RCA outlines limits of authority over broadband in report
Whether there should be rules allowing the Regulatory Commission of Alaska more authority over telecoms’ broadband service was one of the basic questions of a report sent to Legislature on Dec. 1.
The RCA’s “Broadband Report to the Alaska Legislature,” a 29-page document, was sent to members of the House and Senate Finance committees and the Legislative Finance Division and posted to the agency website.
The RCA conducted a study of where Alaska residents still lack broadband internet access and where there are more complete connections. The study required input produced by telecoms GCI, Alaska Communications, AT&T and a dozen others who bury fiber optics or set up cell towers across Alaska’s vast topography.
In the end, the first map showing the completed networks was produced in a snapshot that answers the first question raised by Rep. David Guttenberg, D-Fairbanks: Where are the holes?
The short answer to that comes at a glance: the multi-colored lines that crisscross and circle coastal Alaska show not much is there to help the Aleutian Chain and two huge donut holes in the middle of the state are separated by the Yukon River. (Communities along the Yukon are connected.)
South of the Yukon, Interior Alaska villages such as Ophir to Lime Village lack connections. North of the Yukon River it’s the entire Kobuk region, including Huslia and Hughes. East of the Haul Road, an entire segment from Kaktovik in the north to Chicken in the south lacks infrastructure.
In June, Guttenberg attached an order to the budget asking the RCA to study broadband and financing gaps. In response, the RCA issued its Aug. 9 request for companies providing broadband service in the state to answer any or all of two dozen questions the commission had about the current status of broadband infrastructure and what the state could do to help expand coverage, among other things.
The seven-page questionnaire inquired about communities where broadband is available and at what download speeds from those providers.
But it was a task that started out with questions about its own authority, the commission acknowledged in its final report. State utility regulators with power over telephone, electrical and gas services don’t currently have much of any authority over broadband.
The Federal Communications Commission has asserted its authority over broadband and interstate traffic that carries it, largely preempting a state role in regulation.
The RCA’s primary authority is over landlines — yes, the old technology that connects phones to the walls. But today, that network of landlines, or wirelines, still matters as the backbone to carrying video, text, voice and data information from one place to the next.
“Many people don’t have landlines anymore, but it’s still essential to carry the calls whether that’s from a wireless tower getting on fiber transport to get to where the call is going,” said Alaska Telephone Association President Christine O’Connor.
The RCA is enabled under statutes adopted in Alaska in 1990 “to facilitate competitive long distance, focused on ensuring voice service rather than promoting broadband,” the report explains. “RCA regulatory authority over networks is complicated by the fact that mixed-use facilities are used to provide multiple services, with some services outside RCA regulatory authority due to federal preemption.”
The FCC has claimed broadband jurisdiction and inter-state traffic, it explains. The FCC defines broadband as “high speed internet access that is always on and faster than traditional dial-up access.”
Funding shifts also occurred: the Universal Service Fund subsidies formerly went to telephone carriers to help customers access landline service. In 2009, the policy shifted to focus from ensuring universal voice service to promoting next generation broadband capability.
But USF funding goes to the RCA also, known as Alaska Universal Service Funds.
A significant amount of USF funding from the FCC – in its various channels such as Connect America – was used to increase broadband capabilities throughout Alaska.
Charts in the report explain the USF funding that flowed into the state over the past five years: $46 million in wireline support; $390 million through Lifeline, E-rates (schools and libraries) and Rural Health Care programs (telemedicine); and $1.6 billion in USF support to the Alaska carriers through 2016-2025.
But the report concludes that in order to fill in the gaps, millions more will be needed because the lack of broadband occurs in roadless stretches hindered from access by their remoteness and terrain.
How much each carrier charges for what internet speeds is also part of the report, some of the first public comparisons of prices by telecoms that often compete.
Commissioner Norman Rokeberg, speaking at a November RCA hearing, said finishing the report was difficult because of our “lack of ability sometimes to get the cooperation we’d like.” In fact, the report states, “several regulated telecommunications companies with ISP (internet service provider) affiliates argue RCA regulatory authority does not allow any level of broadband service or network oversight, disputing RCA ability to compel the filing of network information related to broadband.”
Two of those were Alaska Communications and the Rural Coalition (made up of Adak Eagle Enterprises, Arctic Slope Telephone Association Cooperative, Cordova Telephone, Interior Telephone, Ketchikan Public Telephone, Mukluk Telephone and seven others).
Yet, as the report notes, those same entities also had appealed to the RCA to study practices by GCI when telecoms wanted to challenge what they considered GCI’s monopoly in certain regions of the state.
Reviewing what powers the RCA has should be one of the outcomes of this report, the commissioners conclude.
“The RCA is one of the few states that has not reviewed regulatory policies after the federal shift to broadband,” according to the report.
ATA’s O’Connor said the matter has already been decided in 41 other states; Alaska is indeed behind in this.
The RCA percolated ideas down to four questions that, according to a staff memorandum to the commissioners on Nov. 21, the hope is the Legislature will clarify the RCA’s future role over broadband:
• Does the RCA have the ability to compel telecoms to file broadband information?
• Should the RCA divert its own USF funds to help pay for broadband?
• Should the RCA reduce regulatory oversight of providers? Should the RCA address consumer complaints? What aspects of service should remain under RCA oversight?
• Should the RCA step in to identify improved access through such measures as reducing right-of-way permitting fees to help encourage broadband deployment?
The RCA report notes that plans are on the horizon for further buildout. The RCA believes supplemental reports can handle the task of showing “how and where the recipients of federal support are planning to attack them… and could flesh out in greater detail the communities that will receive improved internet service and those that will have to wait to determine when or if they will be served.”
Read the full report at rca.alaska.gov.
Read the full report at:
Naomi Klouda can be reached at [email protected].