FCC stance on call termination in rural areas

It’s no secret that the nation’s rural areas are continuously plagued by dead zones and lack of broadband connectivity. But, as more and more telcos increasingly lose customers to frustrations with network connectivity, other call-related issues—namely call routing and termination—are also coming to the forefront.

As of late last year, some rural areas had seen a 2,000 percent increase in the number of complaints regarding phone service. Issues brought up include poor quality, inaccurate caller ID information, dropped calls, and delayed calls. The problems are severe enough that hospitals haven’t been able to connect with patients, and residents’ calls to police aren’t getting through. At the same time, some businesses have filed suit against their carriers because they say they are losing thousands of dollars in business due to the malfunctioning broadband system.

It’s pretty clear why these challenges are now taking the spotlight. While some experts say it’s evolutions in technology and network deployments that are placing additional pressures on existing systems to get on the same level as highly connected areas, others point to the carriers suffering from lack of business.

In its efforts to fill the gap for high-speed networks in underserved areas and to expand mobile broadband access throughout the U.S., the FCC last week took additional action to address the pervasive and damaging call termination problems afflicting rural areas. On Feb. 6, the FCC issued a Declaratory Ruling, or, in other words, a clarification of how certain actions that stop calls from reaching their rural destination constitutes a violation of various sections of the Communications Act.

According to the FCC, violation of Sections 201, 202 or 217 would include actions constituting “unjust and unreasonable discrimination in practices, facilities or services… This is particularly the case when the problems are brought to the carrier’s attention by customers, rate-of-return carriers serving rural areas, or others, and the carrier nevertheless fails to take corrective action that is within its power.”

Acknowledging the flood of dissatisfaction associated with rural call termination problems, the FCC added that it “[takes] these reports very seriously, given the longstanding obligations of telephone carriers, and the significant economic and public safety concerns that these issues raise… We are particularly concerned about problems that may adversely affect the availability of reliable telephone service to consumers, businesses, and public health and safety officials in rural America.”

A single violation of the following could cost violators a whopping $150,000 penalty, or up to $1.5 million if it’s a single act or failure to resolve the issues, such as:

  • Carriers knowingly preventing calls from reaching rural areas or providing false or misleading information to callers
  • Adopting routing practices that produce lower quality service to rural areas
  • Not routing calls to high-cost rural areas and neglecting to remedy the situation involving access for individuals with disabilities
  • Not taking responsibility for the actions of their employees, agents and underlying providers. In this case, providers of least cost routing – or the process of selecting the path of outbound communications traffic based on cost – are finding themselves under the microscope as some are pointing to these providers as the source of call termination problems.

While it’s difficult to identify the basis of these issues, least cost routing—if implemented correctly—could benefit everyone.

As Shirley Bloomfield of the National Telecommunications Cooperative Association (NTCA) stated in a recent blog aimed at the FCC, “Don’t get me wrong, the FCC deserves credit for lowering the boom on companies that interfere with call termination. But the process would be better served by proper identification of the problem—carriers and arbitrageurs who have gamed the system—and a realistic conversation that doesn’t pretend as if networks have no value to those who connect to and rely upon them. A key component of this conversation must involve an honest assessment of how the access charge regime has helped enable rural network deployment – and how that success might continue or stall in the absence of access charges. Misidentifying the source of problems will never solve them.”

Written by Tammy Wolf Tammy Wolf is a TMCnet web editor. She covers a wide range of topics, including IP communications and information technology.