Phone service users in Oklahoma pay monthly governmental service fund fees, and on Tuesday, elected members of the Oklahoma Corporation Commission discussed whether records related to those should be public.
(TNS) — Landline, wireless and voice over Internet Protocol phone service users in Oklahoma pay monthly state and federal universal service fund fees.
Companies’ requests for reimbursements from the Oklahoma Universal Service Fund (OUSF) are intended to help those companies keep services affordable for customers in rural Oklahoma.
Those requests involve extensive reviews by the state’s fund administrator, who examines what the money is needed for and using business records deemed confidential by the state law and commission rules governing the fund’s use.
But on Tuesday, elected members of the Oklahoma Corporation Commission discussed whether more records related to those requests should be public.
The issue was brought up for discussion by Commissioner Bob Anthony, who is critical of the state law that created the fund and believes members of the public have a right to know specific details (like the number of customers served) about companies that request the aid.
“I think we have the lid down pretty tight, that we don’t have much openness or transparency,” Anthony said.
Commissioners have dealt with the universal service fund issue twice in the past 60 days.
First, they agreed in early May with fund administrator Brandy Wreath, director of the commission’s Public Utility Division, to increase the assessment on revenues collected by companies serving Oklahoma customers from 1.2% to 6.28%.
The increase takes effect July 1 and is expected to raise about $54 million for the fund to meet anticipated reimbursement requests during the coming fiscal year. The increase also was needed to provide relief to two companies whose past requests for fund dollars were denied by the commission, but reversed by Oklahoma's Supreme Court.
Dollars from the fund also are allocated to public libraries, public schools and nonprofit hospitals throughout Oklahoma that supply their users with internet services.
The new state assessment rate, combined with the assessment collected for the Federal Universal Service Fund (administered by federal authorities), boosts total assessments on phone companies’ revenues to greater than 28% (the federal government assessment is 22%).
As for the assessments, all phone companies are required to pay those into both Oklahoma’s and the federal funds, but not all phone companies pass along those charges to customers on their bills.
Still, Anthony noted Tuesday the commission already has heard from AT&T that it will increase an average phone customer’s bill by $3.19 a month to account for the increased fund assessment.
“When that happens, people are going to want to know what’s behind this,” Anthony said. “And we are going to have to tell them, ‘Sorry, we have a bunch of rules and aren’t going to tell you.'”
He said that conflicts with enabling language for the commission contained in Oklahoma’s constitution that requires it to provide records it reviews to carry out its mission to the public.
“I think that is absurd," he said.
Commissioner Dana Murphy said Tuesday she didn't necessarily agree with Anthony’s assertion that commission rules conflict with the constitutional language and noted this year’s substantial assessment increase is in part because of an unwillingness by commissioners to increase the rate in past years to meet ongoing funding commitments.
“You have to take all of it in context,” Murphy said.
Commission Chairman Todd Hiett, meanwhile, said he agreed in part with Anthony’s arguments, but added companies also are required to provide telecommunication services to customers in their service territories.
“I have a hard time reconciling that,” Hiett said, adding that he didn’t believe the law had not been well thought out.
“We are kind of stuck with it right now.”
Mark Thomas, executive vice president of the Oklahoma Press Association, said this week he understands Anthony’s concerns.
While Thomas said the statute creating the fund appears to protect requesting companies' records, he said it also gives commissioners discretion to determine what are “confidential books, records or trade secrets.”
“There are some records that probably should be confidential, but the scales are certainly tipped in the direction of secrecy at this point in time,” Thomas said. “More transparency about records of these public utilities, particularly about those who are getting massive amounts of money such from the Universal Service Fund, is in order.”
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