Photo by Osama Saeed

Callers placing long distance calls to rural areas have, at times, experienced difficulties in having their calls go through. This occurs most often in rural areas where the costs incurred by long distance providers have generally been higher than in non-rural areas. In 2012, the FCC issued a declaratory ruling which determined that carriers that knew, or should have known, that calls were not being completed to rural areas (and failed to correct the problem) could be liable for violating Section 201 of the Communications Act. This decision also applied to calls that were being degraded by the carrier (or by intermediate or other entities acting for or employed by the carrier). In 2013, the FCC issued a follow-up order prohibiting carriers from sending an audible ringtone to a calling party to make them believe that a phone call made to a rural area was ringing at the receiving end, when the call had not actually gone through.

Fast forward to 2016 when FCC began receiving complaints from three rural telephone companies in Wisconsin that T-Mobile customers could not complete calls to customers served by those rural phone companies. Many complaints reported that callers heard ringtones on calls that failed to reach rural customers. T-Mobile investigated the complaints and reported to the FCC that the connection problems were due to the involvement of an intermediate carrier and that all the complaints had been resolved. However, T-Mobile did not address the ringtone issue raised by some of the complaints.

After T-Mobile’s response, the FCC received several additional complaints regarding call completion and ringtone issues. As a result, the FCC issued a letter of inquiry (LOI) to investigate the matter further. In response to the LOI and a supplemental LOI, T-Mobile reported that in 2007 it began using servers that included a “Local Ring Back Tone” (LRBT) for calls from customers that took more than a predetermined amount of time to complete. T‑Mobile further reported that in 2013, as it migrated to different servers, T-Mobile began using its LRBT protocol only for the out-of-network calls from its customers that were routed via Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) trunks. However, T‑Mobile apparently continued using LRBT even on calls that failed to reach rural customers after the FCC rules that prohibited the practice went into effect. The FCC determined that T-Mobile’s use of LRBT likely caused callers to receive false ringtones for hundreds of millions of calls each year.

In order to end the FCC’s investigation into T-Mobile’s alleged violation of rural call completion and ringtone rules, T-Mobile entered into a consent decree to pay a $40 million civil penalty and to undertake other measures to ensure compliance with the FCC’s rural call completion and ringtone rules. A full copy of the consent decree can be found here. Clearly, the FCC takes the rural call completion and LRBT issue very seriously.

In addition to its willingness to take enforcement actions, the FCC on Tuesday, April 17 voted to adopt new requirements and proposed more rule changes to continue to address rural completion issues. Under the new requirements, carriers must, among other things, monitor the performance of the intermediate providers to which they are connected and take steps to correct any performance issues related to call completion when necessary. While the final text of the FCC’s April 17 call completion action has yet to be released (check back here for more info when it is), carriers would be prudent to start making plans to review their procedures and intermediate carrier relationships to address potential rural call completion issues.

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