantly threaten the “delicate balance” that was achieved through ILEC-RLEC negotiations.  One particular area where the Rural Associations are not willing to budge is the proposed $4.5b Fund budget.  Cable industry commenters are calling for a “hard and durable permanent cap” on the fund; but the Rural Associations insist that the $4.5b budget, which could be modified as needed in the future, is a “far more effective approach for driving and demanding efficiency in the reform and operation of these programs, while avoiding the legal quagmire that would arise in adopting a firm (and potentially permanent) cap notwithstanding the statutory mandates.”

The Rural Associations argue that a hard cap is contrary to the Telecommunications Act, it would discourage new investment, and challenge the ability of carriers to recover current investments in broadband networks.  They assert that Comcast provides no data or evidence to illustrate that a hard cap at today’s funding levels will be sufficient in the future, and imposing a hard cap would require a separate rulemaking proceeding which could take years.  Furthermore, a permanent cap may have “unintended and unforeseen consequences,” since nobody can predict with certainty what the future holds.  Rather, “All that anyone can know at this point is that budget targets are more flexible than permanent hard caps, and can be much more readily modified to address economic and industry changes (probably substantial) that are likely to take place at any given point in the future.”

Some critics of the RLEC and ABC Plans believe the Consensus Framework solutions are too focused on the wireline industry, despite the fact that the wireline industry market share is under constant attack from wireless and cable.  However, the Rural Associations insist that the RLEC Plan is not “backward-looking.” They explain, “It constitutes a pragmatic way to preserve and promote access to high-quality, affordable broadband services that many rural consumers enjoy only because the existing High Cost program for RLEC service areas has been so effective.”

While it may have been exciting for some members of the industry to draft radical and completely transformative proposals for USF/ICC reform—which we have definitely seen no shortage of—the fact remains that there must be specific and predictable universal service support going forward in accordance with statutory requirements.  If adopted, the Consensus Framework could help facilitate further, more dramatic changes down the road as the industry transforms to all-IP, as consumer broadband technology demands and trends become more predictable, and as ubiquitous broadband becomes a reality.  The Rural Associations make some very interesting points about the importance of flexibility and stability, because we definitely do not know for certain what the future holds.  This is only the first significant step in transforming USF for a broadband world, and it may be the best option for the FCC to err on the side of caution while still ensuring that outdated and insufficient policies are modernized.

The Rural Associations' reply comments are available here.

Thursday
Sep082011

Six ILECs Defend Rights of First Refusal Proposal

ABC Plan Participants Respond to Challenges from Opponents 

On September 6, the six price cap ILECs who developed America’s Broadband Connectivity Plan (ABC Plan) for USF/ICC reform filed reply comments which addressed a range of criticism that has emerged from different corners of the industry.  Since the ABC Plan was released on July 29, it has been hailed by some as a great compromise between industry parties who are normally rarely in agreement, and it has been challenged by others as extremely flawed and geared towards cementing ILEC competitive strongholds on the broadband industry.  The ABC Plan’s authors -- AT&T, CenturyLink, FairPoint, Frontier, Verizon and Windstream -- open the reply comments by insisting, “The comments filed in this proceeding demonstrate the unprecedented breadth of support for the ABC Plan and the Consensus Framework,” and urge they the FCC to adopt this proposal.  They add, “It would be futile for the Commission to continue to wait for a perfect consensus, as one will never emerge.”

One of the highly debated issues in the ABC Plan throughout the initial comments to the FCC’s Universal Service-Intercarrier Compensation Transformation Proceeding Public Notice was the ILECs’ proposal for rights of first refusal (ROFR) of broadband support in unserved areas.  Basically, the ABC Plan would allow ILECs who have made “substantial existing broadband investments” to at least 35% of a wire center where there are no other unsubsidized competitors to either accept or decline CAF support for that wire center.  According to the ABC Plan, “If [the ILEC] accepts the offer of the baseline support, then the incumbent LEC assumes all of the broadband service obligations for the ten-year term of CAF support.”  If the ILEC declines the offer, any other provider can compete for the CAF support in a reverse auction, and presumably the most cost-efficient competitor would win the support.

