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United States Telecom Association v. Federal Communications Commission

March 02, 2004


Before: Edwards and Randolph, Circuit Judges, and Williams, Senior Circuit Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Williams, Senior Circuit Judge

Argued January 28, 2004

Bills of costs must be filed within 14 days after entry of judgment. The court looks with disfavor upon motions to file bills of costs out of time.

On Petitions for Writ of Mandamus and for Review of an Order of the Federal Communications Commission

The Telecommunications Act of 1996, Pub. L. 104-104, 110 Stat. 56, codified at 47 U.S.C. § 151 et seq. (the "Act"), sought to foster a competitive market in telecommunications. To enable new firms to enter the field despite the advantages of the incumbent local exchange carriers ("ILECs"), the Act gave the Federal Communications Commission broad powers to require ILECs to make "network elements" available to other telecommunications carriers, id. §§ 251(c)(3),(d), most importantly the competitive local exchange carriers ("CLECs"). The most obvious candidates for such obligatory provision were the copper wire loops historically used to carry telephone service over the "last mile" into users' homes. But Congress left to the Commission the choice of elements to be "unbundled," specifying that in doing so it was to consider, at a minimum, whether ... the failure to provide access to such network elements would impair the ability of the telecommunications carrier seeking access to provide the services that it seeks to offer.

Id. § 251(d)(2) (emphasis added).

The Act became effective on February 8, 1996, a little more than eight years ago. Twice since then the courts have faulted the Commission's efforts to identify the elements to be unbundled. The Supreme Court invalidated the first effort in AT&T Corp. v. Iowa Utilities Board, 525 U.S. 366, 389-90 (1999) (" AT&T "). We invalidated much of the second effort (including separately adopted "line-sharing" rules) in United States Telecom Association v. FCC, 290 F.3d 415 (D.C. Cir. 2002) (" USTA I "). The Commission consolidated our remand in that case with its "triennial review" of the scope of obligatory unbundling and issued the Order on review here. See Report and Order and Order on Remand and Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, Review of the Section 251 Unbundling Obligations of Incumbent Local Exchange Carriers, CC Docket Nos. 01-338 et al., FCC 03- 36, 18 FCC Rcd 16978 (Aug. 21, 2003) ("Order"); Errata, Review of the Section 251 Unbundling Obligations of Incumbent Local Exchange Carriers, CC Docket Nos. 01-338 et al., FCC 03-227, 18 FCC Rcd 19020 (Sep. 17, 2003). Again, regrettably, much of the resulting work is unlawful.

After a brief summary of the legal background, we address first the ILECs' claims, then the CLECs' claims, then the ILEC and CLEC claims relating to a special area, enhanced extended links ("EELs"), and finally a couple of miscellaneous claims.

I. Legal Background

Section 251(c)(3) of the Act imposes on each ILEC the duty to provide any requesting telecommunications carrier with access to network elements on an unbundled basis at any technically feasible point on rates, terms, and conditions that are just, reasonable, and nondiscriminatory in accordance with ... the requirements of this section and section 252 of this title.

47 U.S.C. § 251(c)(3).

The statute says that the ILECs may charge a "just and reasonable rate" for these unbundled network elements ("UNEs"), see id. § 252(d)(1), and the Commission adopted as its standard "total element long-run incremental cost," or "TELRIC." Under this criterion UNE prices are to be "based on the use of the most efficient telecommunications technology currently available and the lowest cost network configuration, given the existing location of the incumbent LEC's wire centers." 47 CFR § 51.505(b)(1). In litigation over this pricing rule, which the Supreme Court upheld in Verizon Communications v. FCC, 535 U.S. 467 (2002) (" Verizon "), it appears to have been common ground that, because of ongoing technological improvement (among other things), prices so determined would fall well below the costs the ILECs had actually historically incurred in constructing the elements. Id. at 503-04, 508-09. Certainly the ardent preferences of the parties as to the scope of the Act's unbundling requirements -- the ILECs seeking a narrow reading, the CLECs seeking a broad one -- suggest such a relationship.

