NY Lawmakers: FCC Miscategorized Watertown as an “Urban Area,” Not a Rural One, Preventing Westelcom From Accessing the Vital “Rural Exemption” Rate It Deserves for Serving the North Country
The Newly Acquired FCC Waiver Would Maintain Federal Support for Until 2020, Ensuring Services & Infrastructure Expansion For Telehealth Medicine Will Not Be Interrupted
Schumer, Gillibrand, and Stefanik: North Country Residents Deserve Better Access To High-Speed Broadband and This FCC Waiver for Westelcom Will Ensure They Get It
New York – (RealEstateRama) — U.S. Senators Charles E. Schumer, Kirsten Gillibrand and Representative Elise Stefanik successfully pushed the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to grant a limited waiver petition to allow Westelcom to continue to operate as a rural telecommunications provider. Westelcom, a leader in the deployment of fiber-based broadband in the North Country, met the FCC’s overall goals of expanding broadband deployment in rural areas but needed a waiver that would protect critical funding the company needs to continue to provide the infrastructure for expanded rural telehealth medicine. Westelcom provides service to six counties across the region including communities in and around Watertown, Malone, Clayton, Elizabethtown, Ticonderoga and Plattsburgh. The newly secured waiver would allow Westelcom to continue broadband services for communities across the North Country, largely used for rural telehealth medicine
“Without immediate federal action to approve this critical waiver, Westelcom would have lost the federal support it counts on each year to help provide reliable broadband services to North Country communities. That is why when I first learned about this issue, I immediately called on the FCC to review and fix this misclassification. Anyone who has visited the North Country knows that broadband access is far from a luxury. Thankfully the FCC heeded our calls and granted Westelcom the waiver they needed to make sure we are not leaving residents and businesses in the dark,” said Senator Schumer.
“I’m pleased that the FCC finally granted a waiver to give Westelcom access to the rural broadband funding they need to serve the Watertown community,” said Senator Gillibrand. “In our 21st-century economy, access to broadband internet is as important as access to roads and electricity. In Watertown, access to broadband internet is critical to supporting our local economy and jobs, and is particularly important because so many medical facilities rely on a telemedicine network to support their patients. I was proud to fight for this waiver and I will continue to do everything I can to make sure our rural communities have the resources they need to succeed.”
“Increasing access to rural broadband is a top economic priority for our district and I am pleased my office was able to assist with this waiver,” said Congresswoman Stefanik. “Westelcom is a leading provider of communications services in our area, and this waiver will allow Westelcom to continue to operate without impact on its ability to maintain and expand its broadband network. I thank the FCC for this decision and encourage anyone in our district who needs assistance with federal agencies to reach out to my offices for help.”
“Senators Schumer and Gillibrand have been instrumental in helping to ensure a full understanding and appreciation of the merits of Westelcom’s petition. We are grateful for their tireless and persistent efforts and leadership on behalf of their constituents. They have demonstrated yet again their strong commitment to the interest of New York’s rural consumers by working to ensure advanced broadband services, especially for the delivery of healthcare, in the Adirondack North Country region. Their efforts on behalf of Westelcom and our customers will help to ensure enhanced and expanded services for the benefit of the region. We also want to express our appreciation to Representative Stefanik and her staff, including the staff in her district offices, for their support and assistance. Most importantly, their efforts show how – joining together in a bipartisan effort – our lawmakers work to advance the interests of the Adirondack North Country.” said Paul Barton, President, Westelcom.
Schumer explained that in 2012, the Census Bureau for the first time included the Fort Drum military base as within the township of Watertown, New York — one of Westelcom’s major service areas. The inclusion of this military base, which is ineligible for service by Westelcom, caused Watertown to be reclassified from a “rural” to an “urbanized” area. Furthermore, the inclusion of Fort Drum did not change the rural nature of the area that Westelcom serves. In fact, Army policy prohibits Westelcom from serving the base. Despite this fact, the FCC determined that Westelcom could no longer qualify for the rural exemption rate provided for those defined as rural competitive local exchange carrier (CLEC) under the FCC rules. The impact of this bureaucratic mistake on Westelcom resulted in a nearly 96 percent flash cut in anticipated revenue. Located in the rural North Country of New York, Westelcom is the lead fiber-based provider in the area. Through their broadband network investments, Westelcom has become a critical source of communication services to 100 health care facilities, telemedicine networks, municipalities, and education facilities meaning that without this waiver Westelcom would have faced severe setbacks to its ability to continue investments in the region, further diminishing the company’s ability to compete, forcing downsizing, and adding to the ongoing risk to the company. Additionally, the company’s customers many of whom live in a rural area that desperately needs broadband – would be the ones who ultimately suffer. As a small business, the impact of this loss in revenue for Westelcom – and the resulting impacts on the customers it serves – would have been devastating, especially when compared to the much larger carriers with which Westelcom competes.
