FCC to Bell: Fork It Over

Regional bells and their competitors continue to argue over sharing space for equipment five years after they were told to find a way to colocate.

Regional bells and their competitors continue to argue over sharing space for equipment five years after they were told to find a way to colocate.

The Federal Communications Commission last month fined SBC Communications $94,500 for failing to notify competitors that the company had no more space to share in several central offices in the Texas-based companys region.

The ability of competitors to colocate equipment in the Bells central switching offices is critical to offering services, from competing phone plans to high-speed Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) service. Disputes over colocation have contributed to competitors difficulty in offering lower-priced services to customers.

The FCCs enforcement bureau levied the fine on SBC after an independent audit determined that the notice requirement had been violated. SBC — which argued that the fine was unnecessary — said its failure to notify was the result of "clerical errors." The FCC required the notification as a condition for its approval of SBCs merger with Ameritech. The company forwarded the audit information to the FCC.

It is the second time in the past year that the commission has intervened in colocation disputes with a regional Bell. Last August, Verizon Communications paid $2.7 million to the U.S. Treasury to end an investigation by the agencys enforcement bureau. The two sides signed a consent decree over Verizons handling of Covad Communications access to space in a GTE facility. GTE and Bell Atlantic merged to form Verizon.

Competitive local exchange carriers are allowed to locate switching terminals and other equipment at the Bells central offices so they can connect customers to their networks.

In the SBC case, competitors complained that they were forced to go through expensive preparations to apply for space, only to be told later that the space was not available.

DSL service has increased dramatically the demand for colocation space controlled by the regional Bells, aggravating disputes between the incumbent and competitive carriers.

The Association for Local Telecommunications Services, which represents facilities-based competitive carriers, has said that the FCCs enforcement efforts are too weak. ALTS officials said they would push this year in Congress for increased enforcement of colocation rules.

After passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the FCC established colocation cooperation as a standard for determining whether appropriate competition is occurring in the markets for local phone service and data and voice transmission.

The Bells said they have wrestled since the Telecom Act with a physical shortage of colocation space. But competitors disagreed that a shortage exists. Jonathan Askin, general counsel at ALTS, said that every time his group asks for a tour or asks a state utility commission to intervene, space becomes available.

"Allegations of insufficient colocation space are a red herring by the Bells to slow-roll allocation of that space," Askin said.