In its first effort to interpret the "impairment" standard of § 251(d)(2), the Commission held that lack of unbundled access to an element would "impair" a CLEC's ability to provide telecommunications service "if the quality of the service the entrant can offer, absent access to the requested element, declines and/or the cost of providing the service rises." Implementation of the Local Competition Provisions in the Telecommunications Act of 1996, First Report and Order, CC Docket No. 96-98, 11 FCC Rcd 15499, 15643 (1996) ("First Report and Order"), ¶ 285.

The Supreme Court found this reading of "impair" unreasonable in two respects. First, the Commission had irrationally refused to consider whether a CLEC could self-provision or acquire the requested element from a third party. AT&T, 525 U.S. at 389. Second, the Commission had considered any increase in cost or decrease in quality, no matter how small, sufficient to establish impairment -- a result the Court concluded could not be squared with the "ordinary and fair meaning" of the word "impair." Id. at 389-90 & n.11. The Court admonished the FCC that in assessing which cost differentials would "impair" a new entrant's competition within the meaning of the statute, it must "apply some limiting standard, rationally related to the goals of the Act." Id. at 388.

Responding to the AT&T decision, the Commission adopted a new interpretation under which a would-be entrant is "impaired" if, "taking into consideration the availability of alternative elements outside the incumbent's network, including self-provisioning by a requesting carrier or acquiring an alternative from a third-party supplier, lack of access to that element materially diminishes a requesting carrier's ability to provide the services it seeks to offer." Implementation of the Local Competition Provisions of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, Third Report and Order and Fourth Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, 15 FCC Rcd 3696, 3725 (1999) ("Third Report and Order"), ¶ 51 (emphasis added). But in USTA I we held that this new interpretation of "impairment," while an improvement, was still unreasonable in light of the Act's underlying purposes.

The fundamental problem, we held, was that the Commission did not differentiate between those cost disparities that a new entrant in any market would be likely to face and those that arise from market characteristics "linked (in some degree) to natural monopoly ... that would make genuinely competitive provision of an element's function wasteful." USTA I, 290 F.3d at 427. This distinction between different kinds of incumbent/entrant cost differentials is qualitative, not merely quantitative, which is why the Commission's addition of a requirement that the cost disparity be "material" was inadequate. Id. at 427-28.

We also made clear that the Commission's broad and analytically insubstantial concept of impairment failed to pursue the "balance" between the advantages of unbundling (in terms of fostering competition by different firms, even if they use the very same facilities) and its costs (in terms both of "spreading the disincentive to invest in innovation and creating complex issues of managing shared facilities," id. at 427), a balance that we found implicit in the AT&T Court's insistence on an unbundling standard "rationally related to the goals of the Act," id. at 428 (quoting AT&T ).

We also objected to the Commission's decision to issue, with respect to most elements, broad unbundling requirements that would apply "in every geographic market and customer class, without regard to the state of competitive impairment in any particular market." USTA I, 290 F.3d at 422. Though the Act does not necessarily require the Commission to determine "on a localized state-by-state or marketby-market basis which unbundled elements are to be made available," id. at 425 (quoting Third Report and Order, 15 FCC Rcd at 3753, ¶ 122), it does require "a more nuanced concept of impairment than is reflected in findings ... detached from any specific markets or market categories." USTA I, 290 F.3d at 426. Thus, the Commission is obligated to establish unbundling criteria that are at least aimed at tracking relevant market characteristics and capturing significant variation.

Finally, we vacated the Commission's decision to require ILECs to unbundle the high-frequency portion of their copper loops to requesting CLECs -- a practice known as "line sharing" and used by CLECs to provide broadband DSL service -- because the Commission had failed to consider adequately whether intermodal competition from cable providers tilted the balance against this form of unbundling in the broadband market.

In response to USTA I the Commission again revised its definition of impairment. This time around, the Commission determined that a CLEC would "be impaired when lack of access to an incumbent LEC network element poses a barrier or barriers to entry, including operational and economic barriers, that are likely to make entry into a market uneconomic. That is, we ask whether all potential revenues from entering a market exceed the costs of entry, taking into consideration any countervailing advantages that a new entrant may have." Order ¶ 84 (emphasis added). The Commission clarified that the impairment assessment would take intermodal competition into account. Id. ¶ ¶ 97-98.

