February 2019
News and Updates
Here are some updates from the Texas Telephone Association. View as Webpage
Update from Executive Director Lyn Kamerman
Texas Legislature in session as activity continues at Texas PUC  
With the Texas Legislature in session in Austin, there continues to be activity impacting the telecommunications industry underway at the Public Utility Commission of Texas.

With the Texas Telephone Association and the Texas Statewide Telephone Cooperative Inc. reaching a settlement with Virgin Mobile on Lifeline, the public hearing has been cancelled. But parties continue to file legal briefings.

Virgin Mobile continues to seek designation as an Eligible Telecommunications Provider (ETP) and as an Eligible Telecommunications Carrier (ETC) to provide Lifeline services within parts of Windstream, CenturyLink and Consolidated service areas while seeking to expand in other rural areas. CenturyLink continues to oppose Virgin Mobile’s application along with the PUC staff.

The PUC staff on February 19 filed testimony from James Kelsaw that found Virgin Mobile meets the necessary technical requirements to be designated as an ETC throughout the requested areas and the parties agreed that while Virgin Mobile should be designated as an ETC, they were unable to reach an agreement on whether the company qualifies as an ETP.

Briefs are due March 6 and reply briefs are due March 20, with the PUC expected to make a final decision in summer 2019.

Texas PUC reviewing universal service reports

After Texas telecommunications companies opted in to the new Texas universal service funding mechanism, the Texas PUC will have 90 days from the filing date to review the reports and make any proposed adjustments to the reported rates of return. If the PUC staff requests information from individual telecommunications companies, they have 10 days to respond and encourage members to be prepared to respond quickly to any discovery requests.

The PUC staff after reviewing filings staff will categorize companies three categories – under-earning, in the “safe zone” and over-earning. Telecommunications companies the PUC determines have low earnings will be able to apply for an increase in universal funding while over earners could see a reduction.

If you have any questions, please reach out to me.

Texas PUC rules under review

The Texas PUC is reviewing its rules under Chapter 26 of the Texas Government Code which regulate the telecommunications industry in areas ranging from consumer protection to infrastructure.

Interested parties are invited to file comments in project no. 48979. If any TTA members are interested in the case, please contact Wes Robinson, TTA regulatory chairman.
Around the Texas Capitol – John Hubbard and Ian Randolph
Texas Legislature in full swing
The Texas Capitol has been busy since the Legislature sailed back into town in January.  

Both the Texas the House of Representatives and the Senate have new committees and Gov. Greg Abbott has delivered his State of the State address and designated emergency items for the session.

Speaker Bonnen appoints new committees in the House

After taking the gavel in January, new House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, moved quickly and named his committee appointments on January 23. Capitol observers generally agree he made smart decisions and showed his experience in assigning House members to committees. By appointing a mix of veterans, young up-and-comers and a good partisan balance, the speaker has demonstrated he will let the House process work and allow the members to set most of the chamber’s agenda. After Democrats picked up 12 seats in the last election, the speaker surprised some by appointing Democrats to chair 12 of 34 House committees.

One new chairman is Rep. Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, who has been given the reins of the House Committee on State Affairs, which has jurisdiction over most telecommunications issues. Phelan is beginning his third term in the House and this is his first chairmanship. In spite of his relative short time in the House, Phelan, who previously worked in the Senate for Sen. Tommy Williams, has had a number of key appointments and has risen quickly in both assignments and reputation at the Capitol. He replaces former Chairman Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, who was a strong advocate for rural Texas. 

The 13-member State Affairs Committee has 11 new members with only Reps. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, and John Smithee, R-Amarillo, returning. The new members are Phelan; Vice Chair Ana Hernandez, D-Houston; Rep. Joe Deshotel, D-Beaumont; Rep. Bobby Guerra, D-McAllen; Rep. Sam Harless, R-Spring; Rep. Justin Holland, R-Rockwall; Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi; Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford; Rep. Tan Parker, R-Flower Mound; Rep. Richard Raymond, D-Laredo; and, Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster. The partisan makeup of the committee remains the same with eight Republicans and five Democrats, although arguably the panel has become slightly more urban.

