Fourth Time a Charm? FCC Again Tackles Rural Call Completion
February 28, 2019 | by Andrew Regitsky
No matter how hard the FCC tries, rural consumers continue to have difficulty receiving phone calls.
The Commission has attempted to solve this problem numerous times with mixed results. 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, all 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. The Commission also eliminated much of the onerous data reporting requirement for covered providers that were established in the First RCC Order.
Frustrated by the FCC’s failure to solve the problem, on February 26, 2018, Congress took its own action, passing the Rural Call Completion Act. It required the Commission 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.
Now, we have a Fourth Rural Call Completion Report and Order (Order), which the Commission plans on adopting at its upcoming March 15, 2019 meeting. In the Order, the agency completes 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. The Order also sets 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 one year. Here are more specifics. The Order would require intermediate providers to:
- Take steps reasonably calculated to ensure that any calls they handle are in fact completed. In short, where intermediate providers know, or should know, of a call completion issue, they must act to address it.
- When routing calls to rural areas, actively monitor the performance of any directly-contracted intermediate provider, and based on the results of that monitoring, take steps to address any identified performance issues with that provider.
- Ensure that any additional intermediate providers to which they hand off calls are registered with the Commission.
The Order provides an exception to the new service quality standards for intermediate providers that qualify for the covered provider safe harbor in the Commission’s existing rules. The Order also transitions to the new service quality standards by sunsetting the Commission’s existing call data recording and retention rules one year after the new standards become effective. (Docket 13-39, FCC Fact Sheet, released February 22, 2019).
The key takeaway from the Commission’s report is that the onus for any remaining rural call completion issues falls squarely on intermediate carriers:
By requiring intermediate providers to take steps reasonably calculated to ensure that all calls reach their intended destination, these service quality standards prevent intermediate providers from routing calls in a manner that results in persistent call completion problems. Where intermediate providers know, or should know, of a call completion issue, they must now act to address it. (Draft Order at para. 12.).