FCC Launches Task Force to Study Phone Service Problems in Rural America

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By Paul Barbagallo  

The Federal Communications Commission has created a new task force to investigate a recent spate of telephone service problems, such as delayed calls and connection failures, in rural parts of the country.

According to the results of a survey conducted by a group of rural associations, including the National Exchange Carrier Association, consumer complaints about dropped or terminated calls increased 2,000 percent between April 2010 and March 2011. The study also found that 176 rural incumbent local exchange companies in 35 states have reported call-termination issues for both voice calls and faxes.

According to the FCC, the problem appears to be occurring in rural areas where long-distance carriers pay charges to complete calls to the local telephone company, calls that may be delivered using specialized call-routing providers.

The Rural Call Completion Task Force is tentatively scheduled to hold a workshop on Oct. 18 to identify the root of the problem and discuss potential solutions with key stakeholders.

The problems have come to light as the FCC is working to finalize an order that would comprehensively reform both the Universal Service Fund and the current structure for companies to compensate each other for connecting calls. The agency's reform proposals would reduce opportunities for arbitrage and other manipulation schemes, and also tighten rules that require carriers to provide accurate information about call origin for billing and other purposes.

Problems May Be Tied to Cost.

According to industry stakeholders, the problem is believed to stem from issues with least-cost routing. Least-cost routing, or LCR, is the process of selecting the path of outbound communications traffic based on cost. On a monthly, weekly, or even daily basis, a telecom carrier might choose between routes from several or even hundreds of carriers for destinations across the world.

Long-distance calls made in rural areas can find themselves stuck in a routing loop and end up being terminated. Other factors include improper network management or setup, originating carriers routing calls to LCR providers whose contracts stipulate that they will not complete calls to certain exchanges, and nomadic voice-over-internet-protocol service providers unwilling to terminate calls to certain areas.

“It's very difficult to track down,” noted Steve Pastorkovich, business development director and senior policy analyst at Organization for the Promotion and Advancement of Small Telecommunications Companies. “That being said, there appears to be a number of possible reasons for this to be happening, some of them are technical, some of them might be due to different interpretations of regulations, but I don't think there's any magic bullet here.”

The FCC sees a number of public policy implications, including private businesses losing clients due to calls failing to be completed and a risk to public safety systems.

“This is a very important issue to our members and their customers…and we continue to work to get to the bottom of it,” Pastorkovich told BNA.

By Paul Barbagallo