Entries in FCC Filings (20)

Tuesday
Jan102012

NTCA: Include Text and Broadband to Cut USF Contribution Rate in Half 

With $2b Decrease to Revenue Base in 2 Years, “The USF is Being Starved”

When you glance at the National Broadband Plan action item website, you will see that it is reportedly at the 80% completion mark as the plan nears its 2 year anniversary. Then, look at the section called “Accelerate Universal Broadband Access and Adoption”—this is where all the “good stuff” on USF/ICC lives—and you will see that the FCC’s goals have largely been achieved. Except for one: the elusive USF Contributions NPRM. According to the action item agenda, “To stabilize support mechanisms for universal service programs, in Q4 2010 propose rules to reform the process for collecting contributions to the USF.” Well, here we are a year after this objective should have been achieved and still no progress on USF contributions reform…and NTCA is not letting the FCC forget about it, as evidenced by a January 9, 2012 Ex Parte meeting with FCC staff.

NTCA discussed with FCC staff “prompt and effective reform of the contributions mechanism that enables the federal universal service fund.” NTCA argued for a revenue-based contributions mechanisms that “is technology neutral and best captures the value that consumers place on competing services;” “reflects the balance that consumers strike between different service offerings and the evolution of consumer preference;” is the “most equitable means of sharing responsibility;” and “can be implemented quickly with little burden to providers or the industry.” NTCA further argues that a revenue-based mechanism would be stabilizing and not overly complex, unlike a mechanism based on numbers or connections.

NTCA believes that the FCC has ample authority to extend the contributions base. One of the most convincing arguments was that the FCC has obviously made it a key mission to reform USF for the broadband era, so it logically follows that contributions should also be broadband-centric. NTCA explains, “Given that the Commission has indicated that retooling the USF program to support broadband-capable networks is among the most significant policy priorities, it would be both self-defeating and ironically anomalous for the Commission to build a broadband-focused fund of tomorrow on a foundation comprised solely of legacy services that fewer and fewer customers are buying.”

“Fewer and fewer” is certainly no exaggeration—if the USF contribution base is kept as it is, there literally won’t be anyone to keep it afloat in the coming years. NTCA estimates that “Over the past 2 years, assessable Telecommunications Revenues declined by $2 billion.” Just looking ahead three years, JSI Capital Advisors has projected that total wired access lines will decline from 86.49 in 2012 to 56.55m in 2015; meanwhile broadband connections will increase from 102.30m in 2012 to 115.48m in 2015 (The ILEC Advisor: Communications Industry Forecast 2011-2020: ILEC and CLEC Access Lines; Communications Industry Forecast 2011-2020: Broadband Connections and Market Share). So… why hasn’t the FCC broadened the contribution base to include broadband connections yet?

Much of the fault likely lies in the challenge of deciding exactly who should contribute, and how much. NTCA recommends a revenue-based methodology, and suggests that the contributions base should be broadened to include non-interconnected VoIP revenue, fixed and mobile broadband revenues (a $49b base in 2012), and texting revenue (a $20b base in 2012). NTCA argues, “Non-interconnected VoIP and texting cannot function without supported networks, and should thus contribute.” Furthermore, “texting is increasingly a substitute for voice calls.” According to NTCA, including broadband and texting revenues in the contributions base could likely cut the steadily-increasing contributions factor in half. Fixing the supply side of USF is crucial, and NTCA stresses that “The shrinking Contributions Base must be fixed or all of Universal Service is at risk.”

So you include voice lines, broadband lines, all VoIP and texting in the contributions base—is that it? Probably not, according to NTCA, but the FCC should not hesitate to implement initial reforms before they decide who else should contribute. NTCA urges the FCC to study “how to address business models that rely heavily upon driving traffic from others to specific websites or web-based enterprises.”

