FCC Takes Victory Lap on Rural Call Completion
September 24, 2020 | by Andrew Regitsky
One of the most enduring problems the FCC has faced in recent years has been its failure to ensure that Americans in rural areas receive all the calls made to them. A confluence of factors, including access stimulation schemes, along with the fact that many rural calls transverse intermediate carriers led to numerous complaints from rural consumers and originating carriers.
The Commission has made at least four attempts over the last seven years to fix the problem, but with only marginal improvements. Now, however, almost two years after its last Rural Completion Order and after largely ending access stimulation, the agency believes it has fixed the problem. On September 14, the FCC Released a Report and Request for Comment in Docket 13-39 (Report) in which it congratulates itself for solving rural call completion and seeks comments from the industry affirming this conclusion. That is chutzpa!
The Commission previously issued four orders to help rural consumers receive phone calls.
In 2013, in the first Rural Call Completion (RCC) Order in Docket 13-39, the FCC required “covered providers,” the carriers that select the initial long-distance route, to record and retain specific information about each call attempt made to a rural operating company number (OCN).
While this led to some improvement, the problem persisted, while covered providers were forced to keep track of extraordinary amounts of data. In response, in April 2018, the Commission released a Second Report and Order. In it, the agency adopted a new rule requiring covered providers to monitor the performance of the “intermediate providers” to which they hand off calls. These are the companies that carry, but do not originate or terminate, voice calls.
Frustrated by the Commission’s failure to solve the problem, on February 26, 2018, Congress acted, passing the Rural Call Completion Act (RCC). It required the FCC to create an intermediate provider registry and stipulated that (1) intermediate providers must register with the Commission, and (2) covered providers may only use registered intermediate providers to transmit covered voice communications. The Act also required the FCC to establish service quality standards for the transmission of covered voice communications and required intermediate providers to comply with these standards.
In an August 2018 Third RCC Order, the Commission began to implement the RCC Act by mandating registration of all intermediate providers and requiring that covered providers use only registered intermediate providers. It also implemented the RCC Act’s prohibition against the use of unregistered intermediate providers by any covered provider in the path of a given call. Guess what? Rural call completion problems persisted.
In March 2019, the Commission issued its fourth Rural Completion Order. In it the agency completed the implementation of the RCC Act by adopting (1) service quality standards for intermediate providers; and (2) and providing an exception to those standards for intermediate providers that qualify for the covered provider safe harbor in the existing rules. That Order also set forth procedures to enforce the intermediate provider requirements and terminates the remaining rural call completion data recording and retention requirements from the First RCC Order.
In the new Report the Commission concludes that the “rules adopted in the Second Rural Call Completion Order, including the covered provider monitoring and point of contact requirements, and the elimination of the data reporting requirement, have been effective in contributing to a reduction in rural call completion issues.”
Our finding is supported by the recent experiences of providers, as well as complaint data collected by the Commission from consumers and carriers. As noted in ex parte filings from AT&T, NCTA, and Verizon, the overall number of complaints related to rural call completion issues that these providers receive each year, or in the case of NCTA, its member companies, continue to decline year after year. These entities, which when combined, account for a substantial amount of the nation’s call traffic, report that complaints are minimal and actual rural call completion issues are very rare. (Docket 13-39, Released September 14, 2020, at para. 12.).
Is this conclusion justified? The industry gets its opportunity to file comments by October 29th. If companies are still having problems getting their calls completed, now is the time to let the Commission know.