Photo of Douglas Jarrett

This Update is intended for enterprise IT, telecom, procurement staffs, and in-house counsel responsible for telecommunications management and procurements, focusing on strategies to maximize savings and optimize services to meet projected enterprise requirements.

Industry Consolidation

XO Communications is now part of Verizon, CenturyLink has acquired Level 3, and, among the cable operators, Charter has acquired Time Warner Cable.  The environment is more favorable for multinationals that can look to Orange, BT, Tata, or Telefonica to compete for their international and rest-of-world services.  Whether DoJ and the FCC, respectively, approve the T-Mobile and Sprint merger will remain an open question for several months.

Best Practices

Unlike the markets for cars and publicly traded stocks, there are no publicly available resources on pricing trends or terms and conditions for telecommunications service agreements.  The rack rates in carrier service guides do not reflect the best available pricing for any given expenditure level or mix of services.  Timely, well-planned procurements with assistance of experienced consultants remain the baseline for a successful procurement.  Additional background is available on our blog: Telecommunications Services Agreements—The Underlying Business Deal.

Importance of RFPs

Requests for proposals are the starting point for negotiations.  In addition to the essential description of a customer’s current network, desired services, and projected growth in usage, bandwidth and locations, the enterprise’s proposed terms and conditions (both business and legal) should be set out in the RFP.  Even if the carrier declines to accept certain provisions, compromise positions can be negotiated.  If preferred provisions or customer interests are not set out in the RFP, negotiations are more challenging.

Transitioning to New Services

Wireline carriers deploy new services to achieve efficiencies, remain competitive, and deliver innovative offerings and savings to customers. Many enterprises have just concluded or are working through the transition to IP voice services, principally to SIP trunking.  A newer offering is SD-WAN. It enables network flexibility, redundancy, and cost savings as compared to exclusive reliance on MPLS for corporate data communications.  Enterprises should assess the value (or accept the reality) of these services and structure their RFPs accordingly.

Limits of RFPs

In terms of enterprise telecommunications priorities, network security is now on equal footing with service reliability and availability.  The relative efficacy of carriers’ internal network security practices cannot reasonably be reduced to comparisons of responses to RFP questions.  A qualitative assessment, possibly based upon independent third-party investigations or reviews, is required.   RFPs may be structured to compare the elements and pricing of carriers’ network cybersecurity offerings, but in 2019 the relative efficacy of competing carriers’ offerings likely requires independent assessments, as well.

Negotiating Tips

Assuming the incumbent carrier submits the most compelling bid, don’t look to negotiate a new master agreement.  Focus on minimum commitment levels, lowest rates as opposed to incentive pricing schemes, migration strategies to newer, preferred services, customer support, mid-term benchmarking, service levels, and the transition period at contract expiration.  The more recent carrier master agreement templates are progressively more one-sided.  If the incumbent carrier insists on a new master agreement (or a more onerous set of general online terms and conditions), core terms and conditions in the RFP and previously negotiated provisions provide the customer’s baseline for negotiations.

If migrating to a successor carrier, be prepared for the successor’s master services agreement with a compilation of preferred clauses (which should track those included in the RFP) and propose a scope of work for the network transition, striving to limit the period during which services from the incumbent and successor carriers overlap while recognizing the carriers are loathe to negotiate a detailed transition plan as part of contract negotiations. (This intransigence makes little sense as the successful bidder typically acquires a detailed picture of a company’s existing network and locations in the customer’s RFP that, in turn, is central to the service provider’s RFP responses.) 

Dark Fiber.  Bandwidth requirements have a persistent, upward trajectory.  The questions are how fast and to what extent.  For local or regional requirements (such as connectivity to disaster recovery sites or among large, geographically concentrated facilities), an optimum solution may be a dark fiber lease or indefeasible right of use.  Additional background on dark fiber leases and IRUs is available on our blog: Enterprise Customers and Dark Fiber: An Important Connection, Part 2.

The virtue of dark fiber is that over time the enterprise can upgrade the electronics to derive more bandwidth from a given quantity of dark fibers. The challenges are that dark fiber is not ubiquitously available and the major wireline carriers and cable operators do not routinely offer or even negotiate dark fiber arrangements.  Even in markets where dark fiber is available, new construction likely will be required to establish connectivity between or among the enterprise’s locations.

Telecommunications Surcharges and State Taxes

The cost impact of telecommunications regulatory surcharges and taxes on enterprise services varies significantly based on the services being provided and is underappreciated by many enterprise customers.

The aggregate surcharge and tax burden for an interstate private line or a special access circuit can exceed 30% of the monthly charge.  Conversely, no surcharges or taxes are imposed on the charges for high speed Internet access service, but up to 65.8% of the revenues from VoIP (SIP) services are “USF-assessable.”

This disparity is driven by three considerations.  First, state and local jurisdictions need revenue and have targeted telecommunications services (wireline and wireless) as a prime revenue source.  Second, the Internet Tax Freedom Act prohibits the imposition of state taxes on charges for Internet access services.  Third, the FCC’s Universal Service Fund rules require USF contributions from service provider’s revenues from interstate and international telecommunications services and VoIP services, but excludes revenues from information services such as Internet access service.  The FCC allows services providers to recover their USF contributions via pass-throughs to customers.

