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Oklahoma Corporation Commissioners on Wednesday expressed continued concerns with a fund that helps keep rural telecommunications services affordable

The Public Utility Division of the Oklahoma Corporation Commission is looking at the books of telecommunications service providers that contribute to a state universal service fund intended to help keep those services affordable in rural parts of the state.

Given that contribution amounts to that fund have been falling, the division’s staff also is evaluating whether the agency should use different methodology than what state law currently allows to calculate future required contributions.

Proposed orders before elected members of the Oklahoma Corporation Commission on Wednesday that sought authorization to keep records the staff reviews as part of those efforts protected from full public disclosure were approved.

However, consideration of those orders once again generated critical comments from commissioners who don’t like the way the program is operated.

Commission Chairman Todd Hiett and Commissioner Bob Anthony, both of whom have opposed past payment requests from the fund to applicant telecommunications companies, aired grievances they continue to have with the program.

Anthony, who voted against approving the orders, maintains that detailed records including customer counts, executive salaries and they ways companies spend all their revenues should be entirely open to public review in cases where those companies seek to obtain dollars from the fund.

“Our constitution tells us

that telephone and telegraph companies are public service, or what we call public utility companies,” Anthony said.

Despite the fact that those companies have to open those records to regulators for review, they are not required to fully disclose those details to the public, he continued.

“We are telling the people who are going to have to pay for this you don’t get to know (those details),” Anthony said.

“That is what I am opposed to.”

But Brandy Wreath, the Oklahoma Universal Service Fund administrator and director of the agency’s public utility division, said it is more accurate to view telecommunications companies as entities that provide a public service but whose rates are not regulated by the commission.

The companies, he explained, aren’t monopolistic and operating in defined service territories that other companies can’t invade.

Because of that, much of the data Anthony would like to see fully disclosed is considered proprietary because it could enable competitors to poach profitable service areas, potentially raising rates for other rural customers, he said.

Companies use dollars from the fund to help them keep rural telecommunications services and internet services they provide to libraries, schools and nonprofit health services in rural areas affordable.

Wreath has said the fund has delivered significant benefits to Oklahomans, noting internet costs for state schools and libraries have been reduced by 61%, that telemedicine costs are down and that 1,248 Oklahoma schools now are equipped with fiber infrastructure.

He said the fund helps keep rural Oklahomans connected to phone and internet services, ensures rates for services in high-cost areas are reasonable and affordable, supports critical network facilities that help economic development and narrows the digital divide between urban and rural parts of the state.

“We are supportive of competitions that are done on a fair basis that doesn’t potentially harm customers,” Wreath said.

Hiett previously has said Oklahoma’s Legislature hasn’t been quick enough to respond to changes the Federal Communications Commission has made to the way a federal fund originally created for the same purpose is used.

On Wednesday, he reiterated he feels the commission is stuck administering a system that no can adequately achieve its goals.

Still, he joined Commissioner Dana Murphy on Wednesday in voting to approve the orders.

“We all can agree there is a general overarching issue that needs to be addressed, legislatively,” Hiett said. “We have a system that was designed many, many years ago that is not sustainable.

“We need the Legislature help us redesign this so that we can better serve the public.”

Wreath has said he supports changes to enabling law and commission rules that would allow the agency’s public utility division to conduct earnings investigations on all companies that request dollars from the fund. He said the fund’s support also should be limited to carriers that are operating in areas where there are no other unsubsidized competitors.

Addressing the concerns aired by Hiett and Anthony, he agreed changes such as changing the way required contributions from companies are calculated are needed.

Currently, the state fee’s assessment is calculated on a company’s total revenues it collects from its landline, wireless and Voice over Internet Protocol customers, but not all those customers are required to help pay for it.

The current fee for the Oklahoma fund that users in Oklahoma pay on their monthly bills is 6.28%, which was set by the agency’s elected commissioners in May after years of keeping the fee at lower percentages.

Wreath said the assessment could more accurately be figured using other data, such as the number of phone connections a company serves.

The federal fund, collected separately, is triple that size in percentage, but impacts customers far less since it only is collected on revenues phone companies get from customers who pay for interstate communication services.

Based upon current payment commitments filed for the state fund and its decline in received revenues, the percentage needs to be increased again, and a case proposing that hike is working its way through the process now.

“Reported revenues by contributing providers are down 20%, or $11.5 million, from the projected level,” Wreath has said. “This revenue decline is also being seen at the federal level.”

Jack Money

Jack Money has worked for The Oklahoman for more than 20 years. During that time, he has worked for the paper’s city, state, metro and business news desks, including serving for a while as an assistant city editor. Money has won state and regional... Read more ›