Text Version

May 7, 1997

Commissioner James H. Quello


(CC Docket No. 96-45),

ACCESS CHARGE REFORM (CC Docket No. 96-262), and


CARRIERS (CC Docket No. 94-1).

Today, the Commission has established rules to implement the Universal Service provisions of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, as well as rules to restructure the access charge system while also initiating reductions in the levels of those access charges. I have believed throughout my participation in the debates regarding universal service and access reform that, as much as possible, we should seek to ensure that consumers experience the benefits of our actions. To this same end, we should try to avoid the possibility that total bills for groups of consumers could increase as a result of implementing new universal service programs and moving into a new access charge regime.

Universal Service

This Commission now has taken steps to establish processes for the administration of universal service funds in a way that allows the commitments represented in this section of the 1996 Telecommunications Act to be fulfilled. We have labored to develop a reasonable plan that will provide necessary and sufficient funds for schools and libraries as well as other universal service programs. We also have sought to avoid collection of funds beyond those legitimately needed to help make new and important services available to students and teachers in inner city, suburban and rural schools from Takoma Park, D.C., to Tacoma, Washington, from McAllen, Texas to Mackinac Island on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

We have achieved this balance by establishing funding necessary to begin the program at a reasonable level, with a provision that allows schools and libraries to begin the program January 1, 1998. By this time, we would hope that participating groups will have had the opportunity to develop their plans. Our decision to start the program with lower funding in the first six months, increasing in the following years, gives the program early constraint, with flexibility at later periods when greater demand is likely to develop. As a result, I believe this decision provides for new universal service funding within the limits of what consumers around the country are willing to pay.

The issue of what consumers are prepared to pay has been a very difficult one. The need for our attention to the issue, however, has been clearly expressed in many ways. It has required the Commission to balance the need for programs involved in universal service that are critically important to the future of this country with their cost. In this respect, this universal service proceeding is one of the most important decisions in this agency's history. At the same time, we have heard a consistent message from around the country that consumers and businesses are not necessarily willing to pay for these services through higher total bills for telecommunications services.

With respect to funding for health care subsidies, we have endeavored to make sure that rural, non-profit health care facilities have sufficient funding to meet the needs for providing services in communities that otherwise might not have the same resources that are available in urban communities.

There also are many other policy and market issues that will need to be resolved in a new universal service environment. For instance, I believe it remains to be seen how cable and wireless industries will continue to develop to play a greater role in the telecommunications services that will meet future universal service needs. As these developments occur, the Commission may continue to monitor the equity of contribution and recovery of universal service funds by paging services as well as the extent to which wireless services in general should contribute for intrastate services.

Access Reform

The Commission's actions today on access reform involve two components: (1) several structural changes that will cause access components to move to more reasonable categories and to become subject to competition where possible; and (2) reductions in the current level of access charges, largely accomplished through revision of the productivity and sharing mechanism in LEC price caps.

Where this decision changes the structure of end user charges, as in our treatment of business and residential customers, and consumers with second or multiple lines, I believe our decisions should be -- and are -- characterized by balance. As a result of this necessary reform of the access payment structure, charges should remain within reasonable bounds and should help to promote the development of competition and consumer benefits.

I also believe this Commission would be remiss in our regulatory duties to the American public and responsibilities to our licensees if we were to restructure universal service without concurrently engaging in access charge reform. We have talked about this step for quite some time. Many parties have expressed their views in a very public fashion as to whether or not this step is warranted, or to what degree access charges should be reduced. I believe that this step to restructure and reduce the level of access charges is the right thing to do and this is the right time to do it.

The consumers and users of telecommunications services are the intended beneficiaries of today's actions regarding access reform. Now that these decisions are adopted, I believe it will become clear that we have done our best to ensure that consumers do not bear the burden of implementing the new universal service program and access charge reform. Our actions also represent a fundamental part of the Commission's effort to facilitate competition in the local exchange marketplace, in this case by reducing access charges paid to LECs by interexchange carriers.

The primary vehicle for this reduction is the decision to change the existing combinations of productivity factors, or "x-factors", and sharing options to a single productivity factor of 6.5% accompanied by no sharing obligation. As a result, this decision continues the Commission's efforts to move away from the lingering remnants of rate of return regulation for local exchange carriers. Today's decision will complete the movement of price cap LECs away from the sharing obligations that were part of the past system.

Looking to the Future

I want to emphasize that today's actions represent a first step in many respects.

Concerning universal service, this is not a day to declare victory. There is much left to be done by the Commission, the states, temporary and permanent fund administrators, school districts, libraries, health care facilities, parties developing cost models, and telecommunications companies seeking to provide services and enter new markets. This is definitely an important day, but the real effort is just beginning. That effort will require investment, planning, training in using services, and community, professional, and corporate involvement, and it will only be successful after the continuing involvement, in community after community, by the many parties who have so diligently participated in this proceeding.

The Commission's action to increase the productivity factor not only results in reduced access charges in the first year, but also in further reductions in access charges in subsequent years. In another respect, it may very well become necessary very soon for the Commission to consider how to supplement today's decision to allow for pricing flexibility by LECs as competition develops to a greater level in the local marketplace. One possible way to provide that flexibility might be through relaxing the 6.5% productivity factor where LECs can meet criteria to demonstrate sufficient competition.

At the same time, later steps might also include the potential for checks and balances in the event that competition in the local exchange marketplace does not develop as soon as some seem to expect. Once again, down the road the Commission may need to consider more specific measures to ensure that the platforms necessary for competition truly are available. It is my hope that those steps won't be necessary.

Finally, some parties have warned recently that any actions by this Commission to lower access charges may cause LECs to seek to raise local phone rates. That matter will become an issue for state commissions, and it is my hope that they will respond to any efforts to raise local rates by ensuring that consumers ultimately benefit from federal and state actions to implement the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and any related decisions.