The Commission responded to our demand for a more "nuanced" application of the impairment standard by purporting to adopt a "granular" approach that would consider "such factors as specific services, specific geographic locations, the different types and capacities of facilities, and customer and business considerations." Id. ¶ 118. Where the Commission believed that the record could not support an absolute national impairment finding but at the same time contained too little information to make "granular" determinations, it adopted a provisional nationwide rule, subject to the possibility of specific exclusions, to be created by state regulatory commissions under a purported delegation of the Commission's own authority.

The Commission also resolved to use the "at a minimum" language in § 251(d)(2) to "inform [its] consideration of unbundling in contexts where some level of impairment may exist, but unbundling appeared likely to undermine important goals of the 1996 Act." Id. ¶ 173. Specifically, in connection with two broadband elements, "fiber-to-the-home" ("FTTH") and hybrid loops (see below), it brought into the balance the risk that an unbundling order might deter investment in such facilities -- contrary, as it saw the matter, to the statutory goal of encouraging prompt deployment of "advanced telecommunications capability." Id. ¶ ¶ 172-73 (quoting § 706 of the Act). Additional issues also emerged in the rulemaking and will be addressed below.

The ILECs filed two mandamus petitions with this Court, arguing that the Order violated our decision in USTA I, and in addition filed a petition for review here. Various CLECs, state commissions, and an association of state utility consumer advocates filed petitions for review in several other circuits; these petitions were transferred to the Eighth Circuit under the random lottery procedure established in 28 U.S.C. § 2112(a)(3), and then transferred to this court by the Eighth Circuit under 28 U.S.C. § 2112(a)(5). We consolidated the petitions for review with the mandamus petitions.

II. ILEC Objections

A. Unbundling of Mass Market Switches

The Commission made a nationwide finding that CLECs are impaired without unbundled access to ILEC switches for the "mass market," consisting of residential and relatively small business users. This finding was based primarily on the costs associated with "hot cuts" (discussed below), which must be performed when a CLEC provides its own switch. Order ¶ ¶ 464-75. But the Commission, apparently concerned that a blanket nationwide impairment determination might be unlawfully overbroad in light of the record evidence of substantial market-by-market variation in hot cut costs, delegated authority to state commissions to make more "nuanced" and "granular" impairment determinations.

First, the Commission directed the state commissions to eliminate unbundling if a market contained at least three competitors in addition to the ILEC, id. ¶ ¶ 498-503, or at least two non-ILEC third parties that offered access to their own switches on a wholesale basis, id. ¶ ¶ 504-05. For purposes of this exercise the Commission gave the states virtually unlimited discretion over the definition of the relevant market. Id. ¶ ¶ 495-97. Second, where these "competitive triggers" are not met, the Commission instructed the states to consider whether, despite the many economic and operational entry barriers deemed relevant by the Commission, competitive supply of mass market switching was nevertheless feasible. Id. ¶ ¶ 494, 506-20. The Commission also instructed the states to explore specific mechanisms to ameliorate or eliminate the costs of the "hot cut" process. Id. ¶ ¶ 486-90. The Commission mentioned, for example, the possible use of "rolling" hot cuts, a process in which CLECs could use ILEC switches for some time after a customer selected the CLEC as its provider, and after an accumulation of such customer changes, the ILEC would make all the necessary hot cuts in one fell swoop. Id. ¶ ¶ 463, 521-24. If a state failed to perform the requisite analysis within nine months, the Commission would step into the position of the state commission and do the analysis itself. Id. ¶ 190. Finally, the Order provided that a party "aggrieved" by a state commission decision could seek a declaratory ruling from the Commission, though with no assurance when, or even whether, the Commission might respond. Id. ¶ 426; see also 47 CFR § 1.2.

