NELSON: When phones stop workingMaking a long distance telephone call should be a “given.” Unfortunately, that is not the case in much of rural America, including South Dakota.
By: Chris Nelson , Guest columnist
In 21st century America, we have many ways to communicate: landline telephone, cell phone, email, text, Facebook, Skype, Twitter and whatever today’s technology explosion invents as the next communication medium. With all of this technology at our fingertips and 136 years of experience since Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, making a long distance telephone call should be a “given.” Unfortunately, that is not the case in much of rural America, including South Dakota. The reliability of long distance calling has slipped to something that might be expected in a developing country.
What’s happening? Simply, it is getting more difficult for long distance calls coming from out-of-state to connect to landline telephone customers in South Dakota. This phenomenon is known as the “rural call completion problem.” Customers in South Dakota might later hear from someone who tried to call them that their phone “just kept ringing” when in fact it never rang in South Dakota. Others report that their phone rings but there is only dead air when it is answered. In some cases, the call actually connects but is of extremely poor quality with an echo or garbled talk. Lastly, customers report that calls come through with inaccurate or misleading caller identification numbers.
These problems are having profound impacts on South Dakota businesses and families. Businesses from Custer to Canistota that rely on out-of-state customers report lost revenue when those customers can’t connect their long distance telephone call. Security and health are threatened when calls made from a school to parents regarding school schedules or weather events never reach the intended recipients. One western South Dakota school that utilizes an out-of-state vendor for parent notification couldn’t get those calls through to landlines in its own district. Of course, family members living outside South Dakota want to be able to communicate with their family here.
What causes this problem? A quick answer is rapidly changing technology may have some “glitch” causing the problem. In actuality, the cause goes much deeper into our nation’s telecommunications system. Every time a long distance call is made, money flows from a long distance phone company to other telephone companies involved in routing the call to its destination. Frequently, the caller’s chosen long distance company will subcontract the call to other companies called “least cost routers,” that transmit long distance telephone calls via the least expensive route. That’s where this issue becomes devious. If least cost routers determine it costs them more to deliver a call than they are getting paid for the call, they have a financial incentive to lose (not connect) the call even though they are required by law to complete the call.
The result has shaken the telephone system on which we rely. We are subject to outof-state companies making calculations on whether they will make or lose a fraction of a penny per minute on connecting or losing a long distance call that has been placed in their care.
This is obviously an issue of great concern to your state public utilities commissioners whose job is to ensure reliable utility service. Unfortunately, because this problem is occurring outside of South Dakota, the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission lacks authority to solve the problem. This is a national issue that requires a solution from federal telecommunications regulators. That responsibility rests with the Federal Communications Commission.
In October 2011, the FCC held a workshop to gather information to better understand this issue. Early in 2012, the FCC issued an order to long distance telephone companies essentially telling them, “don’t do this again!” Because that order had no teeth, the problem remains. The FCC seems unwilling to do any serious investigation to find the companies who are the perpetrators of this problem and slap them with meaningful fines. The FCC’s inaction has become so blatant and troublesome that recently 36 United States senators, including Senators Johnson and Thune, signed a letter to the FCC demanding enforcement. Even that letter has failed to move the agency to action.
The FCC has clearly dropped the ball for rural America. Despite this, the PUC continues to push the FCC to do its job. You can help. If you experience calls that don’t complete and can document those failures, let the FCC know by reporting those problems at www.fcc.gov/encyclopedia/problems-longdistance-or-wireless-calling-rural-areas.
Chris Nelson is a South Dakota public utilities commissioner.