How Much Is Too Much? Can a Ministerial Error Override the One-Year Downward Revision Deadline?

A well intentioned federal universal service contributor files a revised FCC Form 499-A just prior to, or on, the March 31st one-year revision deadline thinking that he/she will receive a downward adjustment of the form.  For some reason, the filer accidentally reports non-assessable revenue on an assessable line of the form.  Approximately four months later, the filer receives a true-up invoice from the Universal Service Administrative Company (“USAC”), but instead of finding a federal universal service fund credit on the invoice the filer finds a substantial additional federal universal service assessment.  The filer now may have good reason consider an FCC waiver request.  The FCC’s recently issued ATS Financial Hardship Order, available at https://prodnet.www.neca.org/publicationsdocs/wwpdf/da161089.pdf, specifies the circumstances under which such an error constitutes sufficient financial hardship such that the filer may seek a waiver of the one-year downward revision deadline.

With very limited exceptions, federal universal service contributors are required to file FCC Forms 499-A by April 1 of each year reporting their prior calendar year’s revenues.  A filer that discovers an error in the revenue reported on its FCC Form 499-A is required to correct that error by filing a revised form.  The FCC requires revisions that result in additional federal universal service contributions upon discovery of a revenue reporting error.  Ever since the Commission issued its One-Year Downward Revision Deadline Order, available at http://www.universalservice.org/_res/documents/about/pdf/fcc-orders/2004-fcc-orders/DA-04-3669.pdf, however, revisions that result in a reduction in federal universal service contributions must be filed by March 31 of the year after the original filing due date or the filer risks foregoing return of the amounts it overpaid to the federal universal service fund.

Such was the case for American Teleconferencing Services, Ltd. (“ATS”), a filer who determined upon receiving its true-up invoice from USAC, that it had inadvertently reported non-assessable foreign-to-foreign revenue on an assessable line of its revised 2012 FCC Form 499-A.  As a result, instead of receiving its anticipated refund, ATS was invoiced for additional federal universal service contributions.  Although ATS attempted to file a second revised 2012 FCC Form 499-A, USAC rejected the second revision as untimely because it was filed outside of the one-year downward revision deadline.  The FCC Wireline Competition Bureau sided with USAC, denying ATS’s waiver request of the one-year downward revision deadline.

Enter the ATS Financial Hardship Order.  Upon review, the full Commission overturned the FCC Wireline Competition’s Bureau’s decision, granted ATS’s waiver petition, and directed USAC to process ATS’s second revised 2012 FCC Form 499-A as if timely filed.  In so doing, the Commission enumerated a number of conditions that it found sufficiently compelling to demonstrate good cause for granting a waiver of the one-year downward revision deadline.  Specifically, the Commission noted that:

  1. ATS was able to demonstrate that it had to treat the additional federal universal service assessments as material and necessitating shareholder disclosure under SEC standards;
  2. ATS was able to provide information demonstrating the estimated per-share earnings impact of its error;
  3. ATS’s error involved non-assessable revenue that would not have resulted in any additional federal universal service contributions had ATS filed its second revised form correctly and, therefore, caused minimal harm to the federal universal service fund;
  4. ATS was not a filer that failed to submit its FCC Form 499-A at all, nor was it a filer that alleged it misunderstood the filing procedures, or was negligent in filing its FCC Form 499-A.  Rather, ATS timely submitted its initial 2012 FCC Form 499-A and first revision based on the best information available at the time;
  5. The time commitment involved with ATS developing the ability to more precisely identify its foreign-to-foreign revenues and improve its reporting practices resulted in ATS filing its first revised FCC Form 499-A only a few days before the FCC Form 499-A one-year downward revision deadline; and
  6. ATS’s inadvertent clerical mistake was made on a timely filed FCC Form 499-A revision and was the result of reporting otherwise non-assessable revenue on an assessable line of the form.

While the Commission limited its holding in the ATS Financial Hardship Order to ATS’s particular circumstances, a filer who finds itself in a similar predicament should consider filing a request for waiver with the FCC.  Moreover, even where a filer does not meet the circumstances set forth in the order, if it notices an error in its FCC Form 499-A reporting after the one-year downward revision deadline that would result in reduced contributions, a conversation with USAC and review of FCC precedent may be in order.  For filers who face a contribution obligation as a result of an FCC Form 499-A error that amounts to a significant portion of their annual revenue or multiple times their actual obligations, USAC, with the oversight of the FCC, has put in place an administrative procedure that may apply depending on the dollar amount of the additional federal universal service contributions at issue.  Moreover, precedent demonstrates that the FCC has granted waivers of the one-year downward revision deadline to at least some filers who have made ministerial or clerical errors that have resulted in a significant increase in federal universal service contributions.

Disclaimer

This blog post is a publication of Bradley Hagen & Gullikson, LLC.  The purpose of this blog post is to inform our clients, colleagues, and friends of recent federal universal service legal developments.  This blog post is not intended to be, nor should it be used as, a substitute for specific legal advice as Bradley Hagen & Gullikson, LLC only provides legal counsel to its clients, and only in response to specific factual inquiries regarding particular situations.

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