FCC Backs New Data Collection Rules To Help Enforce Rural Call Completion

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By Bryce Baschuk  

Oct. 28 --The Federal Communications Commission unanimously approved new rules to help enforce violations of its call-completion regulations at the commission's Oct. 28 open meeting.

The rules, which acting FCC Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn proposed in September requires telecommunications carriers to retain information about how successfully their customers' calls are reaching their destinations, in particular when that destination is in a rural area, said Julie Veach, the chief of the FCC's wireline competition bureau.

Clyburn, meanwhile, said the order was a “welcome step forward in ensuring this problem is addressed” and urged enforcement officials to remain vigilant to ensure that rural calls are completed.

U.S. residents in rural areas have long complained about problems receiving long-distance or wireless calls to their landline telephones. Rural telephone groups claim that the issue stems from the manner in which telephone providers route their calls and that many of the routing and termination issues are caused by intermediate providers. The cost of long-distance service in rural areas is generally higher than in urban areas and long-distance call providers often use intermediate providers to deliver calls at lower costs.

Providers are now required to report call-completion information in an aggregate fashion so that the FCC and state regulators can see whether there are performance problems with individual carriers and understand the causes and specific details of those problems. The order also prohibits carriers from playing a ringing sound to callers when the call is not actually going through.

False Tone Prohibition

Clyburn said she was particularly pleased with the prohibition on false ring tones. “Silence on the line will make it clear to consumers when there is a call completion issue, and this will help providers more quickly identify problems,” she said.

Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said the new reporting requirements will help ensure that rural consumers receive service and support the FCC's enforcement efforts. “When calls fail or quality is unacceptably degraded in rural areas, the Commission will have the data necessary to go after bad actors, vigorously enforce its rules, and finally bring an end to this persistent problem,” she said.

Veach said the commission adopted several changes to the initial notice of proposed rulemaking to reduce the burdens on certain call providers.

The order limits the call completion data retention obligations to:

• calls that connect to rural incumbent local exchange carriers and

• providers that have 100,000 subscribers or more.

 

Industry stakeholders have expressed their concerns about the burdens involved in the proposed rulemaking's data reporting requirements. They have also sought greater clarity over who qualifies for safe harbor protections that would apply reduced levels of reporting and data retention.

Safe Harbor Provisions

Providers who use two or less intermediate providers to connect their rural calls may be subject to reduced reporting requirements under the order's safe harbor provisions, according to Veach. Providers can apply for waivers for reduced obligations if they comply with industry best practices among other qualifications, she said.

Republican Commissioner Ajit Pai said he was pleased that the order incorporated his suggestions to improve the item.

“By aligning the safe harbor with established best practices and reducing the burden of compliance, we create stronger incentives for carriers to be good actors,” he said. “By giving affiliated providers flexibility in recording and reporting their data, we reduce the administrative hassle our rules might otherwise cause.”

“By targeting our recordkeeping on rural calls, we cut the cost of compliance by 90 percent,” Pai added. “And by promising to reexamine our rules within three years, we ensure that the data isn't collected only to itself collect digital dust on a Commission hard drive,” he said.

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) welcomed the commission's new call completion rules in a news release. The FCC should “build on today's action, using new data to take swift and meaningful enforcement actions against those entities that are harming rural Americans by not completing telephone calls,” he said. Thune, the ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee noted that the panel approved a resolution (S.Res.157) in July urging the FCC to aggressively pursue those that violate its call-completion rules.

Rural Providers Pleased

Groups representing rural telecommunications providers were largely supportive of the new rules.

Shirley Bloomfield, chief executive officer of NTCA - The Rural Broadband Association said in a news release, “There is still much work to be done to ensure that no consumer will be cut off from critical communications, but NTCA is hopeful that this order will help to minimize consumer confusion.”

The Western Telecommunications Alliance (WTA), which represents small, rural providers said it was encouraged by the order. Kelly Worthington, WTA's executive vice president said the group stands ready to “continue working with the FCC and Congress to ensure all calls get completed, regardless of where they are terminated,” according to a news release.

USTelecom President Walter McCormick said the group supported the new rules and said he was “particularly appreciative of Chairwoman Clyburn's willingness to consider alternative approaches that USTelecom believes may more quickly achieve significant reductions in call completion problems.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Bryce Baschuk in Washington at bbaschuk@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Heather Rothman at hrothman@bna.com


See the new rules on the FCC's Website at: http://www.fcc.gov/document/fcc-acts-combat-call-completion-problems-rural-america.