Changes in committees in the Senate

With no change in leadership, the Texas Senate moved quickly in appointing committees on January 18. Lt. Governor Dan Patrick created a new committee on Property Tax. He split another committee, Agriculture, Water and Rural Affairs, into two committees, raising the number of Senate committees to 16 from 14. Just two committee chairs are Democrats – Sen. John . Whitmire of Houston and Sen. Eddie Lucio of Brownsville -- so all but five of the Senate’s 19 Republicans are chairmen.

Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, lost his chairmanship in controversial fashion. Lt. Governor Patrick and Seliger were often at odds in the 2017 session. At the start of the session, Seliger was removed from both his chairmanship of the Higher Education Committee, his positions on the Education Committee and on the Finance Committee. However, he was named chair of the Agricultural Committee. However, after a public a dust-up, Seliger was removed from his new chairmanship just days after being appointed and replaced by Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood.

There were other key changes in Senate appointments, including the important nine-member Business and Commerce Committee that oversees telecommunications issues. Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, remains chair and Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, has been elevated to vice chair along with returning members Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels; Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe; Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown; Whitmire, and Sen, Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo. The committee has two new members: Sen. Jose Menendez, D-San Antonio, and Sen. Angela Paxton, R-McKinney are replacing former Sen. Craig Estes, who retired, and Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, who chairing the Education Committee.

Gov. Abbott’s State of the State address

Gov. Abbott on January 19, delivered his State of the State address to the Legislature and laid out his priorities for the session, focusing on cooperation on school finance reform, teacher pay, school safety (including mental health issues), property tax reform, and disaster preparedness. The governor named these five issues as “emergency items,” which allows lawmakers to avoid constitutional restrictions against passing bills during the first 60-days of the legislative session and get to work straight away.
Association News
Mark your calendars: TTA Convention and Product Showcase set for August 25-28
Planning is underway for the Texas Telephone Association Convention and Product Showcase set for August 25 through 28 at the Hyatt Hill Country Resort in San Antonio.

Look for more details soon.
In the State and Around the Nation
White House releases American Broadband Initiative Milestones Report 
The White House on February 13 announced the release of the American Broadband Initiative Milestones Report on broadband deployment in the United States.

“Throughout our economy, emerging technologies are disrupting pre-existing business models and creating unprecedented opportunities for the American people,’’ according to the White House blog post . ”However, without access to reliable high-speed broadband, too many Americans are being left out of those opportunities. This is particularly true in rural America, where nearly 39 percent of Americans lack sufficient broadband access.”

The report was developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Commerce and outlines a ways the federal government can increase broadband access. President Donald Trump on April 25, 2017, signed an executive order establishing the Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity.

The milestones report details federal actions to promote rural broadband deployment including:
  • the Agriculture Department’s plans to deploy a $600 million in a broadband pilot program in underserved areas;
  • actions to make available to service providers access to 7,000 communications towers located on federal property;
  • work by the U.S. General Services Administration to identify federal assets that can be used by service providers to expand broadband service buildouts in rural areas;
  • creating a “one-stop” resource for broadband infrastructure permitting information;
  • GSA’s efforts to revise a common application form and quarterly metrics for permit requests.
FCC clarifies next steps in Connect America Fund Phase II auction
The Federal Communications Commission on February 14 took the next step toward expanding broadband service to more than 713,000 rural homes and businesses across 45 states supported by the Connect America Fund Phase II auction.

The FCC adopted a report and order that sets the rules of the road for the upcoming transition between legacy Connect America Fund support in certain price cap areas and the new, auction-based support for voice and broadband.