We consider first whether the Commission's subdelegation of authority to the state commissions is lawful. We conclude that it is not. We then consider whether the Commission's nationwide impairment determination can nevertheless survive, even without the safety valve provided by subdelegation to the states. We conclude that it cannot. We therefore vacate the Commission's decision to order unbundling of mass market switches, subject to the stay discussed in Part VI.

1. Subdelegation of § 251(d)(2) impairment d eterminations to state commissions

The FCC acknowledges that § 251(d)(2) instructs "the Commission" to "determine[ ]" which network elements shall be made available to CLECs on an unbundled basis. But it claims that agencies have the presumptive power to subdelegate to state commissions, so long as the statute authorizing agency action refrains from foreclosing such a power. Given the absence of any express foreclosure, the Commission argues that its interpretation of the statute on the matter of subdelegation is entitled to deference under Chevron U.S.A. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, 467 U.S. 837 (1984). And it claims that its interpretation is reasonable given the state commissions' independent jurisdiction over the general subject matter, the magnitude of the regulatory task, and the need for close cooperation between state and federal regulators in this area.

The Commission's position is based on a fundamental misreading of the relevant case law. When a statute delegates authority to a federal officer or agency, subdelegation to a subordinate federal officer or agency is presumptively permissible absent affirmative evidence of a contrary congressional intent. See United States v. Giordano, 416 U.S. 505, 512-13 (1974); Fleming v. Mohawk Wrecking & Lumber Co., 331 U.S. 111, 121-22 (1947); Halverson v. Slater, 129 F.3d 180, 185-86 (D.C. Cir. 1997); United States v. Mango, 199 F.3d 85, 90-91 (2d Cir. 1999); Inland Empire Pub. Lands Council v. Glickman, 88 F.3d 697, 702 (9th Cir. 1996); United States v. Widdowson, 916 F.2d 587, 592 (10th Cir. 1990), vacated on other grounds, 502 U.S. 801 (1991). But the cases recognize an important distinction between subdelegation to a subordinate and subdelegation to an outside party. The presumption that subdelegations are valid absent a showing of contrary congressional intent applies only to the former. There is no such presumption covering subdelegations to outside parties. Indeed, if anything, the case law strongly suggests that subdelegations to outside parties are assumed to be improper absent an affirmative showing of congressional authorization. See Shook v. District of Columbia Fin. Responsibility & Mgmt Assistance Auth., 132 F.3d 775, 783- 84 & n.6 (D.C. Cir. 1998). See also Nat'l Ass'n of Reg. Util. Comm'rs ("NARUC") v. FCC, 737 F.2d 1095, 1143-44 & n.41 (D.C. Cir. 1984); Nat'l Park and Conservation Ass'n v. Stanton, 54 F. Supp. 2d 7, 18-20 (D.D.C. 1999). (We discuss below some cases that might, mistakenly, be thought to support a contrary view.)

This distinction is entirely sensible. When an agency delegates authority to its subordinate, responsibility -- and thus accountability -- clearly remain with the federal agency. But when an agency delegates power to outside parties, lines of accountability may blur, undermining an important democratic check on government decision-making. See NARUC, 737 F.2d at 1143 n.41; cf. Printz v. United States, 521 U.S. 898, 922-23 (1997). Also, delegation to outside entities increases the risk that these parties will not share the agency's "national vision and perspective," Stanton, 54 F. Supp. 2d at 20, and thus may pursue goals inconsistent with those of the agency and the underlying statutory scheme. In short, subdelegation to outside entities aggravates the risk of policy drift inherent in any principal-agent relationship.

The fact that the subdelegation in this case is to state commissions rather than private organizations does not alter the analysis. Although United States v. Mazurie, 419 U.S. 544 (1975), noted that "limits on the authority of Congress to delegate its legislative power ... are [ ] less stringent in cases where the entity exercising the delegated authority itself possesses independent authority over the subject matter," id. at 556-57 (emphasis added), that decision has no application here: it involved a constitutional challenge to an express congressional delegation, rather than an administrative subdelegation, and the point of the discussion was to distinguish the still somewhat suspect case of congressional delegation to purely private organizations.

