Just How Inefficient is Communications Regulation? The USF Case Study

by on December 4, 2008 · 10 comments

One of the reasons that so many of us here take issue with proposals to expand regulation of communications, broadband, and media markets is because we have studied the horrendous inefficiencies of economic regulation in practice. We oppose regulatory proposals not because of a “blind faith” in free markets, but because we understand that even when markets stumble they correct themselves quicker and more efficiently than regulatory systems do. One can profess the supposed theoretical benefits of enlightened “public interest” regulation all they want, but the facts are the facts. And the facts do not support the proposition that government regulation generally enhances consumer welfare.

In that regard, Tim Lee’s new Net neutrality report for Cato does a nice job of surveying some of the past unintended consequences of regulation. Also, even though it is now 10 years old, I highly recommend “Economic Deregulation and Customer Choice” by Jerry Ellig and Robert Crandall. It’s an outstanding overview of why economic regulation of various industries failed consumers so miserably in the past.

But if you want even more shocking proof of how horrendously inefficient communications regulation can be in practice, then you must read my PFF colleague Barbara Esbin’s two essays this week on the Universal Service Fund (USF): “The High Cost of USF Support,” and “More FCC Support Fund Follies.” In these two essays, Esbin walks the reader through various grim reports and statistics that have been released recently documenting the failures of the USF.

Her first essay notes how a recent FCC Inspector General report found that the USF “High Cost” fund is spiraling out of control. According to a FCC press release, that report found that “a program is at risk if the erroneous payment rate exceeds 2.5% and the amount of erroneous payments is greater than $10 million. The estimated erroneous payment rate for the High Cost Program (“HCP”) was 23.3%. The previous estimate was 16.6%. Total estimated erroneous payments were $ 971.2 million as compared with the previous estimate of erroneous payments of $617.8 million. Accordingly, the FCC-OIG concluded that the High Cost Fund program is “at risk” under applicable [..] criteria.”

Esbin puts these shocking results in perspective:

“At risk” is a surely a euphemism for a program that loses in “erroneous payments” nearly one out of every four dollars collected from telephone subscribers. In 2007, pursuant to FCC rules, telephone consumers were effectively taxed over $4 billion for the high-cost portion of the USF. Thus, nearly $1 billion dollars of subscriber money went out the door in “erroneous payments.”

As the report makes clear, erroneous payments include both over- and underpayments, and also instances where the agency is unable to discern whether a payment was proper as a result of “lack of documentation.” The report’s conclusions state that the “rate of improper overpayments is 22.8%, and the proportion of improper overpayments out of total improper payments is 98.2%.” To be considered “erroneous,” an payment “need not be the result of fraudulent misrepresentation, or a corrupt administrative process.” “Nor does it necessarily exclude those factors as potential causes of erroneous payments.” Significantly, nor are “the erroneous payments . . . necessarily recoverable from recipients by process of law.” Fabulous. Not only has nearly $1 billion in erroneous overpayments gone missing, but even if final audits indicate where it has gone, it may not be recoverable!

Among the interesting results of this preliminary report are the identified causes of erroneous payments. According to Table 2 of the report, 50% of the causes of erroneous payments can be attributed nearly equally to two factors: either “Inadequate Documentation” (25.3%) or “Inadequate Auditee Processes and/or Policies and Procedures” (24.6%). Another 10% “Disregarded FCC Rules” and 12% had “Applicant/Auditee Weak Internal Controls.” That is, roughly 75% of the erroneous overpayments can be attributed to poor bookkeeping, inadequate internal controls and “disregard” of FCC rules. This is stunning information. No wonder it made its appearance the day before Thanksgiving.

But wait, things get worse. So much worse. In Esbin’s second essay, she notes that:

On Monday, the OIG released its Semi-Annual Report to Congress, discussing the full range of audit activities conducted from April 1, 2008 to September 30, 2008. Thus we learn that in addition to the loss of nearly $1 billion in erroneous overpayments to the High Cost program, another fund the FCC is ultimately responsible for, the “Telecommunications Relay Service” (TRS) Fund, which provides funds for a variety of telephone transmission services for those with hearing and speech disabilities, also appears to be at risk for substantial overpayments due to the lack of adequate controls.

Since 1993, according to the FCC’s website, the Commission’s rules have required that each common carrier providing voice transmission services provide TRS throughout its service area. All providers of interstate telecommunications services contribute to the TRS Fund, and TRS providers recover the costs of providing interstate services from the Fund on a minutes-of-use basis. Intrastate TRS funding is generally administered by the states, although some intrastate TRS offerings are supported by the interstate TRS Fund. The current TRS Fund Administrator is the National Exchange Carrier Association (NECA). Although NECA directly manages the Fund, the FCC sets the Fund size and carrier contribution factor annually and is ultimately responsible for Fund oversight.

When the TRS Fund started, it disbursed about $31 million, growing to over $38 million by 1999. Since 1999, the OIG report states that the TRS Fund has increased approximately 50-80% each year, to reach $637 million for the Fund’s fiscal year from July, 2007 to June, 2008. The size of the fund for the current fiscal year is $850 million, a 26% increase over the previous fiscal year. That is, in roughly ten years the TRS Fund has ballooned from $38 million to $850 million! What, if any, other communications service has seen 50-80% growth in costs per year?

Indeed, that is a shocking degree of waste and inefficiency by just about any standard. And Esbin goes on to document specific examples of this waste and inefficiency in action within the TRS Fund. It’s shocking stuff and doesn’t make for pleasant reading if you care about good government.

Barbara is actually much more tempered and tolerant than me when it comes to what to do about all this. She recommends a lot more reform and oversight. If you ask me, however, then entire USF program should be dismantled immediately and any future support deemed necessary should be distributed directly to consumers at the state level in the form of a welfare payment. After all, at root, that’s what universal service is: a communications industry welfare program, but one in which most of the support flows to companies instead of individuals. And that makes it one of the most insanely misguided and inefficient regulatory / subsidization systems known to man. 13 years ago, in one of the very first things that PFF ever published (The Telecom Revolution: An American Opportunity) I was advocating exactly this sort of a plan along with a dozen other think tank colleagues. (And we also set forth another, less radical reform plan than the “voucher-ize & devolve” plan I favored).

But no one listened. Business as usual continued. And so the endless waste and inefficiencies continue. Somebody will have to remind me how any of this benefits consumer welfare. I can’t see how anyone could make such a case, and I would hope the USF follies serve as a cautionary tale for how the best of intentions are meaningless when it comes to what regulation actually means in practice. Because it sure ain’t pretty.

But hey, it’ll all be different going forward right? We just need to have faith in the media reformistas and the Net neutralitistas.  If we click our heels together enough time and just wish hard enough, all our dreams can come true.


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