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Rural Call Completion: Problems with Long Distance or Wireless Calling to Rural
Areas

  • If you live in a rural area you may be among those experiencing these problems if you are aware that long distance or wireless callers are not able to get through to your telephone, or if the call quality is often very poor once they do get through.
I live in a rural area and I'm having trouble receiving calls.

If your landline telephone is working (for example, you can make calls and are receiving local calls) but you learn that long-distance or wireless callers have been unable to reach you at your home or business -- even when you are there or have an answering machine on -- you may be experiencing "failure to complete" problems.

Typical "failure to complete" symptoms include the following:
  • Long distance or wireless callers tell you they repeatedly hear nothing or "dead air" for 10 seconds or more after they dial your number. If they stay on the line, the call may seem to be dropped or they may eventually hear a busy signal.
     
  • Long distance or wireless callers tell you they repeatedly hear prolonged ringing on their end after they dial your number (e.g., the callers wait 10-20 rings before they finally hang up).
     
  • Long distance or wireless callers tell you they repeatedly hear a recording such as "The number you have dialed is not in service" or "Your call cannot be completed as dialed" when they know they've correctly dialed your number.

Rural customers also report "poor call quality" problems. Typical symptoms include the following:

  • Long distance or wireless callers tell you they repeatedly hear nothing or "dead air" for 10 seconds or more before hearing ringing and you answer your phone.
     
  • Long distance or wireless callers tell you they repeatedly hear prolonged ringing (e.g., 10-20 times or more) before you answer the phone -- when you are sure the phone actually rang only a couple of times before you answered.
     
  • Consistently after you answer a call, the voice quality is unacceptable. For example, one person cannot hear the other, the sound is choppy, there are awkward transmission delays after speaking, or there is an echo.
     
  • Fax machines fail to interoperate.

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I'm having trouble calling someone in a rural area.

When calling a rural area, long distance or wireless callers may experience the following "failure to complete" symptoms:

  • After you dial, you hear nothing or "dead air" for 10 seconds or more. If you stay on the line, the call may seem to be dropped or you may eventually hear a busy signal.
     
  • After you dial, you hear as many as 10-20 rings even though you are reasonably sure someone should be there to answer or an answering machine should pick up.
     
  • After you dial, you hear a recording such as "The number you have dialed is not in service" or "Your call cannot be completed as dialed" when you are sure that you've correctly dialed the number and the called phone is working.

Callers to rural areas also may experience the following "poor call quality" problems:

  • After you dial, you hear nothing or "dead air" for 10 seconds or more (i.e., much longer than on other calls you make) before you hear ringing and someone answers;
     
  • After you dial, you hear prolonged ringing (e.g., 10-20 times or more) before someone answers the phone - and that person says the phone only rang once or twice at his end before he picked it up.
     
  • After you reach the person you are calling, the voice quality is unacceptable. For example, you are not calling on a wireless phone but only one person can hear the other, the sound is choppy, there are awkward transmission delays after speaking, or the speaker hears an echo. Perhaps you even try re-dialing but the unacceptable quality persists.
     
  • You try to send a long distance fax but the fax machines consistently fail to interoperate.

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What information do I need to report these problems?

  1. The date and time the call(s) were made or attempted;
     
  2. The calling and called telephone numbers; and
     
  3. If possible, the name of the long distance or wireless telephone service provider that serves the calling customer.

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How do I report these problems?

  • If you live in a rural area:
    • Whenever possible, you should encourage the person trying to call you to report details of the problem to his long distance or wireless telephone service provider. The number to report such problems should appear directly on the person's monthly bill. That provider should be best able to locate the source of the problem and fix it.
       