The Connect America Fund (CAF) Phase II auction closed in August 2018 and allocated nearly $1.5 billion in support for broadband in rural areas currently lacking it. The funds are targeted to areas where the incumbent provider — large incumbent local exchange carriers known as known as price cap carriers — declined a 2015 offer of CAF Phase II model-based support.

The FCC order provides clarity and certainty to providers during this transition while ensuring existing voice services are maintained for customers. To ensure a seamless transition and protect program resources, the order does the following:

  • Where the price cap carrier bid in the auction and won, legacy support is converted to auction-based support when Phase II support is authorized in that area.
  • In areas where a carrier other than the incumbent price cap carrier won in the auction, legacy support to the price cap carrier ceases when Phase II support for that winning bidder is authorized in that area.
  • In auction-eligible areas with no winning bidder, interim legacy support for existing price cap carriers will continue until further FCC action.
  • In areas ineligible for the auction, legacy support ceases when the first Phase II Auction support is authorized nationwide.
  • In areas where a competitive provider is receiving legacy support, it will be phased down over two years.
In the News
AUSTIN — There are times when volunteer firefighter Jerry Bell could really use a broadband internet connection to find water or to pull up Google Maps for a better fix on his location. But because Bell and his fellow Lake Palo Pinto Volunteer Fire Department members often find themselves battling a blaze miles from town, that’s not available. “Once you get out in the field you can’t get anything,” said Bell, who lives in Gordon, a city of about 470 people, 65 miles west of Fort Worth in Palo Pinto County. “For rural counties, this is a problem.”

BBT is proud to announce that we were selected for a regional project in conjunction with the Permian Basin Regional Planning Commission (PBRPC). It was recently determined that alternate routes were needed to ensure that the region’s residents would never be isolated from reliable 9-1-1 services. Previously if a network issue developed some residents might find themselves unable to reach emergency services quickly and reliably. Because of BBT’s wide ranging, diverse communication routes and our experience in providing equivalent services for the Rio Grande Council of Governments, we were chosen to set up these alternate routes for the 9-1-1 system. Once complete, this new system will ensure that our area residents will always have access to emergency services in the event of life-threatening situations.

BBT
(Opinion-editorial from Sharon Strover , Director, Telecommunications and Information Policy Institute and Professor of Communication at the  University of Texas at Austin )

All across the U.S., rural communities residents are being left out of modern society and the 21st century economy. I ve traveled to Kansas, Maine, Texas and other states studying internet access and use and I hear all the time from people with a crucial need still unmet. Rural Americans want faster, cheaper internet like their city-dwelling compatriots have, letting them work remotely and use online services, to access shopping, news, information and government data .

Texas Representative Will Hurd—the only Republican to hold a district that falls along the southern border—is not in favor of a border wall. Instead, he’s partial to the idea of a “digital” wall : a border-wide system of technology such as cameras, sensors, and drones communicating through a fiber optic network to keep the border secure. And he thinks it could have the added benefit of closing the digital divide.

The first repeat chairman of the House Agriculture Committee since the Eisenhower era, Collin Peterson of Minnesota says there’s plenty to do this year. It includes closer scrutiny of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, who had a free hand for nearly two years in redrawing the organizational tree at USDA. “There is a new farm bill to implement, a growing economic storm in farm country, and the ongoing harm of a trade war to alleviate, not to mention the range of unforeseen issues that will test the mettle of the people we’re here to serve,” he says. 

The  FCC  is ramping up its pursuit of waste, fraud and abuse in its Universal Service Fund broadband subsidy program. The commission voted unanimously—4-0 since it was before new Democrat Geoffrey Starks came aboard—to create a new fraud division within the Enforcement Bureau.

AUSTIN, Texas — Texas legislators are considering a bill that would make it illegal for telecommunications companies to “throttle” mobile data in declared disaster zones. HB 1426  would prevent data from being impaired by internet providers in disaster zones such as wildfires. The proposed legislation comes after Verizon was slammed for “throttling” California firefighters as they battled wildfires, a move they later  said was a “customer support mistake.”

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