Rural Call Completion is Thorny for Commissioners

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Using new authority granted by Congress, the FCC last Friday took additional steps to combat the persistent problem of long-distance call failure in rural areas. Disagreement between the majority and minority commissioners on the issue was strong during the vote.

A long-distance call may be handed off to multiple intermediate carriers before reaching its final destination, and oversight of intermediate providers is therefore critical to ensuring calls to rural America are completed. 

Under rules set by the Commission last year, these providers must register with the agency, and certain carriers that originate long-distance calls, called “covered providers,” may not hand off calls to an unregistered intermediate carrier.

The Report and Order adopted sets clear, enforceable service quality standards for intermediate providers to help ensure that all calls are completed. Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel supports the concept, but calls what the agency passed, “weak tea,” noting, “The only acceptable outcome is putting an end to this problem.”  

Her colleague, Geoffrey Starks, said the FCC has wrestled with call completion problems for years. He notes that in order to save money, some providers in a “call path,” dump the call that’s supposed to go to a rural area. In worst cases, he says, they send a fake ring signal to the caller to make them think the call went through. “This item misses the opportunity to ensure we can stamp out” the problem, “and measure their behavior and adopt specific means to hold them accountable,” said Starks. He doubts intermediate carriers will actually be able to monitor others.

Chairman Ajit Pai said, now, carriers “must act” to address the problem. They need to monitor the performance of any intermediate carrier they contract with, he emphasized. Pai noted the agency also acted to sunset a data retention rule for carriers. Not only was it burdensome, it didn’t “help to resolve problems” with call completion, explained the Chairman.

Specifically, intermediate providers will now be required to:

  • Take steps reasonably calculated to ensure that all calls they handle are delivered to their destination
  • When routing calls to rural areas, monitor the performance of any other intermediate providers with which they directly contract, and based on the results of that monitoring, take steps to address any performance problems with those providers
  • Ensure that any intermediate providers to which they hand off calls are registered

Intermediate providers that don’t follow these rules are subject to fines from the FCC. The agency can also remove non-compliant carriers from its registry, which would make them ineligible for use by covered providers and other intermediate carriers in completing calls.  Comments? Email Us.

March 19, 2019

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