Opinion of the U.S. Court of Appeals,
Fifth Circuit (page 1 of 3).
TEXAS OFFICE OF PUBLIC UTILITY COUNSEL;
FEDERAL COMMUNICATIONS COMMISSION
of the Federal Communications Commission
Before SMITH, DUHÉ, and EMILIO M. GARZA, Circuit Judges.
JERRY E. SMITH, Circuit Judge:
This is a consolidated challenge to the most recent attempt of the Federal Communications Commission ("FCC") to implement provisions of the landmark 1996 Telecommunications Act (the "Act").(1) Petitioners, joined by numerous intervenors, challenge several aspects of the FCC's Universal Service Order (the "Order") implementing the provisions of the Act codified at 47 U.S.C. § 254. We grant the petition for review in part, deny it in part, affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand in part.
A. The 1996 Act and the Universal Service Order.
Beginning with the passage of the Communications Act of 1934 (the "1934 Act"), Congress has made universal service a basic goal of telecommunications regulation. As Section 1 of the 1934 Act stated, the FCC was created
47 U.S.C. § 151 (as amended).
Armed with this statutory mandate, the FCC historically has focused on increasing the availability of reasonably priced, basic telephone service via the landline telecommunications network.(2) Rather than relying on market forces alone, the agency has used a combination of implicit and explicit subsidies to achieve its goal of greater telephone subscribership. Explicit subsidies provide carriers or individuals with specific grants that can be used to pay for or reduce the charges for telephone service. This form of subsidy includes using revenues from line charges on end-users to subsidize high-cost service directly and to support the Lifeline Assistance program for low-income subscribers.
Implicit subsidies are more complicated and involve the manipulation of rates for some customers to subsidize more affordable rates for others. For example, the regulators may require the carrier to charge "above-cost" rates to low-cost, profitable urban customers to offer the "below-cost" rates to expensive, unprofitable rural customers.
For obvious reasons, this system of implicit subsidies can work well only under regulated conditions. In a competitive environment, a carrier that tries to subsidize below-cost rates to rural customers with above-cost rates to urban customers is vulnerable to a competitor that offers at-cost rates to urban customers. Because opening local telephone markets to competition is a principal objective of the Act, Congress recognized that the universal service system of implicit subsidies would have to be re-examined.
To attain the goal of local competition while preserving universal service, Congress directed the FCC to replace the patchwork of explicit and implicit subsidies with "specific, predictable and sufficient Federal and State mechanisms to preserve and advance universal service." 47 U.S.C. § 254(b)(5). Congress also specified new universal service support for schools, libraries, and rural health care providers. See 47 U.S.C. § 254(h). It then directed the FCC to define such a system and to establish a timetable for implementation within fifteen months of the passage of the Act.
The Federal-State Joint Board (the "Joint Board"), created by the Act to coordinate federal and state regulatory interests, issued two recommendations on how to implement the universal service provisions.(3) The FCC met the statutory deadline when it issued the Order on May 8, 1997.(4) Since that time, the agency has issued seven reconsideration orders (the last one on May 28, 1999) and has made two reports to Congress regarding the Order.
The FCC designated a set of core services eligible for universal service support, proposed a mechanism for supporting those services, and established a timetable for implementation. See Order ¶¶ 21-42. Pursuant to the Act, the agency developed rules for modifying the existing system of support for high-cost service areas and created new support programs for schools, libraries, and health care facilities.
The FCC's plans for changing the high-cost support system required it to resolve a number of complicated issues, including (1) what methodology to use for calculating high-cost support; (2) how to allocate costs between the states and the federal government; (3) which carriers should be required to contribute to the support system; and (4) when to implement the high-cost support program. The agency resolved the question of how to calculate the proper amount of high-cost support by accepting the Joint Board's second recommendation to identify areas where the forward-looking cost of service exceeds a cost-based benchmark and to provide extra support to any state that cannot maintain reasonable comparability.(5) See Second Recommended Decision ¶ 19; Seventh Report and Order ¶ 61 n.157.
Most importantly, the FCC decided to use the "forward-looking" costs to calculate the relevant costs of a carrier serving a given geographical area. In other words, to encourage carriers to act efficiently, the agency would base its calculation on the costs an efficient carrier would incur (rather than the costs the incumbent carriers historically have incurred).(6)
The FCC developed rules for determining which carriers should be required to contribute to the interstate universal service support system and how their contributions should be calculated. It decided to require all telecommunications carriers and certain non-telecommunications carriers to contribute in proportion to their share of end-user telecommunications revenues. See Order ¶¶ 39-42. The agency determined that to reduce the burden on individual carriers' prices, the carriers' contribution base should be as broad as possible. See Order ¶ 783. Therefore, the agency required contributing carriers to include their international telecommunications revenues in their contribution base and rejected claims by certain carriers,(7) which do not receive direct subsidies from the support program, seeking an exemption from making any contributions. See Order ¶ 805.
