Wireless company qualifies for federal assistance in Idaho service areas
Edge Wireless has become the first cellular company in Idaho to qualify to receive federal funds to provide service in areas already served by rural telephone companies.
The Idaho Public Utilities Commission has approved an application by Edge Wireless to serve as an “eligible telecommunications carrier” in 33 non-rural wire centers in the Magic Valley and southeastern Idaho already served by Qwest and in another 44 rural wire centers already served by 10 rural telephone carriers. (A wire center is the area served by a central office switch, the machine that provides dial tone and dialing functions.)
ETC designation means Edge is now designated as eligible to receive support from the federal Universal Service Fund (USF). The commission has previously granted ETC status to competitive telecommunications carriers in non-rural areas already served primarily by Qwest, but this the first time ETC has been granted in areas served by rural telephone companies. The Idaho Telephone Association, representing the 10 rural telephone companies, objected to the Edge Wireless application.
The Universal Service Fund was created by Congress to ensure that telephone consumers in rural areas where cost to serve is greater would have comparable accessibility to the same telecommunications services as consumers in urban areas. Since the 1930s, Congress has mandated that all telephone companies providing interstate service contribute to the USF. The assessment on carriers is passed on to consumers. On a national average, about 11.7 percent of the bill residential consumers pay for interstate and international long distance calls is directed toward the federal USF.
The Idaho Public Utilities Commission must determine whether the ETC designation is in the public interest. Telephone carriers must demonstrate that they will offer the universal services supported by the federal USF, which include local calling, access to emergency services, operator services and directory assistance, long-distance calling and access to programs offered to low-income customers. Carriers must provide service or be ready to provide service throughout the requested service area, not just in areas where there is a higher concentration of customers.
“We conclude that Edge’s commitment to provide the universal services, its network improvement plan, its large local calling area, its record of investing in Idaho, and its plans to remain functional during emergencies all demonstrate that ETC designation is consistent with the public interest,” the commission said.
Several entities submitted comments in the case, most in support. The City of Jerome said Edge has been providing service for years and that additional coverage that could be provided to outlying rural areas with USF funding would be beneficial. The Bonneville County Sheriff’s Office uses Edge as its primary carrier for mobile law enforcement operations. Access to the federal USF would allow Edge to provide “service in all areas of our county, including rural areas that now have limited and/or spotty service for our emergency operations,” the sheriff’s office said.
The Idaho Telephone Association, representing rural telephone companies that already serve in the areas where Edge sought ETC designation, maintains Edge does not intend to serve the entire area. ITA said Edge does not have facilities in 12 specific wire centers, including four served by Custer Telephone Cooperative in the Challis area. ITA alleged that Edge would engage in “cream skimming,” or serving only the most densely populated parts of wire centers.
However, the commission said ETC designation does not require that a carrier have the current ability to serve an entire area, but only that it certifies it will provide coverage within a reasonable period if it can be provided at reasonable cost. The commission requires an ETC applicant to file a two-year network improvement plan, showing how it will service customers outside its existing network. The commission said Edge’s plan shows how it will eventually build facilities in eight of the 12 wire centers mentioned by ITA. Further, because Edge proposes to serve the entire area served by the 10 existing rural telephone companies, “the issue of cream skimming is not present,” the commission said.
Obtaining ETC status and USF funds will enable Edge to build additional cell sites, the company stated. The company started service in Idaho with 32 cell sites and has since expanded to 147 cell sites, adding an average of 19 sites per year.
The commission acknowledged the growing demand on the federal USF nationwide. “Although we continue to be concerned about the size and demand on the federal USF, this remains an issue to be addressed and resolved at the federal level,” the commission said.
A full text of the commission’s order, along with other documents related to this case, are available on the commission’s Web site at www.puc.idaho.gov. Click on “File Room” and then on “Telecommunications Cases” and scroll down to Case No. EDG-T-07-01.
Interested parties may petition the commission for reconsideration by no later than July 20. Petitions for reconsideration must set forth specifically why the petitioner contends that the order is unreasonable, unlawful or erroneous. Petitions should include a statement of the nature and quantity of evidence the petitioner will offer if reconsideration is granted.
Petitions can be delivered to the commission at 472 W. Washington St. in Boise, mailed to P.O. Box 83720, Boise, ID, 83720-0074, or faxed to 208-334-3762.