Rural Telcos Demand FCC Action on Failed Calls

The National Telecommunications Cooperative Association (NTCA) is demanding action from the Federal Communications Commission on failed calls in rural areas.

The association recently sent a letter to the FCC calling for the completion of a two-year investigation into the matter, requesting the commission take action to enforce its own ruling and hold companies that fail to route and complete calls accountable for their actions.

“The time to put this epidemic of call failures to rest once and for all is past due,” wrote Michael Romano, NTCA senior vice president of policy, in the letter.

Over the last few weeks, the NTCA reports receiving an increased number of complaints from its members – rural telecom companies – that calls to customers were failing to complete. This not only frustrates those attempting to make personal calls, but also can have a devastating effect on businesses during the busy Christmas retail season, the NTCA noted.

At the heart of the connectivity problems is least-cost routing. 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.

In one case, a search and rescue worker in Colorado was unable to contact a dog team to locate a person trapped in an avalanche. School alerts regarding an emergency weather situation in South Dakota were never delivered to parents. Washington State Police have even experienced difficulty contacting its own officers.

Earlier this year, an extensive call completion test was undertaken by a group of industry associations, including the NTCA. Over 7,400 calls were made using VoIP, landlines and wireless connections. The result? Calls to rural areas experienced failure rates 13 times higher than those to urban areas. Up to one-third of rural lines failed on 20 per cent of incoming calls.

Despite the evidence, there's been little action on the issue to date says the NTCA, which included a chronology of events spanning two years in its recent letter to illustrate the FCC has been made more than aware of the issues.

“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 thus 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.”

The NTCA went on to express its frustration over the lack of enforcement of the FCC's own Declaratory Ruling, made in February 2012. It pointed out similar rulings – including those involving AT&T, Google and Apple – were acted on within weeks.

According to the FCC website, carriers that fail to complete calls and offer poor call quality may be in violation of the Communications Act's prohibition on “unjust and unreasonable” practices.

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