Two Ninth Circuit cases have invoked Mazurie to suggest that limitations on an administrative agency's power to subdelegate might be less stringent if the delegee is a sovereign entity rather than a private group. See Assiniboine & Sioux Tribes v. Bd. of Oil and Gas, 792 F.2d 782, 795 (9th Cir. 1986); Southern Pacific Transp. Co. v. Watt, 700 F.2d 550, 556 (9th Cir. 1983). But in neither of these cases was this principle necessary to the outcome, and in neither did the court seek to justify the extension of Mazurie from its context -- the validity of an express delegation of Congress's powers.

We therefore hold that, while federal agency officials may subdelegate their decision-making authority to subordinates absent evidence of contrary congressional intent, they may not subdelegate to outside entities -- private or sovereign --absent affirmative evidence of authority to do so.

The Commission's plea for Chevron deference is unavailing. A general delegation of decision-making authority to a federal administrative agency does not, in the ordinary course of things, include the power to subdelegate that authority beyond federal subordinates. It is clear here that Congress has not delegated to the FCC the authority to subdelegate to outside parties. The statutory "silence" simply leaves that lack of authority untouched. In other words, the failure of Congress to use "Thou Shalt Not" language doesn't create a statutory ambiguity of the sort that triggers Chevron deference. See Ry. Labor Exec. Ass'n v. Nat. Mediation Bd., 29 F.3d 655, 671 (D.C. Cir. 1994) ("Were courts to presume a delegation of power absent an express withholding of such power, agencies would enjoy virtually limitless hegemony, a result plainly out of keeping with Chevron and quite likely with the Constitution as well."); see also Aid Ass'n for Lutherans v. U.S. Postal Service, 321 F.3d 1166, 1174-75 (D.C. Cir. 2003); Motion Picture Ass'n of Am. v. FCC, 309 F.3d 796, 801 (D.C. Cir. 2002); Ethyl Corp. v. EPA, 51 F.3d 1053, 1060 (D.C. Cir. 1995).

The FCC invokes a number of other cases in support of its idea of a presumptive authority to subdelegate to entities other than subordinates. These are inapposite because they do not involve subdelegation of decision-making authority. They merely recognize three specific types of legitimate outside party input into agency decision-making processes: (1) establishing a reasonable condition for granting federal approval; (2) fact gathering; and (3) advice giving. The scheme established in the Order fits none of these models.

First, a federal agency entrusted with broad discretion to permit or forbid certain activities may condition its grant of permission on the decision of another entity, such as a state, local, or tribal government, so long as there is a reasonable connection between the outside entity's decision and the federal agency's determination. Thus in United States v. Matherson, 367 F. Supp. 779, 782-83 (E.D.N.Y. 1973), aff'd 493 F.2d 1339 (2d Cir. 1974), the court upheld the decision of the Fire Island National Seashore Superintendent to condition issuance of federal seashore motor vehicle permits on the applicant's acquisition of an analogous permit from an adjacent town. And Southern Pacific, 700 F.2d at 556, citing Matherson, sustained the Secretary of Interior's conditioning of right-of-way permits across tribal lands on the tribal government's approval. In contrast to these cases, where an agency with broad permitting authority had adopted an obviously relevant local concern as an element of its decision process, the Commission here has delegated to another actor almost the entire determination of whether a specific statutory requirement -- impairment -- has been satisfied.

Second, there is some authority for the view that a federal agency may use an outside entity, such as a state agency or a private contractor, to provide the agency with factual information. While Assiniboine & Sioux Tribes found that a delegation of decision-making power to a state board would be unlawful, it left open whether reliance by the federal agency on the state board for "non-discretionary activities such as compiling, hearing, and transmitting technical information might not be permissible and desirable." 792 F.2d at 795. And National Association of Psychiatric Treatment v. Mendez, 857 F. Supp. 85, 91 (D.D.C. 1994), upheld a federal certifying agency's decision to hire a private contractor to conduct surveys of residential treatment centers and pass its results on to the agency, which retained final certification authority. While the FCC has sought to characterize the state commissions' role here as fact finding, see Order ¶ ¶ 186, 493, in fact the Order lets the states make crucial decisions regarding market definition and application of the FCC's general impairment standard to the specific circumstances of those markets, with FCC oversight neither timely nor assured. The Commission's attempted punt does not remotely resemble non-discretionary information gathering.