Finally, the FCC adopted a timetable for implementing its high-cost support plan. Because it has not yet developed an accurate assessment of forward-looking costs, it delayed implementation of its support program for non-rural carriers until January 1, 2000.(8) Additionally, because the agency believes it will take even longer to develop accurate forward-looking cost models for rural carriers, it delayed the implementation of its new support plan for rural carriers to "no sooner than January 1, 2001." See Order ¶ 204.
During this delay in implementation, the FCC decided that carriers will continue to receive support at the levels generated by existing universal support programs. According to the agency, this gradual, phased-in plan for implementing its new high-cost support system meets the Act's requirement of a "specific timetable for completion." See 47 U.S.C. § 254(a)(2).
Pursuant to § 254(h), the FCC adopted rules implementing new programs for schools, libraries, and health care facilities, in particular by providing universal service support for internet access and internal connections in schools and libraries. See Order ¶ 436. The agency decided that any entity, including non-telecommunications carriers, that provides internet access or internal connections to schools and libraries will receive universal service support. See Order ¶ 594.
To fund the new § 254(h) programs, the FCC accepted the Joint Board's recommendation to assess the interstate and intrastate revenues of providers of interstate telecommunications service. See Order ¶ 808. Because many states do not already have similar support programs for schools and libraries, the agency justified its inclusion of intrastate revenues as necessary to ensure adequate funding for § 254(h) programs.
B. Challenges to the Order.
On September 5, 1997, petitioner Celpage Inc. filed a motion in this court to stay the Order. We denied that motion on October 16, 1997, and rejected a similar motion by various rural telephone companies on December 31, 1997. Their petitions, along with challenges to the Order by other petitioners, were consolidated in this court.
There are two sets of challenges to the Order. The first regards the FCC's plan for replacing the current mixture of explicit and implicit subsidies with an explicit universal service support system for high-cost areas. On both statutory and constitutional grounds, petitioners attack (1) the methodology for calculating support under the plan; (2) the allocation of funding responsibilities between the FCC and the states; and (3) the agency's restrictions on how carriers can recover universal service costs.
Other petitioners attack the FCC's high-cost support plan as an encroachment on state authority over intrastate telecommunications regulation because it restricts state eligibility requirements and imposes a "no disconnect" rule for low-income telephone subscribers. Petitioners also challenge, for lack of specificity and for failing to delay implementation of the plan for some rural carriers, the FCC's timetable for implementing the new universal service plan. Additionally, petitioners challenge the FCC's system for assessing contributions, arguing that it improperly includes CMRS providers and unfairly assesses carriers on the basis of their international and interstate revenues.
The second set of challenges regards the FCC's proposal for implementing § 254(h) programs supporting schools, libraries, and health care providers. Petitioners claim that the FCC impermissibly expanded the scope of § 254(h) support to include the provision of internet access and internal connections. Moreover, they attack the FCC's statutory authority to provide such support to non-telecommunications providers.
Additionally, petitioners charge that the agency encroached on state authority to implement state support programs for schools and libraries and failed to designate which telecommunications services will receive § 254(h) support. They also argue that the FCC exceeded its statutory authority by requiring subsidies for toll-free telephone calls to internet service providers by non-rural health care providers. Finally, they attack the FCC's § 254(h) contribution system because it assesses both the intrastate and interstate revenues of carriers.(9)
We affirm most of the FCC's decisions regarding its implementation of the high-cost support system, concluding, for the most part, that the Order violates neither the statutory requirements nor the Constitution. We remand for further consideration, however, as to the FCC's decision to assess contributions from carriers based on both international and interstate revenues. We also reverse (1) the requirement that ILEC's recover their contributions from access charges and (2) the blanket prohibition on additional state eligibility requirements for carriers receiving high-cost support.
On jurisdictional grounds, we reverse the rule prohibiting local telephone service providers from disconnecting low-income subscribers. We also conclude that the agency exceeded its jurisdictional authority when it assessed contributions for § 254(h) "schools and libraries" programs based on the combined intrastate and interstate revenues of interstate telecommunications providers and when it asserted its jurisdictional authority to do the same on behalf of high-cost support.
II. Standard of Review.
When deciding whether the FCC has the statutory authority to adopt the rules included in the Order, we review the agency's interpretation under Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837 (1984), by first deciding whether "Congress has directly spoken to the precise question at issue," id. at 842. If so, we "give effect to the unambiguously expressed intent of Congress." Id. at 842-43. In this situation, we reverse an agency's interpretation if it does not conform to the plain meaning of the statute. This level of review is often called "Chevron step-one" review.
Where the statute is silent or ambiguous, however, "the question for the court is whether the agency's answer is based on a permissible construction of the statute." Id. at 843. We may reverse the agency's construction of an ambiguous or silent provision only if we find it "arbitrary, capricious or manifestly contrary to the statute." Id. at 844. That is to say, we will sustain an agency interpretation of an ambiguous statute if the interpretation "is based on a permissible construction of the statute." Id. at 843. We refer to this more deferential level of review as "Chevron step-two" review.
