FCC to Tackle Rural Call Completion

The FCC announced it is taking another shot at solving the rural call completion problem. Those not living in rural America might be unaware of this issue, but for a number of years calls placed to rural locations have been dropped, making it difficult at times to contact someone in a rural area.

We know why it’s happening. There are long-distance providers who don’t want to pay the higher access charges associated with calling high-cost rural areas. Since 1984 there has been a system where long-distance companies pay to get ‘access’ to local networks in order to complete calls. Originally these access rates were high, over 5 cents per minute even for the large Bell telephone companies. But over the years the access rates have been drastically trimmed through FCC actions.

Today it costs long distance companies a fraction of a penny to call urban locations or rural communities that have telephone service from AT&T, Verizon or CenturyLink. But the access rates are still more expensive for calls placed to areas served by smaller telephone companies, with the rates as much as a penny a minute. But even those rates are being trimmed.

That may not sound like a lot. But some wholesale long distance carriers charge a flat rate per minute to other retail telephone providers, like cellular or cable companies, to complete their calls. These carriers don’t want to pay the higher access fees and many of them simply abandon calls made to places with the higher access charge rates. Not all long-distance carriers do this, but there definitely some bad actors in the industry.

The last time the FCC addressed this they tried to just ban the practice of abandoning calls, and they hoped that would stop the practice. But it didn’t. They are now trying a new approach in WC Docket 13-39. They are now proposing to make the companies that sell long distance to customers responsible for making sure that calls go through.

Here’s how this might work in practice. If you buy telephone service from a cable company there is a high likelihood that the company is not a long-distance provider, but rather buys long distance from somebody else – let’s call them Company A. It’s also likely that Company A uses a number of other long-distance carriers to complete calls. Most wholesale long distance providers like Company A use what they call least-cost routing, meaning they pick a different underlying long-distance carrier to reach each location in the country according to cost at the time the call is placed.

It’s the least-cost routing that is causing the problem. If a carrier selling to Company A offers the same price per minute everywhere in the country they are going to likely be the lowest-cost provider to rural places. Other carriers will charge more to route to a rural place because of the higher access charge there. Because of the automated nature of least-cost routing,  Company A, wittingly or not will choose some sub-carriers who are dropping calls.

The FCC wants to make Company A responsible for the quality of its calling. In the docket the FCC calls Company A the ‘entity that selects the initial long-distance route’. The FCC wants these companies to keep detailed records of how and to whom calls are routed. I assume the FCC will start then asking to trace specific calls that were dropped to start identifying the bad actors in the industry. This docket also likely will allow the FCC to levy fines against any carriers involved in the practice, including Company A, the first router of calls.

Let’s hope this new approach works. The practice of purposefully dropping calls goes against the century-long industry goal of having universal voice connectivity. It’s bad for business, bad for rural residents and bad for the country as a whole when calls can’t be made to rural communities. There are examples of people making multiple attempts to call a rural place and unable to get through, and this practice needs to end. For this to be effective the FCC will have to play detective and sift through the call records to identify carriers who drop calls, and hopefully they will do just that.

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