NRRI 16-06 Carrier of Last Resort


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The idea that a specific carrier be designated as a carrier of last resort (COLR) is a cornerstone of utility regulation, arising both from English common law and historical state regulatory policy. Carriers of last resort have traditionally had four core obligations:
• The obligation to serve all customers within their territory, including extending facilities where necessary to provide service,
• A legal barrier to withdrawing service without the specific agreement of the state commission for local exchange service and the FCC for interstate services,
• An obligation to charge "just and reasonable prices," and
• An obligation to "exercise their calling with adequate care, skill, and honesty."

COLRs serve the "public good" by ensuring that access to critical services, such as electricity, water, gas, and telecommunications, is available to all end users, regardless of their location or ability to receive service from another carrier. COLR obligations have been applied to all critical public utilities, including telecommunications and electricity, especially as competitive service has increased. Indeed, a number of states have followed the pattern set by telecommunications regulation by establishing COLR rules for electricity suppliers as part of opening markets to retail choice. As in telecommunications, the purpose of these requirements is to ensure that electric service remains universally available to all consumers.
In telecommunications, COLR duties were historically imposed on the incumbent carriers that served a state-defined territory (franchise), often as a virtual monopoly. These carriers received access to state-owned rights of way and were allowed to charge rates that recouped the full cost of service plus a regulated profit. In most states, COLR duties have been assigned to the former Bell System incumbents, and to rural carriers holding state franchises. Since the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, some states also assigned COLR duties to competitive carriers, either in addition to the incumbent carrier or as a replacement for that carrier should it relinquish its COLR status. In the states that have retained COLR obligations, these duties generally also include the four key requirements of COLR service as well as a requirement that carriers provide basic local service, serve as an eligible telecommunications carrier (ETC), offer Lifeline, and meet certain quality of service standards.
COLR policies in the states are changing as a result of the transition to broadband and increases in competition. Carriers are seeking limits on COLR obligations and looking for paths to eliminate this requirement in areas where they believe that competition and new technologies have removed the need for a single carrier to be designated as a backup service provider. For these reasons, COLR requirements have been modified or eliminated in some states as competition has increased the availability of alternate choices for telecommunications services. Legislation has further changed the requirements for carriers of last resort, including removing the requirement for basic local service, eliminating COLR requirements altogether (for example, in states like Florida and Delaware), limiting the requirement to areas without effective competition ( for example, in Colorado), allowing carriers to exempt themselves from COLR requirements by selecting alternative forms of regulation (for example, Alabama, Louisiana, and South Carolina), or providing a path to withdrawing COLR duties altogether, as proposed by recent legislation in Maine.

These changes have raised questions concerning the definition of COLR service, the requirement that traditional legacy wireline carriers serve as COLRs, and the type of service COLRs must provide (i.e., wired vs. wireless and TDM vs. VoIP),. The changes in telecommunications regulation and customer behavior have also raised questions the necessity for continuing COLR requirements in areas where competitive entry has given users a choice of carriers. The technology transition and the reduction in the number of customers purchasing traditional wireline switched voice service has increased these questions and encouraged states to review their COLR requirements, including when and how these requirements have been or may be revised going forward.

To provide objective insight into state COLR requirements, NRRI surveyed the 50 states and the District of Columbia to seek current information on COLR obligations. Forty-seven states responded to the survey. Thirty-eight states have a COLR requirement and assign these obligations to incumbent carriers. Nine states either have never imposed COLR requirements or no longer do so as a result of legislation and competition. Although these states do not have a requirement that incumbent carriers serve as COLRs, they ensure the continuing availability of service by prohibiting carriers from withdrawing from a market without prior commission approval. Some of these states – such as New Mexico and Wyoming – have never had a statutory requirement defining a carrier of last resort. Others – such as Delaware and Florida – eliminated their COLR requirements as a result of deregulation and reduced commission oversight of competitive services.
This paper provides the results of the 2016 COLR survey. It reviews state COLR requirements and suggests ways in which states may evaluate and modernize their COLR requirements in response to changes in technology and regulation.
State COLR requirements can be organized into three main categories.
• Explicit statutory reference to COLR requirements, including commission orders and/or legislation defining COLR requirements.
• Implicit COLR requirements, including language regarding a carrier's "duty to serve," particularly if it has been designated as Eligible Telecommunications Carriers (ETCs). The statutes in these states do not use the term "COLR" explicitly, but either use alternative terms such as “duty to serve” or “obligation to serve” or otherwise require carriers to meet COLR-like requirements, including a prohibition against abandoning service.
• Limited requirements requiring carriers to provide service only in areas without competition.

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