Our own decision in Tabor v. Joint Board for Enrollment of Actuaries, 566 F.2d 705, 708 n.5 (D.C. Cir. 1977), seems to straddle the two above variants of permissible relationships. There the federal Joint Board for Enrollment of Actuaries, exercising its broad discretion to set conditions for certifying actuaries to administer ERISA pension plans, required applicants either to pass a Board exam or to pass an exam administered by one of the recognized private national actuarial societies. 566 F.2d at 708 n.5. The court found that the process was "superintended by the Board in every respect," and that the Board had not abdicated its decision-making authority but merely created a reasonable "short-cut," contingent on the approval of certain private organizations, to satisfy one of the Board's own regulatory requirements. Id. The opinions in both Southern Pacific (from our first category) and Mendez (from our second) invoke Tabor.

Neither Tabor nor its progeny relied on any principle that subdelegations to outside parties were presumptively valid, since the result in each of these cases was supportable on the theory that no subdelegation of decision-making authority had actually taken place. To the extent that Tabor 's citation of United States v. Giordano, 416 U.S. 505, 512-13 (1974), might be thought to suggest that external delegations enjoy the same favorable presumption as internal ones, that suggestion was clearly rejected by our decision in Shook, 132 F.3d at 783-84 & n.6.

Third, a federal agency may turn to an outside entity for advice and policy recommendations, provided the agency makes the final decisions itself. Thus in Shook, 132 F.3d at 784, we disapproved the D.C. Control Board's delegation of governance powers over D.C. schools to a private Board of Trustees, but we suggested that the Control Board could use an entity of that sort "as an advisory board charged with recommending certain actions and policies to the Control Board." See also Stanton, 54 F. Supp. 2d at 19-20 & n.6; Mendez, 857 F. Supp. at 91. An agency may not, however, merely "rubber-stamp" decisions made by others under the guise of seeking their "advice," see Assiniboine & Sioux Tribes, 792 F.2d at 795, nor will vague or inadequate assertions of final reviewing authority save an unlawful subdelegation, see Stanton, 54 F. Supp. 2d at 19, 20-21.

Finally, the Commission's claim that Diamond International Corp. v. FCC, 627 F.2d 489, 492-93 (D.C. Cir. 1980), and New York Telephone Co. v. FCC, 631 F.2d 1059, 1065 (2d Cir. 1980), uphold "virtually indistinguishable" FCC subdelegations to state commissions, FCC Br. at 25, is (or should be) embarrassing. These cases involved a wholly unrelated issue: whether the FCC properly interpreted the Communications Act when it decided to permit carriers to file state tariffs for local services used in connection with interstate services. The issue was not delegation of federal authority but rather the scope of federal authority to preempt state authority.

We note that the ILEC petitioners invoke standard expressio unius reasoning to attack the delegation. They point out that other provisions of the Act -- e.g., the procedures for arbitration and approval of agreements under § 252 -- expressly specify a state role, and urge us to infer congressional preclusion of such a role under § 251(d)(2). We do not rely on this theory. Our conclusion would be unchanged if no provision of the Act mentioned any role for the state commissions, because the general conferral of regulatory authority does not empower an agency to subdelegate to outside parties. That said, the fact that other provisions of the statute carefully delineate a particular role for the state commissions, but § 251(d)(2) does not, reassures us that the our result is consistent with congressional intent.

We therefore vacate, as an unlawful subdelegation of the Commission's § 251(d)(2) responsibilities, those portions of the Order that delegate to state commissions the authority to determine whether CLECs are impaired without access to network elements, and in particular we vacate the Commission's scheme for subdelegating mass market switching determinations. (This holding also requires that we vacate the Commission's subdelegation scheme with respect to dedicated transport elements, discussed below.) We now turn to whether, without that safety valve, the FCC's national impairment findings for mass market switches can be reconciled with USTA I.