Determining contributions for web-based businesses that “place substantial burdens on networks” and probably wouldn’t exist if not for the networks they utilize is definitely a murky area, but as NTCA suggests, this could be a longer-term goal. How would the FCC begin to determine which web-based businesses should pay into USF? Would it be based on traffic, revenue, bandwidth utilization, or something else? With the lines between service provider and content provider becoming increasingly blurry (Google being the prime example), how will the FCC apply a new methodology for companies that fall into different categories? One can expect content providers to cry foul that the FCC is attempting to stifle innovation by imposing fees in this realm, but if it weren’t for the networks, these businesses would not exist. They certainly wouldn’t be generating billions in revenue, or contributing massive strain on broadband networks, thus requiring service providers to continually invest in upgrading their facilities…

The debate over contributions reform is likely to heat up in the coming months, and it will be very interesting to see what the FCC—and the industry—comes up with for new methodologies and solutions to address the rapidly shrinking contributions base. What do you think should happen…and what do you think will happen?

NTCA’s Ex Parte filing is available here.

Tuesday
Jan032012

Blooston Rural Carriers to FCC: Keep Tier One Wireless out of Mobility Fund

Petition for Reconsideration of USF/ICC Order Focused on Pitfalls of Reverse Auctions  

Eighteen rural wireless stakeholders, collectively the Blooston Rural Carriers, submitted a Petition for Reconsideration of the USF/ICC Transformation Order on December 29, 2011. The law firm of Blooston, Mordkofsky, Dickens, Duffy & Prendergast, LLP wrote arguments against reverse auctions and several aspects of the Mobility Fund Phase I on behalf of these companies. The Blooston Rural Carriers argued that reverse auctions will create a “race to the bottom” and may provide opportunities for deceptively low and anti-competitive bidding. Additionally, the process favors large carriers and does not include sufficient provisions to ensure small rural providers will participate or be successful in winning Mobility Fund support. The Blooston Rural Carriers also argue that the FCC has essentially ignored several of their previous comments (and warnings) about reverse auctions in the Mobility Fund NPRM and CAF proceedings.

The FCC alleges that reverse auctions are the best possible methodology to distribute Mobility Fund Phase I support (and most likely CAF and Mobility Fund Phase II support too), but the Blooston Rural Carriers ask, are reverse auctions really the best way? The petition explains that reverse auctions are “susceptible to a number of shortcomings that ultimately undermine the Commission’s intention of expanding existing coverage to unserved areas in the most economic way possible.”

The Blooston Rural Carriers have made several attempts over the past year to convince the FCC that reverse auctions would be detrimental not only to small carriers, but the goals of USF overall. However, it appears as though many of Blooston’s pleas have gone unacknowledged by the FCC despite the fact that “Courts have long held that an agency must respond to ‘relevant’ and ‘significant’ comments.” The Blooston Rural Carriers snipe, “The opportunity to comment is meaningless unless the agency responds to significant points raised by the public.”

The Blooston Rural Carriers did indeed raise one significant point in their petition that should produce an interesting response from the FCC: Tier One wireless carriers be limited or prohibited from receiving Mobility Fund support. The Blooston Rural Carriers explain, “USF funds are limited, and the Mobility Fund rules must recognize that no Tier One carrier requires financial assistance to complete its buildout.” The USF/ICC Transformation Order makes $300m available in Phase I via reverse auction, where any carrier can participate in the auction and no areas will be prioritized (The ILEC Advisor: Introducing the Mobility Fund: “A National Priority”).  This means that Verizon and Sprint, who voluntarily surrendered USF support in exchange for merger approval, will actually be able to participate in (and possibly win) reverse auctions for support they have allegedly given up.

The Blooston Rural Carriers refer to Verizon, explaining, “Were it not for the Commission’s conditioning the Alltel merger upon a phase-down of USF receipts, it stands to reason that the merged entity would have remained the largest recipient of high-cost funding.” Verizon and AT&T saw profits in 2010 of well over $10b, which certainly begs the question of exactly why the big companies need money to deploy a few extra towers in unserved areas. According to the Blooston Rural Carriers, “Notwithstanding the fact that the recent annual profits of either AT&T or Verizon could fund the entire proposed $4.5b annual high-cost program budget with room to spare…the Commission is looking to give them substantial new CAF and Mobility Fund support…without any reference to their earnings;” which is tantamount to corporate welfare.

