Are Regulators Forward-Looking? The Market Price of Copper Versus the Regulated Price of Mandatory Access to Unbundled Local Loops in Telecommunications Networks

AbstractJerry A. Hausman, J. Gregory Sidak, and Timothy J. Tardiff

Around the world, regulators since 1996 have mandated that incumbent local exchange carriers (ILECs) offer competitors access to their network at regulated prices that reflect forward-looking cost. Regulated prices for unbundled network elements are based on total element long-run incremental cost (TELRIC), which in turn is calculated using engineering models that estimate the costs of a hypothetical carrier employing the most efficient telecommunications technology currently available and the lowest cost network configuration, given the existing location of the ILEC’s actual wire centers. These cost models require detailed estimates of the equipment and installation prices of the numerous components that are used in a telecommunications network. When there is uncertainty about how these prices will change over the period for which costs and prices are required, the resulting cost estimates used for setting the regulated prices of unbundled network elements can be very inaccurate.

Similarly, when regulators in other jurisdictions are considering such rates as benchmarks, it is necessary to make adjustments to account for such large differences in critical input prices, so that the benchmark rates will be representative of the costs that actually will be incurred by efficient carriers offering unbundled elements in those jurisdictions. The precipitous rise in the price of copper since 2003 exemplifies this need to reevaluate the inputs used by regulators in their cost model, as well as the inferences drawn from those models. These increases differ from the type of constant annual expected input price growth (or decline) situation that some cost models used outside the United States have accommodated with tilted annuity methods. Rather than a gradual anticipated price increase, copper prices escalated rapidly and are likely to remain well above the levels that regulators used to set existing loop rates.

Accounting for such evidence would change the forward-looking costs of a hypothetically efficient ILEC network that one of the most prominent U.S. state regulatory commissions – the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) – established in 2006. Meanwhile, in 2007, the Commerce Commission in New Zealand has similarly employed a benchmarking methodology for the pricing of unbundled loops that fails to account for the increased price of copper. A global trend may be emerging among telecommunications regulators to ignore the input requirements of their own forward-looking cost models. Such a trend would be consistent with a version of regulatory opportunism in which regulators are forward-looking only when doing so produces lower regulated prices over time.

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