Net neutrality clearly dominated the Congressional hearings last week. But it wasn’t the only issue FCC Commissioners were asked about, and it’s also not the only issue that remains in limbo after nearly a decade. Late last month marked the filing deadline for responses to the latest chapter in the FCC’s special access proceeding – its mandatory data request. For the past 10 years, the Commission has been looking into the competitiveness of the special access marketplace and this latest data request is meant to give the FCC what it needs to conclude this proceeding. After ten years, it can certainly be said that a lot of time and money has been spent in pursuit of figuring out whether the marketplace for 1.5 Mbps services (which did not meet the FCC’s definition for broadband services before the Commission upped those speeds to 25 Mbps last month btw) is truly in need of further regulation. This latest request for data was by far the most time consuming and expensive given the sheer number of hours the industry, and AT&T in particular, exhausted to collect and submit the enormous volume of information requested as part of the Commission’s quest for special access nirvana.
To be clear, AT&T supports the notion that the Commission should actually have data before it takes action (unlike the non-data driven decision in 2012 to suspend the pricing flexibility rules in advance of going on this particular expedition). The network data collected here no doubt will show that, where special access demand is concentrated, there exists an abundance of competitive alternatives to the incumbent provider. And while the volume of nationwide facilities data collected will be sizable due to the highly competitive market for special access services, the information provided likely can be analyzed in a reasonable period of time.
But as AT&T has outlined in the record of this proceeding, the same cannot be said for the data collection requests concerning monthly pricing information at the circuit and rate element level that the Commission intends to use as the basis for analyzing existing special access prices. Anyone familiar with telecom billing systems understands just how difficult this task can be, especially when the request involves tens of millions of circuits deployed nationwide across multiple holding companies with multiple similar, but not the same, billing systems. As well as the numerous affiliated companies, each with their own unique billing systems. The inevitable inconsistencies in the data among the range of providers, competitive and incumbent, submitting pricing data will make any effort by the Commission to rationalize this data at the circuit level extremely difficult, if not impractical.
Notwithstanding the daunting nature of the pricing requests, AT&T has undertaken extensive efforts to comply with the Commission’s request for pricing information. How daunting? Consider that, for a single question involving this pricing data, AT&T has amassed a file in excess of 31 million records. To develop this file, AT&T had to involve 44 subject matter experts over a period of 11 months. And even after this exhaustive effort, AT&T has told the Commission that this data still contains certain gaps. Again, that was for one question. Similar efforts were required for numerous other pricing-related questions contained in the Commission’s data request. AT&T had four employees almost entirely dedicated just to tracking progress and identifying issues to be resolved in answering each of the 65 questions posed by the Commission’s data request – questions that necessarily involved virtually every organization within AT&T’s corporate structure.
The FCC’s official OMB estimate of 134 person hours to complete this task was exhausted by AT&T when simply answering one question.
Over the next several months, we will learn just how complete the industry’s response to this request has been – i.e., will the entities clamoring for more regulation actually provide data on the location of network facilities and price? They haven’t in the past, btw. And we will begin to understand whether and how the Commission will be able to use the submitted pricing data. Even before doing so, one wonders whether the Commission can reconcile and process the data and complete a rigorous, peer-reviewed regression analysis before the pricing data it’s collected becomes outdated in the rapidly changing marketplace for special access services. Only time will tell.