AT&T Threatens More Prepaid Providers With Litigation

In the last month, AT&T sent another round of demand letters to prepaid card providers seeking access charges on prepaid card calls. AT&T sent the first round of such letters in the fall of 2008. Now, we are seeing signs that a second group of targets has received similar letters. In all of these letters, AT&T targets prepaid calling card providers who make available local telephone numbers as an alternative to 1-800 access numbers. In this scenario, the prepaid provider typically purchases local DID numbers from a CLEC, and resells this local service along with its prepaid card service. The arrangement is similar to foreign exchange” service in that it provides a distant entity with a local” presence, accessible by dialing a local number, instead of requiring customers to dial long distance. AT&T contends that the use is subject to its access tariffs, and has threatened lawsuits against prepaid providers that do not cease and desist from the practice.

AT&T’s first round of letters prompted a dust-up in the FCC’s pending intercarrier compensation docket. More recently, Cinco Telecom, which received one of AT&T’s second round of letters, asked the FCC for clarification in the face of AT&T’s threats. This request was followed by a letter from One Communications, supporting the need for clarification. On June 15, 2009 AT&T filed a response to the Cinco Telecom Corp. letter. The response submitted by AT&T denounces any need for clarification, stating that the request is unfounded because the Commission’s order is quite clear.” But AT&T ignores the pending petition for reconsideration in the docket that asks for the very relief AT&T claims is clear. And AT&T still does not explain how its tariff enables it to bill a prepaid provider for traffic when the prepaid card provider does not subscribe to any AT&T service.

The letter is significant because AT&T opens a new front against prepaid card providers -- the payment of USF. Prepaid calling card providers, like other providers of telecommunications services, must contribute directly to the federal USF based on their interstate and international telecommunications revenues. In the letter, AT&T complains that by using local dialed numbers, prepaid card providers receive an intrastate service instead of an interstate service, thereby reducing the interstate revenues available to the USF. Tellingly, AT&T copies Enforcement Bureau staff, in a clear attempt to bring additional investigations upon prepaid card providers.

Only one thing is clear in this situation: AT&T and the prepaid card providers are far apart on this issue. We have not seen any evidence that AT&T has filed suit against a prepaid card provider, but that may just be a matter of time. Unless the FCC acts, of course. Stay tuned.