Three months after telling the FCC that problems involving completion of calls to rural carriers has become a “nationwide epidemic,” several rural telco groups have again contacted the FCC about the problem—armed this time with a wealth of data to illustrate their concerns.

The groups involved–including the National Exchange Carrier Association, the National Telecommunications Cooperative Association, the Organization for the Promotion and Advancement of Small Telecommunications Companies and the Western Telecommunications Alliance—conducted a survey of rural telco members, which found that at least 1,800 problem calls were reported in March 2011. The organizations argue that the problem is actually considerably greater because many customers may not be aware that callers are unable to reach them.

The survey also showed a steep rise in problem calls. The number of problems reported one month earlier was just 1,200—and prior to May 2010, the monthly number of problems reported was consistently less than 100.

The majority of problem reports—53%–involved calls not being able to go through. But other problems also were reported, including extremely poor voice quality, delayed ringing at the receiving end, inaccurate or unintelligible caller ID and inaccurate or misleading interception messages—which were cited by 16%, 13%, 11% and 5% of callers, respectively. Intercept messages advised callers that the carrier serving the called number had refused to interconnect and therefore the call could not be completed, the rural carriers said.

Over 80% of the more than 200 rural telcos responding to the survey said they had experienced some of these call routing and termination problems.

The letter from the rural carrier groups does not speculate why the problems are occurring. But an excerpt from VoIP provider magicJack’s frequently asked questions included with the letter offers some telling evidence.

In answer to the question “Why won’t some of my calls complete?” magicJack says its service is restricted in “cost prohibitive areas.” That likely is a reference to the comparatively high terminating access charges that are found in some sparsely populated rural areas, where the cost to deliver phone service is high.

MagicJack (which is now owned by VocalTec) apparently is one of at least nine retail carriers whose customers have experienced difficulties reaching rural phone service users.

In their letter, the rural carrier groups do not name the other retail carriers. But rural carriers report that some of the retail carriers have been uncooperative about resolving problem reports. According to the letter, “the identified retail provider cooperated with the RLEC to resolve the problem slightly more than half of the time (56%). Often the originating service provider would either open a trouble ticket but only work with its own customer (11%) or would not open a trouble ticket and placed blame elsewhere instead (22%). Most of the time, issues went unresolved or would only be resolved temporarily.”

The letter notes that as problems remain unresolved, “customers often blame the RLEC for the problem calls and the RLEC endures the loss of goodwill, not to mention countless hours trying to track down the source of complaints and attempts to resolve them.”

The rural groups note that one of the difficulties in troubleshooting problems is that the retail carriers sometimes use other network operators to terminate their calls. For competitive reasons, the retail carriers may be unwilling to share the names of their underlying carriers. But not to do so can end in what the rural carriers call a “game of hot potato” where neither the retail carrier nor its underlying carrier take responsibility for solving the problem.

Accordingly, the rural carrier groups argue that “the Commission’s assistance is essential if we are to ‘get to the bottom’ of these routing practices and ensure that retail providers and underlying providers . . . do not continue to undermine the integrity of the PSTN.”

Policymakers previously have intervened when, for example, rural carriers wanted to stop connecting calls for VoIP providers that were avoiding paying access charges by disguising the originating caller’s phone number.

It seems only fair for the FCC to do the same when the shoe is on the other foot, as it appears to be now.