The telecom industry is having great difficulty getting to the bottom of the rural call completion problem-and addressing it will be equally complex. That was the upshot of the rural call completion workshop held by the FCC this week.

Telecompetitor has been closely following the rural call completion problem since it first hit the public eye earlier this year. As we have reported, rural carriers have seen a sharp increase in reports from customers that calls are not getting through to them—a situation that appears to have arisen because carriers involved in delivering the call to the rural carrier are hoping to avoid the high terminating access charges in rural areas. A study released by several rural carrier associations in June found that 80% of rural telcos had experienced call termination problems.

The situation is not just a problem for small rural telcos, who lose out on the access revenues and whose customers may assume, incorrectly, that the problem is at the rural telco’s end of the call. It’s also potentially dangerous.

According to one workshop participant, communities that rely on basic 911 could be at risk of seeing 911 calls from cellphones go unanswered. The reason is that basic 911 may not rely on dedicated trunks but instead may simply redirect calls to a traditional telephone number—and calls from cellphones are routed to that number over long-distance networks, where the call termination problem could be encountered. Although there are no reports of that particular scenario occurring yet, there have been other problems in rural communities.

Dale Merten of Toledo Telephone, a small carrier based in the state of Washington described how a loved one called 911 to send an ambulance to the house of her elderly mother when her mother did not answer a call the two of them had planned for a specific time. When the ambulance arrived, the mother was wondering why her daughter hadn’t called. The daughter’s carrier—or another carrier contracted by the daughter’s carrier to handle call termination—had failed to complete the call.

When events such as these occur, Merten said, “customers blame us—and we see them every day.”

To gain insight into the problem, Toleldo Telephone bought $50,000 worth of analytical equipment. What the company found, Merten said is that “several companies are purposely and deliberately creating the problem.”

But assigning the blame for problems such as Merten described has been difficult, in large part because multiple carriers may be involved in delivering calls. As comments from Paetec representative Tami Spocogee yesterday revealed, it’s not unusual for the carrier serving the caller to hand calls off to another carrier who hands it off to a third carrier and so on—and each carrier has an economic incentive to minimize costs.

The carriers that get calls handed off to them are called least cost routers—and although that type of company has been around for years, it appears that softswitch technology has enabled such companies to use some new tricks—such as sending a ringtone to the caller to make it appear that the called party’s phone is ringing when in fact it is not.

Perhaps because the issue is so complex, rural carrier associations question whether the telecom industry can solve the problem without the FCC’s help.

“Interexchange carriers and least cost routers have been on notice [about the problem] for many months and there has been little improvement,” said Jill Canfield of the NTCA.

Canfield said companies that deliberately do not complete calls to rural carriers are in violation of telecom legislation. She said the FCC should require systems monitoring and take action against offenders, including anyone who incorrectly blames problems on the terminating carrier.

Image courtesy of flickr user drewleavy.