Bar News - September 17, 2014
Environmental, Telecomm, Utilities & Energy Law: PUC Rules Implement Deregulation of NH Telephone Companies
By: Susan S. Geiger
The New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission has recently revamped its telephone utility rules to implement legislation intended to substantially decrease regulation of New Hampshire’s telephone companies.
Robust competition in the phone industry has eliminated the need for many of the laws and regulations that were designed to protect the public from monopoly power. Recognizing this, in 2012, the New Hampshire Legislature created a new category of telephone utilities called “excepted local exchange carriers.” These include incumbent landline telephone companies (excluding VoIP and IP-enabled service carriers) providing local exchange service to at least 25,000 lines in a particular geographic area, incumbent local carriers with less than 25,000 lines that choose to be excepted, and any other telecommunications service providers.
As the term suggests, excepted local exchange carriers (ELECs) are exempt from many of the old regulatory requirements for monopoly telephone companies, including – most notably – regulated rates.
Although ELECs’ rates are no longer set by the PUC, the new rules do require ELECs to maintain websites identifying rates, terms and conditions of service. The rules also contain provisions aimed at ensuring network reliability. For example, ELECs must maintain their facilities in accordance with national standards, notify the PUC of significant facility disruptions, adopt best industry practices for emergency operations, and “cooperate with all carriers to ensure a ubiquitous telephone network in New Hampshire...,” according to PUC rules.
The rules reflect statutorily-created consumer protections that prohibit slamming (changing a customer’s phone carrier without the customer’s knowledge or consent) and cramming (including unauthorized, misleading or deceptive charges on the customer’s phone bill), and require the PUC to resolve customer complaints alleging violations of the consumer protection provisions.
The PUC continues to regulate payphones which, under the rules, are required to provide dial tone, 911 emergency access, and access to telecommunications relay service, all without charge to customers. The PUC also continues to regulate “public interest payphones,” which are designated as such by the PUC because they are necessary in the interest of health, safety and welfare, and are located in areas which otherwise would not host payphones.
The new rules expressly state that they do not apply to Voice-over Internet Protocol (VoIP) service providers (cable companies that use Internet protocol to convey voice messages) or IP-enabled service providers (companies providing voice service over the Internet). This regulatory treatment is consistent with RSA 362:7, II, which states that VoIP and IP-enabled service providers are not public utilities or ELECs, and are not to be regulated as public utilities, other than in very limited circumstances. The new rules also expressly do not apply to cellular mobile radio communication providers, which are completely exempt from PUC regulation by RSA 362:6.
Lastly, the new rules permit telecommunications carriers that are not public utilities (e.g., wholesale service providers) to voluntarily register with the PUC to obtain evidence of federal rights and obligations, such as the right to obtain telephone numbers. The PUC’s rules may be found online.
|Susan S. Geiger
Susan S. Geiger is a shareholder and director of Orr & Reno. She is a former New Hampshire Public Utilities Commissioner and senior assistant attorney general. She can be contacted at email@example.com or (603) 223-9154.