The USF contribution factor (% of assessable revenues) is adjusted quarterly.  For the first quarter of 2019, the contribution factor is 20%.  Local state and sales taxes range from 3.5% to 6.0% of telecommunications services and VoIP (SIP) revenues. The major carriers also recover property taxes, gross receipts taxes, and costs of regulatory compliance, as set out in their service guides.  Adding insult to injury, these tax and cost recovery charges are added to the carrier’s USF-assessable revenues.

Questions/Follow-Up Discussion.  Keller and Heckman is pleased to offer a no-fee ½ hour follow-up conversation to discuss these topics in greater detail or respond to questions on telecom procurements.  To schedule a conversation, please contact Doug Jarrett: jarrett@khlaw.com; 202.434.4180.

In late September, MissionCritical Communications posted several online articles about network-based and wireless handset-based emergency location technologies that will provide local public-safety answering points (PSAPs) the physical location of wireless callers dialing 9-1-1. These articles coincided with the FCC’s implementation of Kari’s Law, which Congress enacted this year.

Kari’s Law was enacted in response to an unfortunate incident where a young girl in a hotel room repeatedly dialed 9-1-1 but failed to reach the PSAP because the hotel’s phone system required a “9” be dialed as a prefix to secure an outside line. The legislation targets wireline voice technology, which increasingly, is limited to relatively large commercial locations. Operators of small businesses and individuals, including persons who lease their residences in multifamily dwelling units, are abandoning use of landline service.

In early October, MissionCritical Communications highlighted the public-safety community’s concerns over wireless carriers promoting Z-axis location accuracy of 5 meters or more as the dispatchable location standard. It was noted that this tech­nology could report a caller’s location either one floor below or above the calling party’s actual location, across the street or in a different building. Also noted was that substantially more accurate standards of 3 to about 1.8 meters are achievable.

Unfortunately, even assuming network-based or handset-based technologies will perform flawlessly, wireless emergency calling from in-building locations remains problematic. The efficacy of in-building wireless communications requires that RF signals be transmitted from and received by wireless callers within the buildings. Energy-efficient building materials impede RF signals, and persons above the 20th floor often do not receive a reliable signal from wireless carriers’ networks, particularly in dense urban areas or other high-density cluster environments.

Distributed Antenna Systems

The principal solution is an in-building distributed antenna system (DAS) built using off-the-shelf technologies and leveraging proven RF engineering practices. DAS enables in-building connectivity for multiple wireless technologies — Wi-Fi, public safety and commercial mobile radio service (CMRS). Whether a home, hotel or venue, a property’s owner or operator largely determines Wi-Fi connectivity. A public-safety DAS is often required by statute.

With the rollout of the First Responder Network Authority (First-Net), AT&T’s participation in DAS arrangements should increase. Whether in-building voice and broadband CMRS is available requires a wireless carrier’s participation and financial commitments from building owners. DAS supporting CMRS may be carrier specific or capable of supporting multiple service providers, referred to as a neutral-host DAS.

In-building DAS configurations require wireless carriers to extend their networks to a venue or building, typically installing baseband and RF equipment in a basement vault or equipment room. The wireless carrier operates this equipment. The RF signal is transmitted via in-building wiring — increasingly, fiber-optic cable — to antennas on one or more locations on each floor or every other floor to maximize coverage through an in-building distribution network. In a neutral-host DAS, multiple wireless carriers’ terminal equipment first connects to the owner’s neutral-host equipment, which in turn connects to the in-building distribution network.

The ecosystem of consultants, equipment, technologies and firms providing turnkey in-building DAS solutions is reasonably mature. Fiber-optic cable is the preferred wiring because of its extended useful life and substantial capacity. Major tower management companies that operate outdoor DAS networks are among the leading DAS providers in major venues. These entities may lease access to their in-building networks to the wireless carriers.

Business Models

Whether a DAS is deployed in a given building or venue turns on a series of business decisions. For­most, a wireless carrier determines whether its network would benefit from an in-building DAS by offloading or minimizing traffic on a carrier’s macrocell/outdoor network or if competitive pressures dictate that its service be available within the venue or building. Whether to extend its network into a major sports and entertainment venue is an easy decision for a wireless carrier.

Beyond these venues, wireless carrier participation is inconsistent, at best. In countless wireless infrastructure forums and conferences, wireless carriers emphasize their resources are limited and acknowledge they cannot extend their networks into every building requiring in-building coverage. Because of wishful thinking or a lack of due diligence by a systems integrator or property developer or owner, more than a handful of well-designed, fully constructed in-building distribution networks are not active because wireless carriers did not commit to extend service to the buildings.

The decision to make the investment for an in-building distribution system belongs to a property developer or owner. Wireless carriers rarely provide financial support for in-building distribution systems. Even if a property owner is willing to make this investment, the question remains whether the wireless carriers will extend their networks into the building and install their equipment to provide service. Many buildings don’t make the cut.