Opposition to the ROFR proposal primarily consisted of arguments that the proposal is anticompetitive and would result in a windfall for ILECs at the expense of consumers.  US Cellular comments that the ABC Plan in general is “a blueprint for a heist,” and “Allowing ROFR will reverse over a decade of Congressional and Commission focus on consumers, rather than carriers, as the beneficiaries of support.”  US Cellular argues that ROFR is not competitively neutral and would give the providers the power to decide which technology is deployed in rural areas, even if it is not the most cost-efficient, fastest, or most desired broadband technology. US Cellular further argues that if 80% of ILECs exercise their ROFR as anticipated, the ILECs will essentially be “catastrophically stunting entry by competitive wireless carriers for at least ten years.”

Additional noteworthy examples of opposition to ROFR come from Free Press, Alaskan telecommunications provider General Communications Inc. (GCI), and Cox Communications.  Free Press argues “The self-interested nature of this plan on the price cap side is perfectly illustrated by their proposal to have a Rights of First Refusal that allows them to insulate themselves from the competition that reverse auctions are supposed to create.” Cox also argues that ROFR would distract from the purported benefits of reverse auctions in totally unserved areas: “there is no public policy rational for preferring any provider;” and only if price cap ILECs are determined to be the most efficient provider via a competitive bidding process, “then the bidding process will award them the subsidies.”  Cox also adds that, “There is no evidence at all that granting a right of first refusal would lead to any consumer benefits.”

GCI argues against ROFR from its unique perspective as a rural Alaskan broadband provider.  GCI insists that ROFR “would be disastrous for ETCs like GCI and the customers they serve, would turn back the clock on rural wireless and broadband deployment, and more importantly, would harm public safety.”  GCI insists that both wireless and wireline services should be supported in Alaska.  GCI explains that wireless is particularly important for Alaskan public safety and the state’s job market, which “is characterized by a significant transient workforce” of individuals who relocate seasonally, work on fishing boats and oil pipelines, and “cannot depend on wireline service.”

The six ABC Plan ILECs defend the ROFR proposal and insist that its purpose is not to entrench their positions in the market; rather, “It is a narrowly-targeted means of accelerating broadband deployment and preventing inefficient duplication of existing facilities.”  The ILECs point to the limitations of the proposal -- that ROFR is not allowed unless the ILEC has deployed broadband to 35% of the wire center, and ROFR is not allowed if there is a single unsupported competitor -- as evidence that ROFR will not “tilt the competitive landscape” in favor of ILECs.

The ILECs believe that ROFR will help price cap carriers leverage existing investments to provide broadband in nearby unserved areas, and “It is essential to take advantage of existing investments in ILEC infrastructure to leverage those facilities in a way that will deliver ubiquitous access to broadband while working within the current budget for high-cost funding.”  The ILECs further argue against criticism that ROFR is not competitively or technologically neutral by insisting that the unserved areas could feasibly be served by any competitor with any technology if the ILEC refuses the support.

Do you think ROFR is intended to prevent stranded investment and help the price cap ILECs deploy broadband in unserved rural areas -- the areas where price cap ILECs have long been criticized for not making a very good effort to serve -- or is ROFR a means for the ABC Plan participants to strengthen their market power at the expense of consumer benefit and competition?  Both sides make persuasive arguments, and the ROFR proposal has gained support from other mid-sized ILECs who did not participate in the ABC Plan, such as members of the Independent Telephone & Telecommunications Alliance (ITTA).  In its joint comments with Cincinnati Bell, Hargray Telephone Company and Hickory Tech Corporation, ITTA urges the FCC to adopt the ROFR proposal as presented in the ABC Plan.

Your position in the industry will likely dictate whether you think the ROFR proposal is a boon or a bust, but one could get the impression that the ROFR opponents like cable and wireless providers are also trying to secure their competitive positions by attempting to block this proposal from being adopted.  It is possible that the FCC could impose further limitations on ROFR, such as requiring the ILEC to serve substantially more than 35% of the wire center.  A higher threshold may calm some of the opponents and even increase the number of unserved areas where support could be determined by reverse auctions, but the ABC Plan participants have warned that they will not support drastic modifications to the plan by the FCC. The ROFR issue seems to be one of the more dramatic topics, and it is also an area that may require the “shared sacrifice” that the FCC has been asking for since the NPRM was released in February—one possible outcome being that the ILECs would have to sacrifice their desired low deployment threshold. Hopefully, the rural consumers in unserved price cap ILEC areas will not have to sacrifice their need for high quality, reasonably comparable and affordable broadband service.

The reply comments by the six ILECs are available here.