Even though the FCC contends that Phase I Mobility Fund support is not intended to go to particular classes of carriers, the Blooston Rural Carriers argue that “The only way to effectively encourage high-quality expansion into unserved areas is to ensure that funding is directed to carriers that have a legitimate interest in building and maintaining high-quality services in those areas;” and rural carriers have a “vested interest” in doing just so. The Blooston Rural Carriers explain that small rural carriers have only been able to achieve mild success in regular spectrum auctions because of special provisions like bidding credits—“without such measures, small carriers would have had no realistic chance.”

There are no bidding credits or special provisions for small companies in the Mobility Fund—at least not in Phase I. The Blooston Rural Carriers warn that “participation in the Mobility Fund will significantly favor large, nationwide carriers whose capital and operating costs are significantly lower than small and rural service providers.” Furthermore, large carries may have opportunities to game the system though unreasonably low and anticompetitive bids, and determining winners based on costs alone might produce undesirable results. The Blooston Rural Carriers insist, “It is important to take into account more factors than simply which entity can claim to do the job for the least amount of money.”

As an alternative, the Blooston Rural Carriers recommend that the FCC “choose a method of distributing funds that takes into account an equitable comparison and evaluation of the differing costs and service characteristics of different technologies, rights of creditors and repayments of outstanding loans, and the treatment of carrier of last resort obligations, costs, as well as past performance and experience providing service in the kinds of areas that generally remain unserved.” In addition to bidding credits for small carriers, the Blooston Rural Carriers’ list of recommendations for improving the Mobility Fund for small rural carriers includes:

  • Ensuring affordable roaming agreements for rural carriers who receive mobility support
  • Facilitating greenfield projects and “economic ‘jump starts’” for RLEC spectrum holders interested in deploying new wireless systems in their service areas,
  • Prohibiting competitively harmful exclusive equipment and handset arrangements
  • Require 3G systems deployed with Mobility Fund support be easily upgradable to 4G

Finally, the Blooston Rural Carriers are concerned about the future direction of the Mobility Fund, since many of the finer details are still unclear and will be left to the Bureaus to determine: “The Commission’s reliance on undetermined further procedures provides little comfort for rural carriers who are routinely at a disadvantage to larger carriers.” The Blooston Rural Carriers hope that the FCC will finally notice and respond to some of the arguments mentioned in this petition—arguments that the Blooston Rural Carriers and other rural stakeholders have been delivering for over a year with little acknowledgement by an FCC determined to make reverse auctions work. However, there is a real threat that the efforts to make reverse auctions work will undermine the goals of the USF and misallocate the precious little funding that is available in the tight $4.5b budget.

The Blooston Rural Carriers recommend that the FCC, “on reconsideration, take real, concrete, active steps to ensure equal opportunity and competitive participation among all carriers.” What do you think the FCC should do to ensure small rural wireless carriers can actively participate in Phase I Mobility Fund reverse auctions?

The full Petition for Reconsideration is available here.

Monday
Dec192011

January – April 2011: USF NPRM, AT&T/T-Mobile Merger Dominate Headlines

A Veritable "Spring Awakening" of Blockbuster Agendas

Looking back over the year, there were so many exciting telecom regulatory decisions, actions and mishaps that I just had to do a “2011: Regulatory Year in Review” series, in part to keep it light before the holidays and in part to help predict what might be on the “hot list” next year. 2011 kicked off with the FCC’s controversial late-December approval of the Net Neutrality rules still stinging for many telecom providers, and 2011 is ending on a similar controversial note with the Stop Online Piracy Act debate in Congress (which, ironically, is almost the direct antithesis of Net Neutrality). But in between these groundbreaking Internet policy and legislation bookends, there was definitely no shortage of drama in all areas of telecom regulation.