A Combination Solution

A combination equipment and financing solution that may improve carrier engagement in supporting in-building wireless communications exists. Cheytec Telecommunications established a relationship with the principal wireless equipment vendors to acquire the same baseband and RF equipment deployed by the carriers in their networks. Cheytec “takes the investment” in, retains title to and assumes the maintenance for the in-building wireless network equipment, charging the property owner a monthly licensing fee. Further, wireless carriers are authorized to operate and control this installed equipment as part of their networks.

The solution lowers a wireless carrier’s cost of extending its network into a building but still obligates the owner to fund the in-building distribution system and pay the monthly equipment-licensing fee.

Whether an owner takes this step depends on the owner’s economic analysis of providing wireless connectivity for its tenants or residents. Some property owners now view indoor wireless as an essential utility for their tenants. These decisions are made on a case-by-case basis. Wireless carriers could better support property owners by entering into DAS agreements with terms beyond five years, allowing the property owner to recover the cost of the in-building distribution system over a longer period.

Conclusions

Without question, dispatchable location standards must fully support public-safety emergency response activities. Equally important, policy-makers and legislators must recognize that wireless carriers largely determine the underlying availability and reliability of their services within many high-rise residential and commercial properties.

There are no easy solutions because substantial financial commitments are involved, but the challenges associated with in-building wireless communications should be acknowledged by the wireless carriers and recognized by regulators. Without open dialogue, an underlying issue in emergency wireless communications will persist indefinitely.

For more information, please contact Doug Jarrett (jarrett@khlaw.com; 202.434.4180).

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2018 issue of Mission Critical Magazine, and is reproduced with their permission. Visit MissionCritical Communications here

On June 28, the FCC released a Public Notice announcing the 220 applicants that qualified for the CAF II reverse auction.  These entities include rural rate of return carriers, electric cooperatives, wireless internet services providers, satellite providers, cable operators, and price cap ILECs (or affiliates thereof).  Several consortiums also qualified.  In one sense, the auction is already a resounding success as it elicited qualified bids from an array of existing and prospective rural broadband service providers.

One significant question that will be answered later this summer or early in the fall is the distribution of the performance tiers among the winning bids:  Gigabit–Gbps/500 Mbps, Above Baseline–100/20 Mbps, Baseline–25/3 Mbps, and Minimum–10/1 Mbps. This should inform the FCC, Congress and the public as to whether the current fixed broadband benchmark of 25/3 Mbps should be retained or increased. The winning bids will indicate what speeds are reasonably doable in many rural areas.  An answer to a related question is whether the distribution of winning bidders tracks the diversity of qualified applicants.

From a systems perspective, the reverse auction, scheduled to start on July 24, will confirm whether the bidding system can accommodate the diversity of bidding weights, package bidding and calculate the data points for individual bidders and the aggregate implied support amounts after each round.  This could encourage the use of reverse auctions in other USF contexts.

Assuming positive outcomes on these points, one criticism of the CAF II auction that will not be resolved concerns the selection of eligible bidding areas.  Census blocks having multiple high-cost locations (based on the average of low cost, high cost and extremely high cost locations) in which a single location obtained service at 10/1 Mbps were not eligible for the CAF II auction.  The result was eligible bidding areas with only one or a handful of locations included in the auction while census blocks having far more unserved locations excluded.  This unfortunate “false-positive” needs to be addressed in both the Remote Areas Fund auction and in the auction that could take place as the state-wide offers to the price cap carriers expire in 2021.

By 2021, the progress reports filed by CAF II auction winners should either validate or raise questions as to whether the reverse auction is producing the desired outcomes of higher speed, reliable fixed broadband service in rural areas at reasonable rates.  Another unknown is whether the minimum, baseline, and above baseline performance tiers for the 2018 auction will apply in 2021.  Our sense is technology advances and marketplace developments such as Charter’s network-wide gigabit deployments will drive these thresholds higher.

In-building reception of mobile service is a prerequisite in multitenant commercial and residential properties. Office environments in which individuals cannot check their smartphones or place a call during a break in a meeting or conference leave impressions—negative ones. Asking a resident to pay $2000 or more per month in a Class A apartment complex having poor wireless reception is a non-starter. Reliance on WiFi calling is a high-risk proposition.

The challenge in both commercial and residential multi-tenant properties is that energy-efficient building materials interfere with RF signals and cell coverage is largely unavailable above the 21st or 22nd floors. In MDUs, residents’ use of landline telephone service whether POTS, stand-alone VoIP or over-the-top VoIP is depicted in graphs and tables having steep, downward slopes. For owners of high-end properties, spotty mobile service coverage diminishes the appeal of a residential unit or prospective office location.

This challenge is compounded by the realities that (1) wireless carriers have limited Capex and Opex funds that are allocated on internal ROI assessments, and (2) these services providers are not obligated to extend their service to residents, tenants and visitors inside of multi-tenant residential or commercial properties. The same holds true for hotels. Carrier panelists at almost any wireless infrastructure conference emphasize that the wireless carriers will rarely, if at all, “take the investment” to support distributed antennas systems (DAS) (including “neutral host DAS systems”) and the balance of in-building wireless equipment (IBW) to extend service into and throughout multi-tenant properties.

