A semi-brief overview, from the wireless perspective, of the massive order overhauling the Universal Service Fund and Intercarrier Compensation system

The FCC released its historic 751-page Report and Order and Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on the Universal Service Fund (USF) and Intercarrier Compensation on November 18, providing a sumptuous repast for the communications industry to feast on over the Thanksgiving holiday.   It took many readers a few weeks to fully digest the vast smorgasbord of items resolved by the Commission in this one proceeding.   But having pushed ourselves away from the table at last, we can now comment on particulars of the Order that most affect wireless providers.   The Order also very radically affects the rules governing intercarrier compensation and USF for wireline service, but we are reporting on those developments separately out of compassion for our readers.

Definition of Supported Services. The first big step taken by the Commission was to bring broadband within the universe of services supported under the USF umbrella. The FCC chose not to simply define broadband as a supported service, but instead to expand its definition of supported “voice telephony” to include VoIP. At the same time, the FCC is requiring supported voice telephony providers to provide broadband.

This awkward dance permits the Commission to continue ducking the issue of whether broadband should be re-classified as a “telecom” service regulated under the common carrier regime of the Communications Act or an “information” service regulated only under the FCC’s ancillary jurisdiction. But this dance creates problems of its own.

Because USF support is expressly targeted at “telecommunications services,” the FCC jeopardizes its whole scheme for supporting broadband. For example, the FCC relies on Section 706 of the Act as a source of authority to support broadband through the USF. That section directs the Commission to accelerate the deployment of advanced telecommunications capabilities regardless of whether they are strictly “telecom” services. However, the Commission then imposes on non-telecom service broadband providers the same requirements that apply to regular eligible telecommunications carriers (ETCs) who of course are telecom service providers.

One of the requirements so imposed is that an ETC must provide stand-alone voice telephony throughout its “designated service area,” yet many non-telecom broadband providers will not have designated service areas. Similarly, many broadband providers simply offer a broadband data pipe and do not care what particular applications (such as a VoIP application) their customers use over the pipe. Although it would make sense for such service providers to qualify for USF support, the Commission’s scheme would exclude them.

Required service levelsUSF fixed service recipients must provide broadband at speeds of 4 Mbps downstream and 1 Mbps up. This represents a great leap upward in the minimum speed expected of a broadband provider. Latency of less than 100 milliseconds is expected and, while monthly capacity requirements are not specified, the FCC expects wireless broadband providers to offer capacity limits consistent with those offered in urban areas.

Build-out areas and “unsubsidized competitors”. USF support will be offered for the build-out of areas now unserved by an unsubsidized competitor.  The definition of an “unsubsidized competitor” is critical here because there are many areas where mobile wireless providers offer service and landline providers do not. This would prevent landline providers from receiving build-out support in those areas. The Commission protected local exchange carriers (LECs), however, by defining an “unsubsidized competitor” as a “facilities-based provider of residential fixed voice and broadband services.” Fixed voice and broadband service is defined as service to end users primarily at fixed endpoints using stationary equipment. This limitation to fixed services is curious since so many people these days are now cutting the cord not only for voice service but for data service as well.

Broadband service to end users primarily using mobile stations would not qualify. However, the FCC did note that a mobile services provider could become an unsubsidized competitor by offering fixed service that guarantees that the speed, latency and capacity minima applicable to fixed providers will be met throughout the relevant area.

Elimination of identical support rule. The FCC has done away with the identical support rule which subsidized multiple carriers in any given area. This action alone hacks several hundred million dollars in support away from competitive ETCs (CETCs) because they now no longer qualify for duplicate payments.

Strangely, the FCC did not seem to even consider the possibility that a CETC, whether wired or wireless, should be the surviving single recipient of the funding instead of the LEC.  It simply provided for a phase-out of support to existing non-LEC recipients by mid-2016. In addition to retaining their current subsidies (as revised to cut out certain support mechanisms), LECs also get the privilege of offering to be the sole provider of basic services in currently unserved areas in each part of a state where they provide service. That is, an existing LEC ETC may propose to provide the full panoply of supported services everywhere – but not less than everywhere – in the state where it is the designated LEC.