January 2011: The stage was set for the year-long flurry of merger, joint-venture and consolidation activity with the FCC’s Jan. 18 approval of the massive Comcast-NBC Universal deal. According to the FCC’s Memorandum Opinion and Order, “The proposed transaction would combine, in a single joint venture, the broadcast, cable programming, online content, movie studio, and other businesses of NBCU with some of Comcast’s cable programming and online content businesses.” For those of you who were a little uneasy about a vertical and horizontal (depending on who you talk to) merger of this magnitude, the FCC imposed a variety of conditions including the “voluntary commitment” that Comcast provide broadband for $9.95 to low income consumers—we’ll see this pop up again towards the end of the year. Commissioner Michael Copps dissented, claiming the merger “confers too much power in one company’s hands;” and “The potential for walled gardens, toll booths, content prioritization, access fees to reach end users, and a stake in the heart of independent content production is now very real.”

Also in January, Verizon and MetroPCS jumped the gun on Net Neutrality appeals… but they fired before locking in a target that could actually be appealed. Eager parties had to hold tight for 10 more months before the rules were finally published in the Federal Register.  (The ILEC Advisor: Verizon Appeals FCC’s Net Neutrality Rules, MetroPCS Joins Verizon in Suing FCC Over Net Neutrality Rules)

February 2011: I clearly recall at around this time last year expressing frustration (putting it nicely) that the USF/ICC Reform NPRM was pushed back when Net Neutrality took center stage. Well, we didn’t have to wait very long in 2011 for the 350-plus page NPRM that set in motion an entire year’s worth of anxiety and insomnia for the RLEC industry. Once the NPRM was released, the FCC pressed forward with the reforms at lightning speed (well, for the FCC anyway), and it almost seems surreal that we are now ending the year still trying to make sense of all changes to USF and ICC. Anyway, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski demanded that USF/ICC reforms conform to four guiding principles: modernized to support broadband networks, fiscal accountability, accountability, and market-driven incentive-based policies. When the NPRM was revealed, Genachowski made sure to emphasis how the current USF/ICC system is fraught with waste, fraud and abuse; and he arguably made RLECs seem like Public Enemy #1. The FCC essentially insisted that the industry develop a consensus proposal in response to the NPRM, but as we will see, that didn’t work out so well… (The ILEC Advisor: Wireless Excess Highlights Needs for Universal Service Reform).  

Not ten days later, we got another zinger- the NTIA’s National Broadband Map was released. RLECs scurried to check the data and make sure speeds and coverage were accurately portrayed in their service areas, only to find… A LOT of mistakes. My initial response to the map was “For $200m, why couldn’t they get it right?” JSICA’s Richelle Elberg wrote that the map was “disappointing, buggy, and the data incomplete;” and “it was a year in the making, it cost an awful lot of money, and it doesn’t seem to be fully baked just yet.” The biggest disappointment was that wireless providers like Verizon seemed to blanket extremely rural areas with 3-6 Mbps broadband, even though I know from experience in at least one such area that this is not an accurate representation—you see, it only takes one household in a census block to be served at that level for the entire block to be reported “served” on the map. Unfortunately, this is only one of the problems with the map, and nearly a year later it hasn’t improved much. (The ILEC Advisor: National Broadband Map Not All it’s Cracked Up to Be).

