Regulatory Alert: Rural Call Completion

Seal of the United States Federal Communicatio...

Seal of the United States Federal Communications Commission. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The FCC took action on October 28 to address a growing problem of calls that are not completed to rural areas. The Commission adopted new rules that are aimed to remedy a growing problem of calls that are not completed.

The FCC noted that the situation was “serious and unacceptable” and that every call that is placed should be terminated. The FCC note that “Whatever the reason, the consequences of failed calls can be life-threatening, costly, and frustrating. Rural businesses have reported losing customers who couldn’t call in orders, while families attempting to contact elderly relatives have worried when they hear a ring – but no one picks up on the other end because the call never actually went through.”

The FCC surmises several reasons for uncompleted calls:

  • They think that some providers are not routing to rural areas to avoid higher than average terminating access charge rates. The access rates in rural areas are still much higher than rates for major metropolitan areas, which reflects the higher cost of doing business in rural areas. Terminating rates can still be as much as two cents per minutes higher. However, the FCC has always said that it insists that every call must go through, and if they ever got evidence of a specific carrier boycotting an area due to high rates I suspect they would levy high fines.
  • They think that much of the problem is due to the fact that calls can be routed through multiple carriers. They note that the best industry practice is to limit to two the number of intermediate carriers involved in routing a call. I know there are a lot of new carriers in the market today, such as multiple new companies marketing voice services like IP Centrex who search for the lowest cost way to route calls. One has to suspect that the long distance carriers beneath some of these carriers have gotten very creative in terms of routing calls to save costs.
  • Some carriers have been sending a ring tone to the calling party before the call has actually been completed. One has to suspect that this is done so that the caller can’t hear all of the intermediate switching going on to get the call completed. The problem with doing this is that the caller will hang up after a few unanswered rings, often before the call has even been completed.

The FCC took several concrete steps to fix the problem. These new rules will be effective in a few weeks once the final rules are published. The new rules are:

  • False audible ringing is prohibited, meaning that a telephone provider cannot send a ringtone to the caller until the call has actually been answered.
  • Carriers with over 100,000 voice lines, and who are the carrier that determines how calls are routed must collect and retain calling data for a six month period.
  • Carriers who can certify that they follow best industry practices, such as not routing calls through more than two intermediate carriers, will be able to get a waiver for some or all of the storage and reporting requirements.
  • Carriers who can demonstrate that they have all of the mechanisms in place to complete rural calls can also ask for a waiver from the storage and reporting requirements.

Europe Has the Right Goals

The European Commission issued a press release yesterday that announced that 100% of the households in Europe now have access to broadband.

Most households have some sort of wired access with 96.1% of homes having access to copper, coax or fiber. Wireless coverage with 2G, 3G or 4G covers 99.4% of houses. And all remote homes are now covered by satellite broadband using a network of 148 satellites.

Before anybody argues that we have the same thing here in the US due to satellite, we need to distinguish between the satellite broadband that is available here and what is available in Europe. Basic satellite service in Europe is only $13 per month. I can’t find the speed for but assume this is a few Mbps download speeds. But customers can get 20 Mbps download from satellite for $33 per month.

In the US there are two major satellite providers. ViaSat Exede offers a 12 Mbps download service. The amount you pay is based upon the usage cap you choose. For $50 per month you can get 10 GB per month, for $80 you can buy 15 GB and for $130 you can get 25 GB. Hughesnet offers 5 Mbps down and 1 Mbps up for $50 per month, 10 Mbps down and 1 Mbps up for $60, 10 Mbps down and 2 Mbps up for $80 and 15 Mbps down and 2 Mbps up for $130. The four Hughesnet products also have data caps of 10 GB, 20 GB, 30 GB and 40 GB respectively.

Speed isn’t everything and the caps matter. Just to put those data caps into perspective, a 2-hour HD movie will range between 3 and 4.5 GB. So homes in the US using satellite are very limited in using their satellite connection to view video.

The US satellite companies are also limited since they only have a few satellites capable of delivering the above products. If those satellites get oversubscribed then actual speeds will be slower than advertised in the same way that a cable modem system can bog down in the evening hours. But with more satellites in Europe the speeds can be faster and there is a lot less chance of congestion and oversubscription.

The Europeans also have goals to speed up Internet access. They have the goal by 2020 of getting all citizens the ability to have 30 Mbps download speeds, with at least half of them having access to 100 Mbps.

