FCC to Review CLEC Access to 'Pronto'

Some competitive local exchange carriers are breathing a sigh of relief after the U.S. Federal Communications Commission agreed to review the way SBC Communications Inc. is rolling out mass-market DSL under the name Project Pronto.

Earlier this month, the FCC reopened its previously settled rules for how Bell companies must provide switch collocation and local-loop unbundling. The FCC says it's doing so because "some incumbent local exchange carriers" have decided to build fiber partway between their central offices and residential neighborhoods, and then offer DSL service over the remaining copper loop.

Those plans raise questions as to whether CLECs have room to put DSL equipment in the small neighborhood remote terminals, according to the FCC. The plans also put in question whether CLECs will be able to continue to rent the entire copper loop from the central office to the customer premises if the Bell company no longer needs it, the FCC says.

Although the agency only cited SBC's Project Pronto in a footnote, it was widely understood that the move is in reaction to dozens of pleas by CLECs to put Pronto under the microscope. The US$6 billion Project Pronto is by far the largest telephone company move to provision DSL from fiber-fed neighborhood terminals.

The FCC requested public comment on whether incumbent telcos should tell competitors if they plan to retire central office-to-premises copper loops, and who should pay for loop maintenance if only the competitors want to use it. The FCC asked whether CLECs should have the opportunity to buy the copper plant from the telco before it's decommissioned.

But the FCC only asked for comments and didn't tip its hand as to how it would rule. Tom Nolle, president of technology assessment firm CIMI Corp. in Voorhees, N.J., says CLECs may have a hard time convincing regulators to force SBC to worry about its copper plant when it's building fiber close to residential customers - a goal that regulators share.

Nolle says he was recently asked by a CLEC whether SBC should be forced to maintain copper everywhere it runs fiber. "I said that's such a stupid, asinine question I'm not even going to answer it," he says.

CLECs praised the FCC for at least considering ways to maintain copper side-by-side with fiber. Project Pronto's architecture currently only supports asymmetric DSL, and many users want higher speed options provisioned over entire copper loops from a central office to the customer premises, says Jason Oxman, senior government-affairs counsel for DSL specialist Covad Communications.

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