Wireless carriers are more likely to fund or help fund investment in IBW systems to support wireless reception in major venues (convention centers, stadiums and arenas) and at major locations for their enterprise customers. The permissible use of mobile service signal boosters in commercial spaces is not a solution for many multitenant properties, even if the FCC adopts a simplified registration procedure for wideband (multi-carrier) boosters.

Another reality is that the RF elements of in-building wireless systems are subject to technological obsolescence as wireless carriers transition to higher capacity (5G) or more efficient transmission technologies that likely will occur multiple times during the life of a modern building.

Fundamentally, property owners must determine whether in-building wireless is an amenity or an essential utility. Wireless carriers must also demonstrate a higher level of flexibility in bringing solutions (though not necessarily funding IBW systems) to facilitate more reliable in-building wireless service. Hopefully, the impetus will not be a series of emergencies or tragedies that could have been avoided through reliable in-building wireless signal coverage.

This entry provides an overview of how enterprise customers shape the underlying business deals in telecommunications services agreements. In the previous entry, we discussed the primary objectives enterprise customers look to achieve in negotiating telecommunications services agreements.  In our initial entry in this series, we discussed the challenge counsel for enterprise customers face in confining telecommunications services agreements to the four corners of the customer contract.

Overview. There are two basic approaches for putting these deals together. The first is the default or “seat of the pants” approach in which the customer (telecom manager) limits discussions to the current provider(s), typically 3 to 6 months prior to expiration of the current contract and, based on informal discussions with consultants or other customers, asks for a “market-based” reduction in rates for a new three-year deal, maybe remembering to request pricing for replacement IP services. The second is to initiate a more structured process 9 to 14 months prior to the expiration of the current agreement by engaging an experienced consultant to develop a demand set for an RFP to issue to both incumbent and potential successor carriers and to advise on trends in carrier services and pricing, particularly the transition to IP-based services offerings. This entry focuses on the second approach.

Caveat: The incumbent often prevails even under a systematic, well-planned procurement. Transitioning to successor providers is resource-intensive and, for some period, entails the payment of services to the incumbent and the successor provider during the transition process. Hot cuts are not the rule for major enterprises, particularly at critical locations. Caveat to the Caveat. If there is insufficient time to initiate a transition to a successor provider (and avoid a substantial increase in service pricing per the rates in the incumbent’s price guide), both the incumbent provider and its competitive providers likely will not propose market-based pricing and terms and conditions. Thus, the RFP should be issued in a timely manner to allow for competitive, responsive bids and for a doable transition to the successor provider(s).

Value of Telecom Consultants. There are several reasons for engaging a competent consultant. First, there are no published lists of market-based rates; carrier guide rates are rarely accepted by customers. There is no equivalent of published commodity prices (crude oil, corn or pork bellies) or web sites such as Edmunds or TrueCar for enterprise telecommunications service pricing. Even the “best of the best” telecom managers have a limited knowledge base of current market pricing; unless they have changed jobs (frequently), these persons’ pricing knowledge is limited to the company’s last agreement or competitive pricing review of 12 to 18 months ago. Experienced consultants have more insights into current market pricing.

Consultants offer two other value-added services. The first is the development of the enterprise’s demand set for its RFP. Telecom service pricing is based largely on volume, customer locations, and service mix. Two aspects of developing a demand set are determining current usage of existing services at current and planned locations (or anticipating a reduction in locations) and selecting the services (type and capacity) that the customer is looking to acquire. This entails a review of bills and invoices, existing network design, current services, expected growth or contraction of the enterprise’s requirements, and desired services. The two latter considerations are driven by the customer with input from the procurement consultants.

The second value-added is the consultant’s RFP templates. In addition to setting out the demand set and desired services, the RFP elicits information on pricing, other business considerations and legal terms and conditions. The RFP is the starting point for negotiations. The consultant’s RFP should be reviewed within the enterprise by the telecom/IT department, procurement group, legal, and, perhaps, risk management. A company may wish to incorporate the consultant’s RFP into its standard RFP documents or modify the consultant’s RFP. A related consideration to be determined upfront is the extent to which the consultant is the principal contact and whether the consultant will take the lead in discussions with the carriers.

Revenue Commitments and Pricing Reviews. Several other economic considerations are central to the business deal in addition to rates (recurring charges, non-recurring charges, waivers and credits). The first is the minimum revenue commitment which the customer commits to spend either annually or over the term of the agreement. Exclusive purchase commitments are rare. The minimum commitment level is based on projected expenditures at the proposed rates. Currently, term commitments with annual commitments for each renewal period are more common. The minimum commitment is increasingly supplemented by “incentive credits.” The best pricing or highest discount under the agreement is achieved only when expenditures exceed some dollar amount above the minimum commitment level, qualifying for the incentive credits.