If the LEC picks up that option, obviously no other carrier would be designated to provide fixed service in those areas. If no LEC picks up the challenge, then there will be unserved areas in each state where USF support will be offered by a reverse auction mechanism. Build-out in these currently unserved areas will be supported by a one-time distribution of up to $300 million to price cap LECs.

Mobility Fund (Phase I). The FCC is also offering a one-time build-out subsidy to mobile services providers via a Mobility Fund (Phase I). Under this program, up to $300 million will be distributed to companies willing to provide service to areas currently without 3G or better wireless service. (An additional $50 million is made available for build-out of unserved tribal areas.)  These funds are expected to be up for grabs by a reverse auction to be conducted in the third quarter of 2012. Several components of participating in this auction involve considerable lead time.

  • Identifying unserved areas. The FCC has promised to identify, prior to the auction, the areas that are actually currently unserved. This is a big improvement over the 2009 federal stimulus plan process where each individual applicant had to figure out for itself whether an area was unserved or not. In determining whether an area is unserved, the FCC will take into account commitments to provide service in an area (including stimulus fund-based commitments) made prior to the end of 2012.

Unserved areas will be determined on a census block basis using road miles as the marker of mobile service. A tentative map of unserved areas will be posted prior to the auction, with the public given an opportunity to point out that areas have not been accurately characterized. A final map of unserved areas will be posted prior to the auction (typically a couple of months before), but that poses an obvious logistical problem: most interested parties will not have enough time to apply for ETC designation in those unserved areas.

  • Auction eligibility requirements. To participate in the auction, an entity must: (1) be an ETC; (2) have access to spectrum by ownership or lease; and (3) be financially qualified to provide service after the build out takes place. This raises a host of chicken and egg problems that the FCC does not seem to have adequately considered.

First, in some states the ETC designation process can take years. By imposing this hurdle, the FCC is precluding perfectly capable and willing carriers from participation.

Second, in many instances it may be impossible to serve as an ETC unless one is receiving USF support. One would be loathe to take on ETC responsibilities without knowing beforehand that the support money will be available, but the rules are set up backwards. The Commission alludes cryptically at one point in the Order to a “conditional” ETC designation where one could be designated as an ETC conditioned on receipt of USF support. This process would partly solve the problem, if both the FCC and the states will grant provisional ETC designations – something that is far from clear. In any case, interested parties should start thinking about applying for ETC designation now if they hope to participate in the auction.

Third, a prospective service provider whose viability depends on whether it will be receiving USF money might not be want to buy or lease the necessary spectrum without that assurance. Yet the Commission’s rules require that the spectrum be in hand. The sole break here is that the spectrum acquisition or lease may be conditioned on receipt of Phase I USF support.

And fourth, the auction participant must not only certify that it is financially capable of providing service in the area after the build-out is complete, but also secure its obligation by posting a letter of credit in favor of the FCC. This unusual arrangement might preclude all but very financially well-heeled companies from being able to participate.

  • Obligations of winners.   Winners in the reverse auction will have to provide either 3G service (200kbps down/50 kbps up) or 4G service. The service provided must be measured by drive tests and reported to the FCC. Winners must also: allow collocation at reasonable rates on towers constructed with USF money; allow voice and data roaming; and charge rates comparable to urban rates.   Winning bidders who fail to meet their build-out obligation will default on their Line of Credit to the FCC and be required to repay all monies received under the program.
  • Auction procedures. Most of the details of the reverse auction have been left to the FCC’s auction staff to hash out, but the FCC did express a preference for a single-round sealed bid auction, as distinct from its normal multiple round bid process. This would obviously require bidders to make their single best bid at the outset with no opportunity to drop the bid lower in reaction to other bids.