2. Impairment in provision of mass market switching

Without the (unlawful) innovation of transforming a national impairment finding into a provisional national impairment finding from which state commissions could deviate if they found no impairment under local market conditions, the FCC's Order on mass market switches must stand or fall as a nationwide determination that CLECs are impaired in the mass market without unbundled access to ILEC switches. After reviewing the record, we conclude that we must vacate the (no longer provisional) national impairment finding as inconsistent with our conclusion in USTA I that the Commission may not "loftily abstract[ ] away from all specific markets," 290 F.3d at 423, but must instead implement a "more nuanced concept of impairment," id. at 426.

The Commission's national finding of impairment for mass market switches is based on entry barriers related to the need for ILECs to perform "hot cuts" (manual connections) for CLECs if the latter choose to self-provision mass market switches. See Order ¶ ¶ 459, 464-76. A "hot cut" requires an ILEC technician to physically disconnect a customer loop from the ILEC switch (to which the loop was hard-wired) and re-wire the loop to the CLEC switch, while simultaneously reassigning the customer's phone number from the ILEC switch to the CLEC switch. Order ¶ 465 n.1409. A hot cut must be performed every time a CLEC seeks to connect a new customer. In contrast, ILEC connection of a customer generally only requires a software change (unless the customer had already switched to a CLEC switch, in which case the hot cut must be undone via the same physical re-connection). Order ¶ 465. The Commission explains that, according to evidence in the record, the need to perform hot cuts can delay a CLEC in providing service with its own switch and can cause service disruptions, and that these delays and disruptions, even if minor, can damage customer perceptions of CLEC service and impede the CLECs' ability to compete. Order ¶ ¶ 466-67.

Though the Commission in its brief alludes to "other operational and economic factors" that might create barriers to competition in mass market switching, FCC Br. at 36, the Order makes clear that the national impairment finding was based solely on hot cuts. Order ¶ ¶ 459 n.1405 & 476. (The other factors were to be considered by state commissions in the exercise of the unlawfully delegated authority.) There appears to be no suggestion that mass market switches exhibit declining average costs in the relevant markets, or even that switches entail large sunk costs. The Commission nonetheless concluded that hot cut costs are not the sort of cost disparity that a new entrant into any market might face, since they arise due to the fact that "incumbent LECs' networks were designed for use in a single carrier, noncompetitive environment," which means that CLECs face operational costs that the ILECs do not. Order ¶ 465.

Though certain sections of the Order suggest that impairment due to hot cut costs might be sufficiently widespread to support a general national impairment finding even in the absence of more "nuanced" determinations to be made by the state commissions, Order ¶ ¶ 459, 470, 473, the Commission at other points concludes that a national finding, without the possibility of market-specific exceptions authorized by state commissions, would be inconsistent with USTA I. See Order ¶ ¶ 186-88, 196, 425, 485, 493. At the very least, these latter passages demonstrate that the Commission's own conclusions do not clearly support a non-provisional national impairment finding for mass market switches, and thus require us to vacate and remand.

Moreover, we doubt that the record supports a national impairment finding for mass market switches. In another context the Commission has already addressed a kindred issue. Under § 271 of the Act, the subset of ILECs that used to be operating companies of AT&T before its break-up (the Bell Operating Companies, or "BOCs") can enter the interLATA market (the market for calls between different local access and transport areas) only by showing, among other things, that they are providing CLECs adequate unbundled access to various network elements, including local loops. See Act § 271(c)(2)(B)(iv). The Commission acknowledges that in that context it has in fact found that the BOCs were doing so "in the quantities that competitors demand and at an acceptable level of quality," see, e.g., Memorandum Opinion and Order, Application by SBC Communications, Inc., et al., Pursuant to Section 271 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 To Provide In-Region, InterLATA Services in Texas, 15 FCC Rcd 18354, 18480 (2000), ¶ 247; Memorandum Opinion and Order, Application of Ameritech Michigan Pursuant to Section 271 of the Communications Act of 1934, as Amended, To Provide In-Region, InterLATA Services in Michigan, 12 FCC Rcd 20543, 20601-02 (1997), ¶ 110. In none of those proceedings did the Commission find the hot cut process inadequate to meet this standard. See Separate Statement of Chairman Michael K. Powell Approving in Part and Dissenting in Part, FCC 03-36 ("Powell Statement") at 4. But it distinguished those cases on the ground of uncertainty about whether ILECs would be able to handle the increases in hot cut demand that would flow from denying CLECs access to switches as UNEs. Order ¶ 469 & n.1435. The ILECs contend that in fact hot cut processes are "scalable," so that existing sufficiency can be projected onto larger-scale usage. See ILEC Br. at 16 (citing Powell Statement at 5; Memorandum Opinion and Order, Application by Bell Atlantic New York for Authorization Under Section 271 of the Communications Act to Provide In-Region, InterLATA Service in the State of New York, 15 FCC Rcd 3953, 4114 (1999), ¶ 308).