Agreements also include a so-called “business downturn/downsizing” provision. This clause is triggered when unexpected reductions in projected expenditures occur due to downturns, divestitures or downsizing in the customer’s business. This clause addresses the risk of paying a hefty sum that is the difference between the minimum commitment and the actual (reduced) level of expenditures. The typical quid pro quo is an increase in rates or an increase in the term of the agreement or both.

The second major economic consideration is the competitive pricing review. These reviews are typically conducted annually or every 18 months. Involvement with consultants are often essential for the customer to have some insight into current market trends. For enterprises with stable or growing expenditures and general satisfaction with the incumbent’s services, services agreements may be extended based on the price negotiations that follow the path of competitive pricing reviews.

Updated May 2, 2018

Trends in wireline and mobile services strongly suggest a refresh to the FCC Forms 499-A/Q is warranted.  A shift to fewer revenue buckets (reporting categories and lines) consistent with the major services currently being offered to customers could reduce the time for services providers to prepare Forms 499-A, assist USAC staff in reviewing the forms, and help streamline USAC audits.  Other incremental steps are also suggested.  For purposes of brevity, this entry focuses on the Form 499-A.

Block 3: Carrier’s Carrier Revenue Information is a prime example of outdated and unnecessary revenue reporting obligations.  Several lines under Fixed Local Service could be aggregated or deleted; Line 308 (USF support revenues) should be a standalone category.  Toll services and all other wireline voice services should be consolidated on one line—Wholesale Wireline Voice Services, and all mobile voice services could be consolidated on one line (the toll distinction is irrelevant).  All wholesale private line service revenues should be reported on one line with special access service revenues expressly included or reported on a separate line as special access is the principal wholesale data service.

Consumers increasingly purchase service in bundles:

Wireless bundles: Voice, text and data (Internet access service); occasionally, voice-only

Wireline bundles: Voice, data and video: data and video; or increasingly data-only

Voice services are assessable services.  High speed Internet access and multi-channel video programming services are not.  Interconnected VoIP is rapidly displacing circuit switched wireline voice services.  Switched access service revenues are approaching inconsequential status.

The all-distance plans for wireline voice services may encompass unlimited domestic calls and an unlimited or an allotment of international minutes to select countries with the overage billed on a per minute basis; voice calling to other counties may be billed on a usage-basis.  All-distance voice plans are even more common for mobile services.  International calling card revenues remain cognizable.  Payphone services revenues are not.

The utility of separate USF reporting categories for wireline voice services, depending on how they are priced, is not apparent.  The same is true for mobile voice service revenues:  Despite a bewildering array of pricing plans, distinguishing between prepaid and postpaid voice revenues is irrelevant for determining USF assessable revenues.  The relevant USF contribution considerations for all mobile voice services are (1) apportioning revenues between assessable voice services from the revenues of bundled non-assessable services and products, and (2) determining the jurisdictional mix of voice services.

Enterprise customers often obtain a broader mix of wireline services:

Voice services (local, outbound and inbound (increasingly interconnected VoIP)) with multiple pricing options

Special access services

Private line services

Other non-Internet data services, such as MPLS-based services

High speed Internet access services

Enterprise customers, including the Federal government and many state governments, will have significant international revenues.

As with the wholesale service reporting under Block 3, all wireline retail voice services revenue reporting could be simplified.  All enterprise, small business and residential wireline voice service revenues can be reported on one line, the principal USF consideration is assignment to the correct jurisdiction (intrastate, interstate, international or foreign).  Again, mobile voice revenues should be reported separately with determining the correct jurisdiction being the principal USF contribution consideration.

Special access services should be reported separately from private line service, consistent with industry practice of offering and charging for these services separately. Private line service should be reported on one line as the distinction between “local’ and “toll” private line services is both confusing and irrelevant.  The critical issue for private line and special access services is determining the correct jurisdiction.

For physically intrastate private lines and special access services (almost all special access services have endpoints within a single state), services providers must follow the 10% de minimis rule to determine the jurisdictional nature of these revenues associated with these services.  The Bureau addressed several longstanding requests for review of USAC determinations involving the 10% de minimis rule in its 30 March 2017 Memorandum and Opinion and Order, but the decision is subject to Commission review that remains pending for over a year.

Another addressable issue raised in the 2012 USF Contribution Reform Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking is the disparity between the “safe harbors” for interstate/international mobile service (37.1%) and interstate/international VoIP service (64.9%) on the one hand, and the noticeably lower assessable percentages reported for these services (based on actual traffic or traffic studies) on the other.

The Commission or the Wireline Competition Bureau could take the pragmatic step of issuing a Public Notice to refresh the record to align the safe harbors with services providers’ reported data. This could ease reporting burdens for filers and reduce administrative burdens on USAC staff.  The safe harbors could be updated every three years to reflect shifts in usage, if any.

This entry discusses the primary objectives that enterprise customers look to achieve in negotiating telecommunications services agreements. In a recent entry, we discussed the challenge counsel for enterprise customers face in confining telecommunications services agreements to the four corners of the customer contract. In a future entry, we will look at how the underlying business deal is put together.