Schumer and Gillibrand have a long history of fighting for the success of this waiver. In March of 2016, Schumer joined with Gillibrand to urge then-Chairman Wheeler to grant a limited waiver petition for Westelcom. In the letter, they stated the waiver was needed and that any delay would cause adverse effects to the rural areas of the North Country. Following their push, and those of staff, an agreement was reached to grant Westelcom a transition period in which it would again qualify for rural CLEC rates. The order was drafted in December of 2016. Schumer renewed his push with Gillibrand and Stefanik in March of this year after it appeared that action at the agency had stalled. Shortly thereafter, the FCC, under the leadership of Chairman Pai, voted to approve the waiver petition. The limited waiver approved by the FCC will help Westelcom phase down its use of rural CLEC rates as they transition to the price cap rates. This transition period will also help ensure equal funding to the company vis-à-vis its competitors, who never confronted the flash rate cut that Westelcom has experienced. Westelcom is one of the primary providers of communications services to health care facilities, hospitals and clinics. This includes broadband for the Fort Drum Regional Health Planning Organization, a medical facility dedicated to Fort Drum soldiers, their families, and the surrounding civilian community. As a result of the waiver, Westelcom will be better situated to continue to advance the development of broadband infrastructure across the region.
The full text of Schumer, Gillibrand and Stefanik’s letter to the Federal Communications Commission included below.
Re: WC Docket No. 15-69
Dear Chairman Pai,
We write today to follow up on a waiver petition request on behalf of Westelcom Network, Inc., a rural carrier based in the Adirondacks that provides broadband to six counties across northern New York. We are concerned that the failure to act promptly in this matter will directly harm the rural areas served by Westelcom.
In 2012, the Census Bureau for the first time included the Fort Drum military base as within the township of Watertown, New York — one of Westelcom’s major service areas. The inclusion of this military base, which is ineligible for service by Westelcom, caused Watertown to be reclassified from a “rural” to an “urbanized” area. Of course, as anyone who has been there knows, Watertown is far from urban. Even still, because of the new classification, Westelcom no longer meets the definition of rural competitive local exchange carrier (CLEC) under the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) rules and has lost its ability to receive the “rural exemption” rate for its interstate switched access services as provided under the FCC’s 2011 Transformation Order. The impact of this bureaucratic mistake on Westelcom has resulted in a nearly 96 percent flash cut in anticipated revenue.
Approximately one year ago, we wrote to then-Chairman Wheeler urging the FCC to grant a limited waiver petition for Westelcom with respect to 47 C.F.R.§ 61.26(a)(6) of the FCC’s rules – which defines rural CLECs. Due to our efforts and those of our staff, an agreement was reached that would phase down Westelcom’s use of rural CLEC rates as they transition to the price cap rates. With this reprieve, Westelcom could then continue to provide voice and broadband services to the rural areas of the New York. The wind-down period would also ensure equal funding to the company vis-à-vis its competitors, who never confronted the flash rate cut that Westelcom has experienced. Although the compromise order was circulated in December of 2016, the FCC has not taken official action on it.
We worry that continued delays in the waiver approval could further diminish the company’s ability to compete, force downsizing, and add to the ongoing risk to the company. Its customers – our constituents in a rural area that desperately needs broadband – will be the ones who ultimately suffer. As a small business, the impact of this loss in revenue for Westelcom – and the resulting impacts on the customers it serves – will be devastating, especially when compared to the much larger carriers with which Westelcom competes. Located in the rural North Country of New York, Westelcom is the lead fiber-based provider in the area. Through their broadband network investments, Westelcom has become a critical source of communication services to 100 health care facilities, telemedicine networks, municipalities, and education facilities. The relief requested in this waiver petition is consistent with the Commission’s goal of investing in rural broadband and supporting the advancement of rural telemedicine networks.
Given the importance of this company to the deployment of broadband in the area, we ask that you swiftly review this petition and grant the waiver request. In doing so, please utilize our staff to ensure the process moves as expeditiously as possible.
United States Senator
United States Senator
House of Representives