FCC delving further into rural call completion problems

Telecom associations are applauding the Federal Communications Commission for finally taking steps to tackle the call failure issue in rural areas.

Earlier this month, the FCC filed a notice of proposed rulemaking seeking comment on regulations needed to address the problem of dropped or poor quality long-distance calls, a move that the National Telecommunications Cooperative Association (NCTA) has been demanding for some time.

Critics say least-call routing is to blame for the failures. Completing calls in rural areas tends to be pricier, to help cover the increased cost of service. Some long-distance carriers contract third-party companies, which attempt to use the cheapest route to connect the call, even if it means the quality will be poor or the call may fail. Others may spit out a busy signal or drop the call altogether once it is realized the call won’t be profitable to connect due to the extra cost.

Along with lost business revenue and aggravation to customers, the practice can cause serious safety issues. Instances where hospitals have been unable to reach rural patients and problems with failed communication between first responders and medical professionals have been reported.

The FCC agrees, noting completion rates are frequently poor, even when the performance of the intermediate provider appears acceptable on paper.

“The problems manifest themselves in lengthy periods of dead air on the calling party’s end after dialing a number, audible ringing tones on the calling party’s end when the called party’s telephone never rings at all, false busy signals, inaccurate intercept messages, and the inability of one or both parties to hear the other when the call does go through,” states the FCC notice. “This causes rural businesses to lose customers, cuts families off from their relatives in rural areas, and creates potential for dangerous delays in public safety communications in rural areas.”

It cites several studies undertaken by rural telco associations which found the problem doesn’t appear to be resolving itself. A whopping 80 per cent of respondents to one survey reported call completion issues, and reports of problems receiving calls increased over 2,000 per cent from April 2010 to May 2011.

A second study, completed in May 2012, found that despite small improvements, the call-failure rate in rural areas was 13 times higher than urban locations. Five months later, a third study found call completion failure rates were still high.

But it’s not a new issue to the FCC, which has been looking into the matter for several years. Many groups have been critical of how slow the Commission has been to address the issue – in a letter sent in December, the NCTA pressed for more action.

“If anything, any resolution of such concerns over the past few years has been at best temporary in nature – more of a reprieve than a resolution, in reality – as carriers apparently change routing tables for fear of regulatory sanction only to then reprogram them days or weeks later and thereby recreate the problem once again,” stated the letter.

“This tactic might be likened to ‘regulatory whack-a-mole’ and in legal terms, it might be considered a classic case of ‘capable of repetition yet evading review.’ It is abundantly clear that a more permanent, comprehensive, and definitive solution is need in short order.”

In a statement released a few weeks ago, the National Exchange Carrier Association (NECA) applauded the FCC for finally taking the next step in the process.

“NECA is pleased the FCC has made this preliminary step towards gathering data necessary to resolve rural call completion issues,” said Jeff Dupree, NECA vice president of government relations. “We, along with our rural allies, have worked hard to bring call completion issues to light and applaud the Commission’s proposal to further these efforts by mandating a national data collection and requiring data retention by carriers.”

The notice of proposed rulemaking suggests new record-keeping requirements be put in place, ensuring the FCC can act when high failure rates or poor call quality strike rural areas. FCC chair Julius Genachowski admits the new regulations have the potential to place heavy burdens on carriers, but said the need to get a handle on the issue takes precedence.

“We’ve seen some evidence of improvement, but not nearly enough,” Genachowski said in a statement. “And although, as we’ve come to learn, the causes of rural call failures can be complex and the responsible parties difficult to trace, one thing is clear: This has got to stop. The FCC has a fundamental responsibility to ensure phone calls complete reliably.”