Invariably, the customer’s objectives include the following:

  1. Improved pricing
  2. Desired, reliable services (core transport services and non-core services)
  3. Sufficient capacity for services at customer locations
  4. Timely provisioning
  5. Meaningful service level agreements (SLAs)
  6. Customer support

These objectives are not static; rather, the intention is that these objectives be met for the duration of an agreement that typically includes an initial term for 3 years, at least a single, one-year renewal option for the customer and a transition period.

Improved Pricing. The constant underlying interest is that the customer wants to finalize the agreement “yesterday” because in almost all cases the new agreement provides improved pricing. This is often coupled with the deployment of new services and, sometimes, the transition to a successor carrier’s services. Carriers leverage this customer interest in negotiations, not offering the optimum terms; obligating the customer to request or forego requests for better terms and conditions, subject to commitments made in its response to the customer’s RFP.

Customers often request a competitive pricing review clause that calls for one or more reviews of current rates. The purpose of this clause is to “refresh” the pricing to secure “market-based” rates. Because there is no public repository of current pricing for enterprise services agreements, customers often look to telecom consultants to assist in pricing reviews

Services. There are five core services:

  • Voice services, either TDM, VoIP or both as carriers are transitioning their networks from TDM to VoIP (Call center services are often included as a subset of voice services)
  • Special access service
  • An MPLS-based data service
  • Private line service
  • High speed Internet access service

These services are provided in the United States and to varying degrees within its territories and possessions. Depending on customer requirements, voice services, private line services and MPLS-based data services connect U.S. locations to and from foreign destinations and between foreign points. Special access services are acquired in other countries, but pricing for these services are not always included in the enterprise services agreement.

Customers often request a technology upgrade clause, the purpose of which is to allow a customer to secure a more advanced service (a problematic definition) in lieu of an existing service provided under its current agreement. The advanced service may be offered by the current provider or another services provider. This clause is invoked far less than competitive pricing review clauses.

The primary non-core services include network management (router management), firewall and encryption (security), data center (collocation) and content delivery services.

Sufficient Capacity. In both fast and slow growing organizations, the demand for services is increasing; it is not a matter of whether, but by how much. Services agreements often include pricing schedules for higher capacity MPLS-based service ports, special access and private line services.

Provisioning. Whether IP-based or TDM wireline services are being provided, physical circuits must be extended from a services provider’s network (its closest point of presence (POP)) to customer locations. A local services provider—sometimes an affiliate of the customer’s carrier—provides the special access circuits connecting customer locations to its services provider’s network. Services agreements include specific procedures for ordering, testing and accepting new circuit/service installations and discontinuing services.

Provisioning is a resource-intensive process for carriers and customers. It is one of, if not the most significant, hurdle for switching from the incumbent provider to a successor carrier.

Service Level Agreements (SLAs). These are carrier commitments that a given service will meet performance metrics, such as jitter, latency, availability, and mean time to repair (MTTR).  Some SLAs apply to service between carrier endpoints; others apply to service between customer locations. SLAs are also offered for provisioning. SLAs are not always published in the carrier’s Service Guide; if not, the SLAs will be attached to the agreement. One criticism of carrier SLAs is that chronic or recurring issues are either ignored or inadequately addressed. Some customers look to negotiate “custom” SLAs that more fully reflect the adverse impact of significant service issues on the customer’s business.

Many SLAs provide credits for non-compliance that extend beyond a minimum period. As a rule, customers must report the trouble and submit a separate request for a credit.

Customer Support. Carrier processes for ordering, provisioning and testing circuits and services, and acting upon service termination requests are well-established and work most of the time. Recurring problems in either service ordering, provisioning, testing or significant SLA violations can arise and, from the customer’s perspective, cannot be addressed soon enough. In addition, there is a likelihood of hiccups as carriers transition from TDM to IP-based services, as this can entail service/circuit transitions at every customer location.

The customer is not necessarily looking for credits, but assurances that these issues are addressed as they arise and procedures implemented to minimize their recurrence. These concerns are often addressed by adding provisions to the services agreement calling for scheduled discussions pertaining to one or several of these areas between knowledgeable carrier staff and the customer.

A guiding principle for attorneys and their clients when negotiating telecommunications services agreements is the four corners defense.  No, not the end-of-game defensive strategy devised by the legendary Dean Smith for his UNC basketball team, but the straightforward strategy of keeping the terms and conditions of telecommunications services agreements within the four corners of an agreement.

Due to deregulation and migration to IP-based services, telecommunications tariffs have largely disappeared.  The process started over twenty years ago.  In the United States, local exchange TDM voice services, DS-1 and DS-3 special access services and some intrastate interexchange voice and private line services remain tariffed.  Consistent with FCC decisions dating back to the 1990s, the major wireline and wireless carriers and the MSOs have replaced tariffs for telecommunications services with a combination of end-user (consumer, small business and enterprise) agreements and online service guides.  Broadband services have always been offered through some combination of end-user agreements and online terms and conditions.