March 2011: Early in the year, there were a lot of rumors swirling that T-Mobile might be up for grabs—possibly by Sprint, which seemed like a long shot—would Sprint really want to repeat the technology incompatibility mess it had with its Nextel merger (The Deal Advisor: Sprint and T-Mobile in Talks (Again))? The telecom world shuddered on Sunday evening of March 20 when AT&T announced its intentions to abolish T-Mobile from the wireless market for a cool $39b—I was walking home from dinner and getting ready for the NTCA Legislative Conference when I got the news, and it is not an exaggeration to say that I nearly fell over. Anyway, there’s nothing like talks of ol’ Ma Bell reclaiming its monopoly to incite gut reactions from everyone—and I mean everyone. When the FCC comment cycle began, tens of thousands of consumers chimed in with very colorful opinions, one even likening the merger to rape (a comment that has literally haunted me all year…and don’t even get me started on the bizarre “interest groups” like the International Rice Festival who wrote in with questionable favor of the merger). Although many analysts initially assumed that the deal would fly through, JSICA was skeptical from the get-go, warning that the antitrust and FCC reviews would be harsh—and we were right. (The ILEC Advisor: AT&T to Acquire T-Mobile for $39b, Sprint Says it Will Vigorously Oppose AT&T Buy of T-Mobile, What’s Really Behind AT&T’s Acquisition of T-Mobile).

April 2011: USF/ICC Reform started heating up in April, with the first round of comments in response to the NPRM due on April 1 (ICC) and April 18 (USF), and two corresponding public FCC workshops held on April 6 and 27. On the ICC front, rural carriers were fairly unified in insisting that the FCC immediately adopt rules to curb arbitrage and classify VoIP as functionally equivalent to PSTN traffic. One highlight from the April 6 ICC workshop was when the panelist from AT&T (of course), asked sarcastically, “Does Iowa really need 200 small carriers?” The RLEC panelists expressed concern that ICC uncertainty contributes to low valuations for RLECs looking to sell or consolidate, which is contrary to the FCC hopes that the little guys will just consolidate once and for all.

The Rural Associations (NTCA, OPASTCO, WTA, NECA and state associations) released the RLEC Plan for USF/ICC reform, which many expected would be adopted by the FCC in the final rules—maybe not entirely, but at least in some capacity. The RLEC Plan focused on careful, “surgical” transitions for rural carriers to ensure reasonable cost recovery as well as continued broadband deployment, but without back-peddling the tremendous progress that rural carriers have made as a result of the original USF/ICC regime. Hundreds of other rural telecom stakeholders weighed in on the NPRM, many calling for Rate-of-Return stability, keeping the High-Cost Fund (now Connect America Fund) uncapped, and ensuring sufficient and predictable cost recovery. (The ILEC Advisor: Universal Service Reform – Their Two Cents: Nebraska Rural Independent Companies, Universal Service Reform – Their Two Cents: CoBank).

Finally, April also brought a sensible, well-received FCC Order on data roaming that “requires facilities-based providers of commercial mobile data services to offer data roaming arrangements to other such providers on commercially reasonable terms and conditions, subject to certain limitations.”  Naturally, Verizon argued that the FCC overstepped its authority, but overall this Order signaled an important step forward for the FCC’s realization that voice and data are well on the road to becoming one and the same. Smaller rural wireless carriers applauded the decision, arguing that it will help reduce barriers to competition with the large wireless carriers. (The ILEC Advisor: FCC Adopts Order on Automatic Data Roaming).

As the mercury started rising in DC, so did the tension in the USF/ICC Reform proceeding. Stay tuned for more “2011: The Regulatory Year in Review” posts throughout the week!

Tuesday
Sep272011

Former Commissioner Questions FCC’s Desire for RLEC Mergers

FCC has no Authority to Encourage Consolidation, Says Harold Furchtgott-Roth

On September 23, NTCA, OPASTCO and WTA (the Rural Associations) filed an ex parte notice in the USF reform proceeding which included a paper written by former FCC commissioner Harold Furchtgott-Roth entitled “Why the FCC Should Not Hold a Position with Respect to Consolidation Within the Rural Telephone Industry.” This paper addressed a critical issue that has largely been passed over in the most recent round of comments on USF/ICC reform, but is still very much a hot topic within the rural telecom industry: RLEC consolidation. The FCC raised the issue in the February 2011 USF reform NPRM, and Furchtgott-Roth “found troubling the apparent unprecedented discussion of ‘consolidation’ of small telephone companies in the NPRM.”

