January 5, 2012 - 10:49 am
By Sharon Gillett and Jamie Barnett | Chiefs of the Wireline Competition Bureau and Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau

Rural “call completion” problems are a serious issue that the Commission has been grappling with over the past few months.  Local phone providers in rural areas have reported an alarming increase in complaints from customers that long distance calls and faxes are not reaching them. Other complaints include poor call quality and incorrect caller ID information, showing perhaps an unfamiliar local number for a long-distance call.  It’s a persistent and ongoing concern affecting 80% of rural carriers recently surveyed by a rural telephone company trade association on the issue.

This can have dire consequences.  Small businesses lose customers who get frustrated when their calls don’t go through.  Urgent long distance calls from friends or family are misidentified on caller ID and not answered.  Prescriptions faxed to a pharmacy fail to transmit. 

The issue is complicated, but in a nutshell, the problem appears to be occurring in rural areas where long distance carriers normally pay higher-than-average charges to the local telephone company to complete calls.  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 carriers use third-party “least-cost routers,” which attempt to connect calls to their destination at the lowest cost possible. Sometimes, however, the calls appear not to be connecting at all.

The good news is that new FCC rules – which took effect on Dec. 29 – will provide both short and long-term solutions to rural call completion problems.  These rules are part of an Order the FCC adopted in October making broader reforms to the access charge system, called intercarrier compensation, or ICC.

The Order also clarified and reiterated the FCC’s prohibition against blocking, degrading, or choking off calls for any reason, including to avoid high termination rates.

In addition, one new rule bars carriers from altering the calling number information transmitted in a call.  This information is necessary to properly bill the call and to provide accurate caller ID for call recipients.

Finally, the ICC Order gradually reduces intercarrier fees that are at the root of the problem, largely eliminating incentives for practices that appear to be undermining the reliability of rural service.

As important as they are, the ICC reforms that took effect last week are just part of the FCC’s strategy to fix the rural call completion problem.  Other key actions have included:

  • Organizing a Call Completion Workshop that, for the first time, brought together key stakeholders to discuss the problem and propose solutions.
  • Increasing coordination with a key standards-setting body for carriers, ATIS, requesting its urgent assistance in evaluating, investigating and resolving call completion problems as quickly as possible.
  • Ongoing investigations by the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau into the causes and practices behind these problems, and ongoing assessments of whether those practices violate any FCC regulations.
  • Working with our partners in state commissions to solve the problem.

We recognize that there is still more to be done – so stay tuned.  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.

More information on problems with long distance and wireless calling to rural areas