Small rural telephone companies have seen an “alarming increase” in calls not going through to their customers in recent weeks, said the National Telecommunications Cooperative Association in a strongly worded letter sent to the FCC yesterday. In the letter the NTCA implores the FCC to “take formal and decisive action in very short order” to resolve the rural call completion problem.

The letter includes a timeline spanning more than two years, detailing events surrounding rural call completion problems, which are typically created when an originating carrier or intermediate carrier fails to hand off a call to a rural telco that is destined to the rural telco’s customer. (The per-minute fees that carriers charge to complete calls to their customers are higher in rural areas to help cover the higher cost of delivering service there — and originating and intermediate carriers apparently are trying to avoid those charges by not completing calls to those customers, instead giving the originating caller a busy signal, erroneous pre-recorded message or the like.)

The NTCA timeline shows developments involving rural call completion problems occurring nearly every month over the past two years. Developments noted include FCC meetings between the NTCA and other rural carrier groups, surveys conducted to quantify call completion problems, actions taken by the National Association of Regulatory Commissioners, Congressional efforts to curb the problem and FCC actions taken to date, including a February 2012 ruling that said originating telcos were responsible for delivering calls to rural carriers even when an intermediate “low cost router” carrier was involved.

Although the ruling said violators could face cease-and-desist orders, forfeiture, license revocations and fines of up to $1.5 million, none of those actions have been taken against originating or intermediate carriers. In yesterday’s letter, the NTCA likens the situation to a game of “regulatory whack-a-mole” as carriers “apparently change routing tables for fear of regulatory sanction only to then reprogram them days or weeks later and thereby recreate the problem once again.”

The NTCA letter urges the FCC to take action before the year’s end or no later than next month to curb the ongoing problem, cautioning the commission that the problem “threatens to derail commerce during a busy season upon which many retailers rely and moreover creates serious risk of injury or even death as calls fail to reach their intended destinations.”

The letter cites several negative consequences that already have resulted from the call completion problem including a rural Minnesota supplier that claimed to lose tens of thousands of dollars in business when customers could not reach the company and call completion problems that hampered avalanche response in Colorado.

“It is therefore far past time for demonstrative and decisive action to avoid catastrophic consequences and further economic injury resulting from call failures,” the NTCA letter says.

Image courtesy of flickr user drewleavy.