Many communities have laws that require residents to shovel their walks within 24 hours of a snowstorm. Where I live, it’s become something of a game to take pictures of the unshoveled sidewalks of politicians or other prominent citizens and post them on the Internet. But the people who really get under my skin are the ones who apparently think they’ve discharged their duty by clearing a narrow, shovel’s-width path that may not even connect to the path shoveled by their neighbor. I suspect this half-hearted approach is sometimes taken by kids who are told that they can’t play in the snow until they shovel the walk.

Unfortunately, the FCC appears to have its own half-shoveled sidewalk. At its December open meeting, the Commission acted on a petition for forbearance that was filed by USTelecom. While the FCC granted some of the relief that was sought, it denied USTelecom’s request for forbearance from universal service obligations in places where price cap incumbent local exchange carriers (ILECs) receive no high-cost universal service support. In explaining this denial, the FCC sounds an awful lot like a kid explaining why he shoveled only part of the sidewalk.

The FCC acknowledges that the places where ILECs continue to have these universal service obligations “are expensive to serve.”  In fact the FCC goes so far as to say that “[d]ue to the challenges of serving such [high-cost and extremely high-cost areas, the FCC] cannot reasonably predict that the price cap carrier or another provider would have a business case to maintain voice service at reasonably comparable rates absent support. . . .” 

Under the 1996 Telecommunications Act, the FCC has a duty to ensure that sufficient universal service support is available to support the universal service requirements that the Commission may adopt under the Act. As Commissioner Pai pointed out in his separate statement, the FCC has utterly shirked this responsibility. By his calculations based on the FCC’s own cost model, there is a more than $1 billion gap between the cost of serving these areas and the expected revenues from doing so.

Of course, the FCC knows that it has not provided sufficient universal service support for these high-cost and extremely high-cost areas. But it hopes to escape its responsibility by invoking the farcical claim that price cap ILECs continue to be “eligible” for other universal service support (e.g., Lifeline) in these areas.

It goes on to say that USTelecom did not provide specific evidence to demonstrate a discrepancy between revenues and costs, and the evidence that AT&T submitted was based on a cost model that the FCC did not adopt. Which is ridiculous. It is the Commission’s job under the statute to ensure that there is sufficient high-cost universal service support. It is free to use its cost model to do its job, just as it did when it determined the amount of support needed for the Connect America Fund.

If the FCC doesn’t want to fund universal service obligations in these areas, it should just get rid of them, as USTelecom asked it to do. Unfortunately, the FCC appears determined to try to maintain the obligations without taking responsibility for them. I think it’s time for someone – like an appellate court or Congress – to tell them to pick up the shovel and do the job right.

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