February 25, 1999
|Re:||Implementation of the Local Competition Provisions in the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (CC Docket 96-98); and Inter-carrier Compensation for ISP-Bound Traffic (CC Docket No. 99-68)|
This proceeding is one of unusual importance and unusual complexity.
The debate over reciprocal compensation for ISP-bound traffic is important for three main reasons. First, the issues we review here involve access to the Internet, a unique, extraordinary, and ever-evolving national and international network of networks that is rapidly transforming communication, commerce, and communities. Second, reciprocal compensation may substantially affect the nature and the extent of local telephone competition, which was a principal objective of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Third, any decision in this area may affect relationships between state and federal regulatory authorities, who must work in harmony to achieve successful implementation of the Telecommunications Act.
The debate is complex because it involves the application of legal precedents from the early 1980s to services and carrier arrangements that were unimaginable only a few short years ago, as well as provisions of the 1996 Act that have already led to considerable controversy and litigation. We must grapple with equities that may be quite different when viewed prospectively than when viewed retrospectively. A further complication is that reciprocal compensation involves certain issues that can better be assessed by state public utility commissions than by the FCC, and yet it also implicates important national interests affecting access to an interstate (and international) service.
At the end of the day, however, I believe the case boils down to elementary and straightforward propositions. Switched network telephone calls to Internet service providers are inherently interstate, which is the decision most consistent with our prior creation of an ESP exemption from interstate access charges -- and with the interstate and international nature of the Internet. But to say this is not to overrule, undermine, or prevent state commission decisions that construe interconnection agreements to require reciprocal compensation for ISP-bound traffic. It was, and remains, reasonable for the states (and federal district courts) to so rule, given our prior decisions -- and the practices of the ILECs themselves -- to treat this traffic as local.(1)
And, although we are declaring that there are national interests that must be respected on a going-forward basis, it may well be that these interests can be protected without changing the long-standing decision to treat this traffic as local. One could readily imagine, for example, that states will not seek to assess per-minute fees on Internet-bound calls, just as the FCC has repeatedly resisted entreaties to do so. One can also reasonably foresee that, even if ISP-bound traffic continues to be handled by the state commissions under the usual 251/252 process, the parties themselves (in voluntarily negotiated agreements) or the state commissions (if called upon to arbitrate agreements between incumbents and new entrants) will in future agreements address the issues associated with ISP-bound traffic in ways that avoid some of the obvious anomalies and competitive distortions that may result from some of the current ILEC-CLEC arrangements.
In short, I believe the decision we have adopted is one that (1) comports with the law, (2) is fair both to incumbent local exchange carriers and to competitive local exchange carriers, (3) does not unravel the core determinations of the more than two dozen state commissions that have addressed this issue, (4) sets the stage for future determinations that will eliminate or at least attenuate any anomalies inherent in current compensation arrangements, and (5) preserves this Commission's ability to safeguard the innovative, competitive, and unregulated character of the Internet. I hope that parties responding to the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking will focus on ways in which all of these objectives may continue to be advanced.
This decision was not altered by passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. After that law was passed, we expressly reiterated that ISPs "purchase services from incumbent LECs under the same intrastate tariffs available to end users" and determined that, if "intrastate rate structures fail to compensate incumbent LECs adequately for providing service to customers with high volumes of incoming calls, incumbent LECs may address their concerns to state regulators." Access Charge Reform, 12 FCC Rcd. 15982, 16132, para. 342 & 16135, para. 346 (1997), aff'd Southwestern Bell Telephone Co. v. FCC, 153 F.3d 523 (8th Cir. 1998) (emphasis added). The Eighth Circuit explicitly recognized that the manner in which Internet-bound traffic is treated is a product of FCC "discretion." Southwestern Bell Telephone, 153 F.3d at 543. It is significant that, in the aforementioned Access Charge Reform proceeding, we implicitly affirmed both the FCC's ultimate authority over this traffic and the state commissions' competence to handle it unless and until directed otherwise. It is especially telling that the Southwestern Bell Telephone decision, acknowledging the Commission's ultimate authority over such inherently interstate traffic, came from a court that was otherwise quite resistant to FCC encroachment on matters that it deemed to be on the states' side of a "horse-high, hog-tight, and bull-strong fence." Iowa Utilities Bd. v. FCC, 120 F.3d 753, 800 (8th Cir. 1997), rev'd in pertinent part, AT&T Corp. v. Iowa Utilities Bd., __ U.S. __, 1999 WL 24569 (Jan. 25, 1999).