Fixing rural call completion problem won’t be easy
FCC workshop brings severity of problems to light. But it's unclear if the commission is prepared to take action.
The FCC’s rural call completion workshop on Tuesday did a good job of outlining the rural call completion problem, but offered few hints about what steps the commission might be thinking of taking to address the problem.
As Connected Planet has previously reported, reports of calls not going through to rural areas are on the rise, through no fault of the rural carriers serving those areas (CP: Rural carrier groups ask FCC to intervene in call blocking disputes). It appears the situation has occurred because some other carriers are trying to avoid paying the relatively high terminating access charges that are used in rural areas to help cover the cost of providing service to those areas. But pinning the blame has been difficult because long distance carriers often terminate traffic through least cost routers which, in turn, may hand calls off to other least cost routers.
Outlining the problem
The FCC workshop helped illuminate both the extent and the impact of the rural call completion problem.
First, some examples from the workshop illustrating the extent of the problem:
· A quarter of test calls placed by the National Exchange Carriers Association to rural areas experienced call completion problems
· A survey of small rural telcos found that 80% had experienced problems with calls not completing to their customers.
· ANPI/ Zone Telecom, a wholesaler that offers voice and data services to rural telcos, reported that trouble tickets involving rural carrier customers nationwide have increased 40% since last year as a result of call completion problems
More important was what the workshop revealed about the impact when calls don’t go through to rural areas:
· The CEO of a rural Missouri hospital reported that patient have been unable to reach the clinic to schedule appointments
· Hotels and charter fishing businesses in an Oregon resort town saw a 60% drop in business from the previous season, in large part because customers could not reach them
· Twenty-five Minnesota businesses have complained to the state attorney general or the FCC that their companies have been jeopardized by customers’ inability to reach them
· Although they are not at fault, some small rural telcos have been sued by customers over callers’ inability to reach them
· In South Dakota, hundreds of calls failed to reach parents to advise them of school closings using an automatic notification platform based outside the state that worked fine in prior years
Several of the large national carriers—including AT&T, Sprint and Verizon--participated in the workshop and all of them said they have taken steps to address the rural call completion issue such as creating special toll-free numbers and email addresses that small telcos can use to report problems.
Representatives of AT&T also noted that they have put requirements into their contracts with least cost routers that are aimed at forcing the routers to complete calls. For example, ATT’s least cost routers are not allowed to represent POTS traffic as VOIP, alter calling party number, represent traffic as anything other than domestic long-distance or use more than one additional least cost router.
But as Jill Canfield, senior regulatory counsel for the NTCA, pointed out, industry self-regulation only goes so far. Toll-free hotlines, for example, are only helpful if the customer complains. “The burden shouldn’t be on the consumer to complain,” she said.
And although the large established carriers may be willing to enter AT&T-style contracts with least cost routers, not all service providers may be willing to follow that company’s lead. MagicJack’s web site, for example, has indicated that the low-cost carrier deliberately does not put calls through to certain high-cost areas (CP: Attention MagicJack: FCC to take action on rural call completion problems).
Steve Pastorkovich, director of business development and senior policy analystfor OPASTCO, said he believes a combination of solutions is required to address the problem. In addition to industry best practices such as those outlined by the large carriers, he suggested mandatory monitoring and reporting, with the FCC having the power to take enforcement action against offenders.
FCC officials, however, gave no indication whether they might be considering taking on that responsibility.
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© 2013 Penton Media Inc.
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