This is pretty easy to contrast with the US where the current national definition for terrestrial  broadband is 4 Mbps down and 1 Mbps up. Both stimulus grants and borrowing from the RUS have recently financed networks that are able to deliver those speeds.

If we don’t set high goals in the US, and if we are content to finance rural broadband that delivers slow speeds when it is brand new, we are relegating the rural areas to having slow broadband for decades to come.

In the US we are more given to grand announcements that don’t come with any funding or mandates. For example, earlier this year the FCC set a goal of having a Gigabit City in every state of the country. That means a network that is capable of delivering a gigabit of download speeds to customers.

Don’t get me wrong, I would love to live in one of those few places where you can get a gigabit. But this is a completely voluntary system, and a Gigabit City might only be actually selling that much speed to a few customers to be given the designation. Rather than trying to get one City in each state to provide a few customer with a gigabit download speed we ought to instead be concentrating on making our basic broadband a lot faster than 4 Mbps. When that lowly speed is our national goal, we are telling rural America to not expect anything better.

The Europeans have it right and we have it wrong. And a decade from now when we are far behind them in terms of productivity we can look back on the crappy national goals we set for ourselves.

Another Idea for Rural Broadband

An rural area west of Route 41 and Lowell, Ind...

An rural area west of Route 41 and Lowell, Indiana. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Fiber-to-the-Home Council (FTTHC) asked the FCC to give consideration for a new way to fund rural broadband. Their proposal asks the FCC to make available unused portions of the Universal Service Fund to supply grants to build gigabit fiber networks. They would have this done under a competitive process, meaning that the networks that could do this the most efficiently would be at the top of the grant list.

It’s an intriguing idea. I have often talked in this blog about the state of broadband in rural America. Consider some of the following rural broadband issues:

  • About a year and a half ago the FCC estimated that there was still about 14 million rural households with no access to any kind of terrestrial broadband. There have been some projects in the last year that now serve some of these customers, but the number is still probably not much smaller.
  • In the FCC’s last three Broadband Progress Reports the agency said that incumbent carriers were not upgrading to the FCC’s minimum definition of broadband fast enough. Those speeds are currently 4 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload. And the FCC has promised that every few years they will revisit that definition of broadband, and supposedly will increase it over time.
  • There is often a big difference between advertised speeds and actual speeds. Getting 4 Mbps download is barely enough bandwidth for a household to participate in today’s web, and if the actual speeds delivered are less than this then it’s hard to call the service broadband by today’s reality.
  • The availability of rural broadband depends upon where a customer lives. If they live in a large enough rural town then they might have broadband available from either the telco or the cable company, and even sometimes from both. But cable networks rarely extend much past the borders of these small towns and DSL rarely carriers more than a mile or two from the center of town. So there are many rural counties that have some broadband in the towns but practically none outside the towns.
  • Most urban areas now have cable modem service that is advertised at between 10 Mbps and 20 Mbps. And urban broadband keeps improving. Rural areas are permanently falling behind and the gap is going to widen over time. This has huge implications for the long-term economic viability of rural America.

Of course, there are some organizations that have opposed this idea, mostly those organizations funded by incumbent telcos and cable companies. This always has me scratching my head. For the most part the large telcos and cable companies have ignored rural America for one or even two decades. They have not poured new capital into these areas to bring them up to the needed speeds and they spend as little as possible to keep these areas operating. I contrast this to the small independent telcos who generally do an excellent job in rural America, but there are still large swaths of rural area that have been largely ignored. And even while ignoring these areas the large telcos want to protect their revenue streams.

I guess that is good business, but it is poor policy. In my mind broadband is basic infrastructure and homes and businesses need adequate broadband in order to take part in modern society. And this is just about to become much more important as we move into the Internet of things. It’s one thing to not provide enough broadband to a rural home so that they can watch streaming videos. But when we are having our healthcare monitored by the Internet then broadband becomes an essential component of every home’s life.

The rural broadband crisis is already here and the broadband gap is already unacceptable. The FTTHC’s proposal is creative and doesn’t ask for any additional government funds. They are asking that the FCC make an investment today in rural areas as a down-payment to help those areas stay viable as places for people to live in the future. I would assume that any awards of funds are also going to expect the rural communities to chip in a lot of matching funds, and so all that is being asked is to help these communities help themselves. I think it is an idea worthy of FCC consideration.