In his paper, Furchtgott-Roth generally avoids taking a specific position for or against RLEC consolidation (at least organically-grown consolidation); rather he challenges the fact that the FCC is trying to encourage consolidation in the first place. He refers to the following passage, paragraph 217 of the NPRM, as particularly troubling:

“Our current universal service rules may have the unintended consequence of discouraging beneficial consolidation of small carriers by subsidizing inefficient operating structures and limiting the ability of small companies to acquire and upgrade lines from other providers that have little interest in the rural market…. Although we recognize the benefits of local firms serving local markets, it may not serve the public interest for consumers across the country to subsidize the cost of operations for so many very small companies, when those companies could realize cost savings through implementation of efficiencies of scale in corporate operations that would have little impact on the customer experience.”

Furchtgott-Roth explains that this section of the NPRM conveys that the FCC thinks it has authority “to hold a view and perhaps even promulgate regulation” regarding consolidation; signals that the FCC believes small companies are less efficient than large companies and have “insufficient operating structures;” implies that there are too many small companies; and suggests that consolidation would be beneficial. He interprets that, “The FCC believes that the American consumer is punished by the very existence of at least some of the small rural telephone companies.”

Furchtgott-Roth provides nine main arguments about why the FCC should not attempt to take a pro-consolidation position regarding the RLEC industry. Most convincing is that the FCC has no evidence by way of economic studies covering the entire RLEC industry that consolidation would result in economies of scale and scope “for every possible combination of telecommunications companies across every geographic market.” Furthermore, “The FCC does not explain a compelling need to address consolidation in the rural telephone industry;” and, “Other than vague assertions that the operation of small companies is insufficient, the FCC offers no reason for its involvement. Nor does the FCC offer, as an example, evidence of even one rural telephone company where a possible merger would be efficient, let alone for each of the hundreds of small rural companies in existence.”

In addition to a lack of evidence concluding that consolidation would be the best outcome for most RLECs; the FCC has no authority to specify what size company should be.  Taking a pro-merger position also contradicts FCC precedents and the overall Federal government’s attitude towards small businesses. Furchtgott-Roth asserts, “There are no statutory thresholds of what constitutes a telecommunications company that is too large or one that is too small; no statutory thresholds determine what constitutes too few telecommunications companies or too many. “He argues that any decisions to consolidate and the size of companies “will be determined by market forces, not government diktat.”

The conversation about RLEC industry consolidation is scary, controversial, emotional…and yes, necessary to have right now as the industry faces some of its greatest challenges ever. It may very well be the case that USF/ICC reform will naturally nudge some companies towards consolidation if they indeed find it an attractive option after thorough, meticulous market studies and planning. However, Furchtgott-Roth warns that a specific  pro-consolidation tone the final rules could have unintended negative consequences: “If rules reduce cost recovery, there will be less incentive for consolidation ‘as such companies become less profitable and less attractive acquisition targets.’” Additionally, “Government encouragement of consolidation could lead to a misallocation of resources as businesses make investments in consolidation artificially to meet government expectations.” Basically, decisions to consolidate should be for the right reasons, and the right reasons are market and competitive forces and real, proven economic efficiencies.

No matter how you feel personally about RLEC industry consolidation, this paper is an excellent description of why it is not the FCC’s place to say that small telephone companies should consolidate. If widespread consolidation is to occur in the rural telephone industry as a result of USF/ICC reform, it should be organic and a result of recognizable market efficiencies –not a result of FCC pressure or vague rules that attempt to encourage it. I think it is possible that FCC encouragement of consolidation could even produce some ill-matched mergers hastily thrown together for the wrong reasons.

What do you think—should the FCC take a position on RLEC consolidation or should consolidation come purely from market forces?  How would a specific pro-consolidation position by the FCC impact the decision-making process when small companies study merger or acquisition possibilities?

Furchtgott-Roth’s paper is available to read here.

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.