    • You should also provide the same information to your own local phone company so it may work with the caller's provider to isolate the problem.
  • If you are having trouble making long distance or wireless calls to a rural area:
    • Report details of the problem to your long distance or wireless telephone service provider. The number to report such problems should appear directly on your monthly bill. That provider should be best able to locate the source of the problem and fix it.
  • You can also file a complaint with the FCC.  For the FCC to take action on your complaint, you must provide the caller's number, the called number, and the date the attempted calls or problem calls were made.  If possible, you should also identify the long distance or wireless telephone service provider that serves the caller (i.e., the provider for the person calling the rural area) and provide the time of the calls. To file a complaint, complete this online Phone Complaint form.  In the box labeled “Phone Issues” select “Availability (including rural call completion)” from the pull down menu.
  • You can also contact the FCC by phone, fax, mail or email.

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What is the cause of these problems?

In a nutshell, the problem appears to be occurring in rural areas where long distance or wireless carriers normally pay higher-than-average charges to the local telephone company to complete calls. That is, in order for a long distance or wireless carrier to complete one of its subscriber's calls to a resident of a rural area, the carrier must get the call to the exchange serving that resident (the local phone company), and then pay a charge to that local carrier to access its exchange. The physical process of getting the call to the exchange is called "routing," and the charge paid by the long distance company to the local carrier is called an "access charge." These charges are part of the decades-old system of "access charges" that help pay for the cost of rural networks. To minimize these charges, some long-distance and wireless carriers contract with third-party "least-cost routing" service providers to connect calls to their destination at the lowest cost possible. Although many of these contracts include strictly-defined performance parameters, it appears that all too frequently those performance levels are not being met or, indeed, some calls are not even connecting at all.

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What is being done to fix these problems?

 

The FCC is addressing call completion and call quality problems affecting long distance, wireless, and VoIP calls to rural telephone customers on multiple fronts.

In October 2013, the FCC adopted new rules that will strengthen its ability to ensure a reasonable and nondiscriminatory level of service to rural areas.  These rules are designed to improve the Commission’s ability to monitor providers’ delivery of long-distance calls to rural areas and to aid the prosecution of violations of the Communications Act.  We also adopted a rule that will prevent the caller from hearing ringing before the called party's phone in reality is ringing.

In a Declaratory Ruling issued in February 2012, the FCC clarified that carrier practices that lead to call completion failure and poor call quality may violate the Communications Act's prohibition on unjust and unreasonable practices and violate a carrier's obligations under the Act to refrain from unjust or unreasonable discrimination in practices, facilities, or services.  In a reference to the use of least-cost routing services, the FCC also reminded carriers that they remain responsible for the provision of service to their customers even when they contract with another service provider to carry a call to its destination.  Although the FCC also has prohibited Voice over Internet (VoIP) providers from blocking voice calls to or from the traditional telephone network, some VoIP providers have argued to a federal appeals court that the FCC lacks authority under the Communications Act to apply the no-blocking rule to VoIP calls.

In addition, FCC rules that became effective in December 2011 will provide both short and long-term solutions to some rural call completion problems. These rules are part of the FCC's broader reforms of the “access charge” system, called intercarrier compensation, or ICC. The ICC Order gradually reduces intercarrier fees that are at the root of much of the problem.  This reduction should largely eliminate the incentives for practices that appear to be undermining the reliability of rural service.  Another ICC rule bars carriers from altering the caller identification transmitted for a call, which is a common call quality complaint in rural areas.

The Declaratory Ruling, newly-adopted rules and ICC reforms are just part of the FCC's strategy to fix the rural call completion problem.  Other key actions include:

  • A Rural Call Completion Workshop that, for the first time, brought together key stakeholders to discuss the problem and propose solutions.
     
  • At the urging of the FCC (see letter), the industry standard-setting body ATIS has developed and distributed an Intercarrier Call Completion/Call Termination Handbook discussing standards and practices relevant to ensuring rural call completion, such as managing least cost routing providers, and technical matters such as excessive delays in call setup, false ringing on the caller's end, and calls that appear to loop between carriers but never complete.
     
  • Ongoing investigations by the FCC's Enforcement Bureau looking at the underlying causes and industry practices behind these problems confronting rural subscribers, and assessing whether those practices violate any FCC regulations.

We recognize that there is still more to be done -- and we will be doing more. We share the concern about this problem and its impact on rural consumers and businesses, and are dedicated to ensuring that all Americans receive high-quality telephone services.

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