Mobility Fund (Phase II). In addition to the one-time Phase I funding opportunity, the FCC plans a Phase II program providing funds to cover on-going costs of providing mobile service to areas requiring subsidies. $500 million has been allocated for this purpose, of which up to $100 million is prioritized for tribal needs.   This money will be awarded by a reverse auction process similar to that used for Phase II.

The specifics of which areas – unserved? underserved? high cost? – will qualify for such subsidies are not yet clearly defined. In particular, if Phase II support is limited to unserved areas, that would seem to preclude recipients of Phase I build-out funding from qualifying for Phase II operations funding, particularly since they would have been required as a Phase I condition to attest that they have the financial wherewithal to operate without such support. Phase II will be fleshed out by the further rulemaking portion of the FCC action.

Intercarrier compensation (wireless issues only).   The second major subject area of the FCC’s order is intercarrier compensation, a field which spans all exchange of traffic between carriers and, now, some non-carriers. Because of the sweeping extent of the changes regarding intercarrier compensation, we will limit this discussion to items particular affecting wireless interests.

The FCC’s Order here is a genuine and fundamental sea change in the way traffic exchanges have been handled for generations.   Specifically, the FCC has adopted as its root principle that “bill-and-keep” should be the basis for exchanges. This principle – that each carrier should charge its own customers for service provided to them and not be compensated by other carriers that interconnect with it – represents a repudiation of the previously prevailing concept that the calling party is the party who benefits by a communication. Instead, the FCC now recognizes that both the called and calling party benefit by connection to the network and that each party should bear its own costs for participating.

This radical reform at one swoop would erase a myriad of complex payment structures that have governed intercarrier relationships for years. To minimize the trauma of this upheaval, the FCC has provided a six-to-ten year transition period for LECs who have depended on these intrinsic subsidies. The ultimate effect of this reform should be positive for wireless carriers, since various access charges will be reduced or eliminated over time.  To be sure, the FCC did confirm that non-access traffic exchanged between wireless carriers and LECs (typically intraMTA traffic) is to be exchanged on the basis of interconnection agreements between the parties. But with bill-and-keep as the default payment model, non-LECs have a significant leg up in such negotiations. A few other points to be aware of:

  • The Commission did not immediately impose the bill-and-keep regime on originating access charges, though it capped those charges and signaled that intends to move in that direction.
  • The Commission intends its bill-and-keep principle to apply to both intrastate and interstate communications, but the Commission’s authority to impose this rule on intrastate communications is questionable. This issue will certainly be hashed out in the appeals that have already been filed in court.
  • Reciprocal compensation rates between CMRS carriers must be consistent with the rate model adopted for price cap carriers.
  • The FCC decided to treat all VoIP-to-PSTN traffic similarly, regardless of whether it is fully interconnected on a two-way basis. Such VoIP traffic is subject, in the case of toll traffic, to the same rates applicable to non-VoIP traffic, and in the case of other traffic, to reciprocal compensation agreements. This reform is intended to eliminate the widely decried disparity in treatment between VoIP and non-VoIP traffic. Here again the Commission’s refusal to denominate VoIP traffic as telecommunications could undercut its regulatory effort.

We have gone on at greater length here than is our wont, but only because the scope of the FCC’s order is so vast. We expect to be providing further guidance on some of the elements of the USF/ICC Order in the weeks ahead.

In the meantime, interested parties should be aware that, since FCC’s magnum opus was published in the Federal Register on November 29, the date for seeking reconsideration of any part of the FCC’s action is December 29. Comments on the rate represcription, Connect America Fund, ETC, and auction refinement elements of the Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking are due by January 18, 2012, and reply comments by February 17. Comments on the intercarrier compensation portion of the rulemaking are due by February 24. with replies by March 30.

Judicial appeals are due no later than January 30.  Anyone thinking about taking the new rules to court should be aware that a number of other parties have already headed down that path – and, thanks to the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multi-District Litigation, it has been decided that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, headquartered in Denver, will be the court to hear all such appeals in a consolidated proceeding.