New quarterly form would theoretically shed more useful light on chronic problem, but proposed exceptions could gut the form’s effectiveness.

Although perhaps not widely acknowledged or often discussed, the problem of “blocked” or unsuccessful long-distance telephone calls to rural customers is a serious one. For at least a couple of years interested parties have urged the Commission to do something about it. And now the FCC thinks that it’s come up with a way to begin to address this failure to communicate:  new recordkeeping requirements, and a new report to be filed quarterly by facilities-based originating providers (with some notable exceptions).

The report would theoretically allow the Commission to better monitor the delivery of long-distance calls in rural areas. In a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM), the FCC has invited comments on the proposed requirements.

So what’s the problem the FCC is addressing here?

Increasingly, the U.S.’s once-reliable telecommunications network is being seriously degraded. Where the industry could once brag of an extraordinarily high level of service quality – known to the cognoscenti as the “five 9s”, referring to the fact that calls were completed 99.999% of the time – that’s no longer true. Now, calls placed to small towns and rural areas are increasingly blocked, impaired by degraded call quality, or interrupted by false busy signals or misleading error messages.

While the precise reasons for this may still be a matter of debate, it’s safe to say that degradation in rural service is almost certainly tied to the fact that providing service to rural areas is expensive. The high costs are an incentive for profit-motivated carriers to cut corners or figure out way(s) to try to shift the responsibility to other carriers. Despite the issuance of various declaratory orders, the establishment of complaint lines and the pursuit investigations by the FCC, the problem persists.

The Commission has determined, by analysis of data obtained through the complaint process, that some carriers collect and retain information on failed-call attempts, while others don’t. The lack of available data impedes its ability to investigate the problem. Accordingly, the FCC plans to require the uniform, monthly, collection of data on call attempts and the quarterly submission of those data to the Commission.

Who would be subject to these requirements? “Originating long distance voice service provider (or its first facilities-based provider when the originating provider is not facilities-based)” – as long as the provider has more than 100,000 total retail long distance subscribers (business and residential combined). Originating providers would include LECs, IXCs, wireless carriers, and two-way VoIP providers that carry traffic that will traverse the public switched telephone network (PSTN) at some point. The FCC invites comments on whether it should extend its proposed record-keeping and reporting requirements to intermediary carriers, resellers, one-way VoIP providers.

The FCC also asks for comments regarding its proposal to shelter any carrier with 100,000 or fewer subscribers from the recordkeeping/reporting requirements.

What records would have to be kept? Each provider subject to the rules would be required to retain the following records about each attempted call to a rural telephone company (including rural CLEC) and nonrural LEC (including nonrural CLEC).:

  • Calling party number;
  • Called party number;
  • Date;
  • Time;
  • An indication whether the call was handed off to an intermediate provider or not and, if so, which intermediate provider;
  • An indication whether the called party number was assigned to a rural telephone company or not and, if so, the operating company number (OCN) of the rural telephone company;
  • An indication whether the call was interstate or intrastate; and
  • An indication whether the call was answered or not.

For these purposes, an attempted call returned by an intermediate provider to the originating provider and re-assigned would be counted as a single attempted call. The information would have to be in a “readily retrievable” form and extend back for the six most recent, complete, calendar months.

The FCC requests comments on these proposed record-keeping and record-retention requirements.

What information would have to be reported to the FCC, how, and when? Under the FCC’s proposal, affected providers would have to file call completion reports electronically every quarter.  The report would require calculations comparing (a) the monthly call answer rate for calls placed to rural telephone companies to (b) the monthly call answer rate for calls placed to terminating carriers that are not rural telephone companies. The monthly call answer rate would be reported as a percentage, calculated by dividing the number of attempted calls during a particular month that result in an answered call by the total number of attempted calls during that month.

Three types of call answer rates would have to be calculated and reported: (1) for each rural telephone company OCN to which 100 calls were attempted during the month; (2) for the total call attempts to all rural telephone company OCNs to which 100 calls were attempted during the month; and (3) for the total call attempts to all companies with OCNs that are not rural telephone company. The FCC asks for comments as to the difference in call answer rates for calls placed to rural and urban OCNs that would warrant an FCC fine.

Since there doesn’t appear to be any readily available, affordable software designed to process the raw data, perform the necessary calculations, and present the results in a useful format, some observers have suggested that some alternative to the proposed quarterly report might be preferable. For example, a monthly electronic submission of the raw data alone. And since it appears that some providers aren’t able to report call attempts by terminating OCN, it might be more useful to request that the raw data to be submitted be based on terminating exchange, rather than terminating OCN. Monthly submissions would also prevent the data from becoming stale.

The FCC also asks whether the filed reports should be kept confidential by the FCC or made available to the public. Public reports would arguably be more effective in deterring and resolving call blocking.

Proposed safe harbors. The FCC proposes two safe harbor exemptions to its requirements. Under the first safe harbor, a carrier would be exempt from the recordkeeping/reporting requirements if the carrier certifies annually that: (1) it contractually limits to two the number of intermediate providers in the call path; and (2) it has in place a process for monitoring its intermediate providers.

Other matters. The NPRM seeks comments on a variety of other details underlying the problem of blocked rural calls. Anyone affected by this regrettable phenomenon should review the NPRM carefully.

What the NPRM does not propose is any direct solution for the continued degradation of telephone service to rural areas. For now, the Commission has chosen in the NPRM to focus instead on recordkeeping and reporting as the first steps. We encourage all interested parties – and particularly anyone who has experienced call blocking – to provide their input in response to the NPRM.

The deadlines for comments and reply comments have been set: comments are due no later than May 13, 2013; reply comments are due by May 28.