The record on the matter is mixed, perhaps sufficiently so that the Commission's "provisional" assumption to the contrary might be sustainable as an absolute finding, given the deference we would owe the Commission's predictive judgment and the inevitability of some over- and underinclusiveness in the Commission's unbundling rules. But the Commission implicitly conceded that hot cut difficulties could not support an undifferentiated nationwide impairment finding. Order ¶ ¶ 425, 485, 493. Moreover, we made clear in USTA I that the Commission cannot proceed by very broad national categories where there is evidence that markets vary decisively (by reference to its impairment criteria), at least not without exploring the possibility of more nuanced alternatives and reasonably rejecting them. 290 F.3d at 425-26. One can imagine the Commission successfully identifying criteria based, for example, on an ILEC's track record for speed and volume in a market, integrated with some projection of the demand increase that would result from withholding of switches as UNEs. The Commission, however, has made no visible effort to explore such possibilities.

Additionally, the ILEC petitioners suggested several more narrowly-tailored alternatives to a blanket requirement that mass market switches be made available as UNEs. Considering such narrower alternatives is essential in light of our admonition in USTA I that the Commission must balance the costs and benefits of unbundling. 290 F.3d at 429. "Rolling" hot cuts are one such proffered alternative. Under that concept the Commission could require unbundled access to ILEC switching on new lines for 90 days (or some other period of time) in order to give the ILEC time to perform the accumulated backlog of hot cuts simultaneously, Order ¶ ¶ 463, 521-24, or the Commission could require the ILEC to provide unbundled access to its switch only until it was able to perform the hot cut. The FCC's only real answer to these proposed alternatives, at least the only answer that appears in the Order or the FCC's brief, is that the Commission directed the state commissions to consider these alternatives and to implement them if they would remedy impairment. See FCC Br. at 38-39; Order ¶ ¶ 463, 521-24. But since we have held such subdelegation unlawful, that response is unavailable.

Moreover, even if the FCC had adopted some lawful mechanism for making exemptions from its general national rule, it could not necessarily rely on the existence of that mechanism as the sole justification for not adopting a more narrowly tailored rule. While a rational rule that would otherwise be impermissibly broad can be saved by "safety valve" waiver or exception procedures, the mere existence of a safety valve does not cure an irrational rule. See ICORE, Inc. v. FCC, 985 F.2d 1075, 1080 (D.C. Cir. 1993); Alltel Corp. v. FCC, 838 F.2d 551, 561-62 (D.C. Cir. 1988). And a rule is irrational in this context if a party has presented to the agency a narrower alternative that has all the same advantages and fewer disadvantages, and the agency has not articulated any reasonable explanation for rejecting the proposed alternative.

We therefore vacate the FCC's determination that ILECs must make mass market switches available to CLECs as UNEs, subject to the stay discussed in Part VI below, and remand to the Commission for a re-examination of the issue.

3. The Commission's definition of "impairment"

The Commission claims that no party in this litigation has challenged the concept embodied in its new interpretation of "impairment." All the disputes, it says, are about the proper implementation of that standard. FCC Br. at 18. Not exactly. For example, although the ILEC petitioners' objections to the Commission's mass market switching provisions are all within the framework of the Commission's subdelegation ...

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