These service guides were initially required by the agency to disclose standard prices for de-tariffed services and to be made available to the public at the carriers’ principal offices or online.  The scope of the terms and conditions in online services guides has expanded substantially and, in many cases, replicates the one-sidedness of tariffs.  For enterprise customers, service guides currently offer the services providers’ service descriptions, service level agreements (SLAs) (sometimes), standard rates and charges, and policies such as the Authorized User Policy (AUP) for Internet access service.  Several services providers also post a comprehensive set of general legal terms and conditions and related definitions.

Several online service guides are almost impossible to search.  URLs in customer agreements related to potentially relevant online web pages often prove to be dead-ends.  However unfriendly the online design and integration of service guides, the overarching concern is that services providers reserve the right to modify unilaterally all aspects of their service guides including service descriptions, SLAs, pricing schedules, privacy and authorized user policies (AUPs) and, as applicable, the provider’s online general terms and conditions.  Some services providers insist on an indemnity from customers for violations of the provider’s AUP for which the provider reserves the right to modify at any time.  In some instances, the general terms and conditions in the services guide not only conflict with the terms and conditions in the executed agreement, but may impose additional or supplemental customer obligations and conditions that are not readily trumped (excuse the pun) by a standard precedence clause in the executed agreement.

Some services providers push the envelope even further, asserting that the customer’s sole remedy for services providers’ unilateral changes to the service guides that are “material and adverse” to the customer is the customer’s right to discontinue the affected service on sixty (60) days-notice.  Apart from excluding the customer’s right to damages, replacement services to multiple customer locations (sometimes a hundred or more sites) cannot be sourced, provisioned, and tested and the customer’s traffic cannot be reliably migrated to replacement services in sixty (60) days.

This brings us back to the four corners defense.  The agreement executed by the customer and the services provider should provide for fixed rates, as opposed to percentage discounts of the rates in the online services agreements; services providers invariably reserve the right to change the rack rates in their service guides with virtually no notice.  The written agreement should also exclude “shadow” general terms and conditions in the service guide as opposed to relying on a precedence clause.  The minimum response to the services providers’ provision authorizing changes to the service guide that are “material and adverse” to the customer is to secure a six-to-twelve-month transition period to migrate to replacement services, not sixty (60) days.

There is one caveat on changes in wireline services. The major telecommunications carriers are now transitioning their networks from TDM technology to IP-based services.  (The MSOs’ networks are largely IP-based.)  The FCC is accommodating the carriers’ efforts to minimize regulatory delays and burdens on ILECs in implementing this transition and in replacing copper loops with fiber or fixed wireless technologies.  The core networks of the major services providers are well along in this transition, but the transition in special access services varies considerably in terms of location and the ILEC provider.

Enterprise customers should press their wireline services providers on (i) the status and projections for completing their IP-transitions, and (ii) the transition plans for the ILECs from which the services provider will be acquiring special access services.

This is the second of two entries on dark fiber arrangements.  Dark fiber is a realistic option for high-bandwidth requirements of businesses, medical and educational institutions, and state and local governments (collectively “enterprises”).  This entry focuses on the two principal types of dark fiber arrangements: indefeasible rights of use (“IRUs”) and leases.  The IRU agreement is different from a telecommunications services agreement, but the dark fiber lease resembles a services agreement.

Under an IRU or a lease, the customer is obtaining a “facility,” not a service such as broadband or VoIP.  The term of an IRU often tracks the useful life of the fiber—at least 20 years.  A dark fiber lease extends up to 5 years, often with renewal options.  Under generally accepted accounting principles, an IRU is typically treated as an asset and a dark fiber lease is treated as an expense.  In addition to different accounting treatment, state property and transactional tax implications may be different.

Indefeasible Rights of Use

Pricing.  IRU customers (“grantees”) typically make two payments to IRU network operators:  the one-time charge for access to and use of the fibers for the duration of the IRU and an annual maintenance charge.  The latter covers “routine” maintenance that is typically scheduled during off-hours and emergency restoration of a fiber cut or other damage to the dark fiber cable or strands. The IRU fee is often paid in two installments:  50% at contract signing and 50% upon acceptance.  The “cost per fiber per mile” is the principal metric for comparing IRU pricing.

In major metro areas, dark fiber network operators (that may also offer telecommunications services) extend their network to customer locations.  This network extension is typically expressed as an agreed-upon, one-time charge that includes the splicing of customer’s fibers at agreed upon demarcation points.

Outside of major metro markets, the network operator may construct all or a portion of a fiber route for a customer (retail services provider, another dark fiber network operator or a technology company).  Network design and construction costs typically are built into the IRU fee.  A newly constructed fiber route invariably includes more fiber strands than a given customer requires.  Network operators often view the initial IRU customer as its “anchor tenant” from which it looks to recover most of the construction costs for a given fiber route.  The total fiber count for a route is a major decision for a network operator; however, other costs of dark fiber network construction (see initial entry) typically exceed significantly the incremental cost of additional fibers along a route.

