2015 comes and goes with many important issues left to resolve
The year 2015 has come and gone with the FCC Chairman's promise to enact universal service support reform for rate-of-return rural local exchange carriers still pending. In some respects, this is not a bad thing. Earlier in 2015 FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler promised to "move forward with rate-of-return reform by year end." However, as the rural associations met frequently to work out the details with FCC staff and NECA responded to numerous FCC requests for data it became clear that an accelerated rulemaking might not be practical.
Search for the best way to support rural broadband continues
So where are we now? As we enter 2016 the RLEC industry is still searching for the right solution for supporting broadband. As mentioned in a previous Access article, a combination of model-based support via the Alternative Connect America Cost Model and targeted stand-alone broadband support are still on the table. Toward the end of 2015 a lot of activity was directed toward the FCC's proposed bifurcated approach. Under that proposed approach, investment made by a rural telco prior to a given date would be subject to the status quo, while investment made after that date would be subject to new rules and support regime. But finding the right mechanics of a potential bifurcated approach to reform hasn't been easy and it now appears the FCC may be considering a simpler path to standalone broadband support. As the year progresses, NECA will continue to work with the FCC, other associations and our members as we get to a solution that allows all rural carriers to provide the voice and data services their customers demand for some time to come.
While FCC staff and rural telecom stakeholders are working diligently to hammer out a reform plan, it is not on the agenda for the FCC's January 28 Open Meeting. Discussions are continuing in the Commissioners' offices so we may anticipate seeing something in the February or March timeframe. As the FCC pushes to ensure support funding is used to further broadband deployment, it is likely it will require companies to meet broadband build-out obligations and be subject to heightened accountability for missing targets. This is especially the case for companies electing to receive support through the optional A-CAM model process. There will likely also be further consideration of a competitive overlap policy for all RLECs in places where unsubsidized competitors are also providing voice and broadband to consumers.
The dark horse of USF issues - contributions - remains unresolved. Every indication from Commission speeches to trade press reports indicated that while there may be a desire for contribution reform and many think it's the logical and necessary next step in overall universal service reform, the political realities of other resource intensive issues remain on the horizon - namely network neutrality.
Don't expect complete overhaul in an election year
With fewer than 80 days of legislative activity left for this session of Congress and the massive campaigning that takes place in a presidential election year, it is unclear whether we'll see any net neutrality-related legislation. In his final State of the Union speech, President Obama touted that "we protected the open Internet," one of a very few references the President made to anything tech related. For more on net neutrality, see Spectrum, open Internet and FCC process remain hot in 2016.
Another issue that needs continuing attention in the coming year is rural call completion. A good deal of progress has been made here with multi-million dollar fines on companies that are not complying with the new rules, but this success is tempered by the fact that some calls are still not getting through to customers in rural America. Armed with the data recording, retention and reporting rules in the FCC's Rural Call Completion Order, the Commission can now aggregate, analyze and report on trends and perhaps provide solutions in the coming months on how call completion issues in rural areas can be further reduced.
Finally, the intraMTA issue may find some closure this year. After a huge defeat in district court, interexchange carriers could be gearing up to take their fight to the FCC and to re-plead their interpretation of the intraMTA rule. Stay tuned for more on this issue.
So we have a lot of pending issues to closely watch in 2016, as well as the impending presidential and congressional races, which could further affect the resolution of the topics discussed above.