The Administrative Procedure Act ("APA") also authorizes us to reverse an agency's action if it acted arbitrarily or capriciously in adopting its interpretation by failing to give a reasonable explanation for how it reached its decision. See 5 U.S.C. § 706 (2)(A) (1994); see also Harris v. United States, 19 F.3d 1090 (5th Cir. 1994). "Arbitrary and capricious" review under the APA differs from Chevron step-two review, because it focuses on the reasonability of the agency's decision-making processes rather than on the reasonability of its interpretation. (10)
Finally, we do not give the FCC's actions the usual deference when reviewing a potential violation of a constitutional right. "The intent of Congress in 5 U.S.C. § 706(2)(B) was that courts should make an independent assessment of a citizen's claim of constitutional right when reviewing agency decision-making." Porter v. Califano, 592 F.2d 770, 780 (5th Cir. 1979).
1. Telecommunications Act of 1996, Pub. L. No. 104-104, 110 Stat. 56 (to be codified as amended in scattered sections of title 47, United States Code).
2. In economic terms, universal service programs are justified as a way to address a "market failure." While the carriers have little incentive to expand the telecommunications infrastructure into areas of low population density or geographic isolation, each individual user of the network benefits from the greatest possible number of users. See Eli M. Noam, Will Universal Service and Common Carriage Survive the Telecommunications Act of 1996?, 97 Colum. L. Rev. 955, 958-59 (1997).
3. The first Recommended Decision was issued on November 8, 1996 (12 FCC Rcd 87 (1996)), the second Recommended Decision on November 25, 1998 (13 FCC Rcd 24744 (1998)).
4. Congress also directed that the FCC establish rules to achieve the local competition goals of the Act within six months of the Act's enactment. The agency met this deadline when it issued the Local Competition Order on August 8, 1996. Almost all parts of this order were affirmed by the Supreme Court. See AT&T v. Iowa Utils. Bd., 119 S. Ct. 721 (1999).
On the same day it issued the Order, the FCC released the Access Charge Order. Access charges are the charges assessed between local exchange companies (LEC's) and interexchange companies (IXC's) for the use of one network by callers from the other network. Challenges to this order were also consolidated before the Eighth Circuit. See Southwestern Bell Tel. Co. v. FCC, 153 F.3d 523 (8th Cir. 1998).
5. This methodology is a departure from the revenue-based national benchmark proposed in the Order. The revenue-based benchmark was challenged for including discretionary revenues in its calculation and for its nationwide scope. Because of the revisions proposed by the Joint Board's Second Recommended Decision, we
now consider those challenges to the prior revenue-based methodology moot. See infra part III.A.1.b.
6. The agency made a decision to provide only 25% of the funds for high-cost support, leaving the state commissions ("the states") to provide the rest of the funds. According to the FCC, the states traditionally have provided a majority of universal service support, and if the agency were to fund all the high-cost support, it would overcompensate carriers. Moreover, the FCC claims that the 25% figure approximates the costs that historically have been assigned to the interstate jurisdiction. See Order ¶ 201.
The Joint Board, however, recommended that the FCC scrap the 25%/75% division of responsibility in favor of a more flexible plan of allocation. See Second Recommended Decision ¶¶ 4-5, 41-46. The FCC accepted the Joint Board's recommendation and eliminated the 25/75 rule on May 27, 1999, thereby mooting the issue for this court. See infra part III.A.1.c. See also Seventh Report and Order ¶ 3 ("We explicitly reconsider and repudiate any suggestion in the First Report and Order that federal support should be limited to 25 percent of the difference between the benchmark and forward-looking cost estimates . . . .").
7. These carriers include wireless service providers of paging and commercial mobile radio service ("CMRS"). The FCC also rejected a claim by CMRS providers seeking an exemption from making contributions to state support funds.
8. In the original order, the FCC had planned implementation by January 1, 1999. This date was delayed until July 1, 1999, and again to January 1, 2000. See Seventh Report and Order ¶ 5.
9. The FCC also determined that it could require carriers to contribute, based on both interstate and intrastate revenues, to high-cost support as well as § 254(h) support. But for policy reasons, it decided to assess contributions on both interstate and intrastate revenues for support of § 254(h) programs only. It maintains, however, that it may impose similar assessments for high-cost support as well. See Seventh Report and Order ¶¶ 87-90.
We review the states' challenge to the FCC's claim of jurisdictional authority over intrastate rates in the context of its actions regarding support of the § 254(h) programs, but we also discuss its implications for FCC jurisdictional authority for support of high-cost programs. See infra, part III.B.5.
10. See Arent v. Shalala, 70 F.3d 610, 614-16 (D.C. Cir. 1995); see also Gary Lawson, Outcome, Procedure and Process: Agency Duties of Explanation for Legal Conclusions, 48 Rutgers L. Rev. 313 (1996). We recognize the difference between Chevron step-two review and the APA's arbitrary and capricious review is not always obvious. Indeed, the different standards of review overlap, because both require a reviewing court to decide whether the agency action is "manifestly contrary to the statute" (Chevron) or "otherwise not in accordance with law." (APA). See Arent, 70 F.3d at 615 & n.6.