Business Risks in IRUs.  Customers bear three principal risks in IRU agreements: the fiber network operator’s bankruptcy; loss of underlying rights; and fiber cuts.  The network operator’s bankruptcy poses the most significant risk.  This is due to the term of IRU agreements being 20+ years, the IRU fee typically being paid in full during the initial year, and the relative modest capitalization of dark fiber network providers (as compared to the major telecom and cable service providers).

Continue Reading Enterprise Customers and Dark Fiber: An Important Connection (Part 2)

This is the first of two entries on dark fiber arrangements for the dedicated, high-bandwidth requirements of businesses, medical and educational institutions, and state and local governments (collectively “enterprises”).

Enterprises should consider dark fiber arrangements for local and regional high capacity requirements. High-bandwidth, dedicated services (Gig-Ethernet and higher) within metropolitan areas are relatively expensive on a cost-per-mbps basis; special access service rates are not competitive and the major carriers are not aggressively competing for dedicated high capacity services in regional markets.

The second entry focuses on the two principal agreements under which enterprises may acquire dark fiber: indefeasible rights of use (“IRUs”) and leases.

Dark Fiber—In Brief

Dark fiber is a facility, comprised of glass fibers, placed in a loose tube with filler and strength members; multiple tubes may be placed within a sheath (collectively “fiber optic cable.”)  The unlit glass fibers are universally referred to as “the dark fibers.” The “fiber counts” in a fiber optic cable vary. Fiber optic cable may be installed in underground conduit (“underground”) or extended along utility poles and other aboveground infrastructure (“aerial”). Most dark fiber arrangements are between dark fiber providers and telecommunications carriers.

In dark fiber arrangements, the customer (carrier or end-user) is responsible for “lighting the fiber”—installing and maintaining the electronics, principally the transmitters to convert electrical signals into light and the receivers that convert the light back into electrical signals for processing and conveying communications. A dark fiber provider terminates its fiber optic cable in connectors or performs fiber splices between their dark fibers and its customer’s cabling or fiber at mutually agreed upon demarcation points (patch panels that may contain connectors or splice boxes or both).

Dark fiber customers typically do not physically access the dark fibers, but often require providers to perform tests to confirm the glass fibers meet end-to-end connectivity measures and that all splices connecting network fiber to the customers’ cables meet industry standards at delivery (acceptance) and that these measures and standards are maintained for the duration of the agreed upon term.

The Merits of Dark Fiber Connectivity

                  Dark Fiber is a Durable Asset. Fiber optic cables have useful lives of 20–30 years, or more.  Fiber optic technology (the cable and the electronics) is a building block of telecommunications networks throughout the world; wireless and wireline. Annual maintenance costs are modest, though fiber cuts do occur and permanent restoration is a significant undertaking that dark fiber providers price into their charges.

                  Derivable Bandwidth Will Increase Over Time. The electronics that “light” the dark fibers are part of a very large, well-funded technology ecosystem. Over the useful life of a fiber optic cable, the derivable bandwidth/capacity should increase substantially due to advances in the underlying technologies embedded in the electronics. This is why one major wireless carrier opts for dark fiber connectivity between its small cell sites and network.

                 Fiber Deployments Are Capital-Intensive. The “sunk costs” of fiber networks are substantial: right-of-way and easement acquisition, construction and other land use permitting, the installation of the fiber optic cable—underground or aerial, the fiber optic cable, and the splicing and testing of the fiber. Splicing is necessary throughout a fiber network because cable lengths are limited by amount of cable that can be rolled around spools for transport and ready deployment. Regenerators must also be installed in fiber networks as the signal must be regenerated to reach distant endpoints.

For these reasons, enterprise customers and technology companies rarely construct fiber networks extending beyond the contiguous real estate of their facilities. The major exceptions are electric utilities that have deployed fiber optic networks for years to support their operations. Utility easements and rights-of-way typically accommodate dark fiber installed for a utility’s internal telecommunications requirements.

                 Major Telecommunications Carriers Typically Do Not Offer Dark Fiber Arrangements. The three largest domestic wireline carriers: AT&T, Verizon and CenturyLink do not typically offer, if at all, dark fiber options to end user customers. It is doubtful this practice will change significantly despite Verizon’s acquisition of XO Communications and CenturyLink’s proposed acquisition of Level 3 Communications. The three largest cable operators—Comcast, Charter-Time Warner and Cox may prove more flexible.

Zayo is probably the largest, independent (as of the date of posting for this entry at least) dark fiber provider (that also offers services) in the United States. There are other metro-area fiber networks in the larger metropolitan areas. Service providers offering dark fiber arrangements exist in less densely populated areas as well, particularly along the Nation’s major North-South and East-West fiber routes.

                 Total Cost of Ownership. The full cost of dark fiber arrangements includes the cost of the electronics, the lease/use charges for the dark fibers, the dark provider’s one-time costs particularly extending facilities to a customer’s locations, and the customer’s costs in managing the electronics and monitoring network connectivity. On the other hand, the USF charges are not imposed on dark fiber transactions and sales, use and gross receipts taxes applicable to “telecommunications services” may not apply though other state taxes may apply (to be confirmed by state transaction tax counsel).