Incomplete rural calls impact Sheridan business


by Colin Cashin

SHERIDAN, Mont. – Some Montana rural phone customers say they are fighting dropped calls and dead air. One man says it’s costing him business.

According to the Federal Communication Commission, the problem appears to be coming from decades-old access charges wireless and long distance companies pay to connect to local telephone networks. To get around those charges, some carriers route calls through third-party companies where quality can suffer.

People in rural areas might experience seemingly endless ringing, sometimes 10 to 20 rings, or calls with dead air on the other end.

A viewer in the town of Sheridan alerted us to this issue. Sheridan is in Madison County about 55 miles southeast of Butte. It’s small, with a population of around 600 people, and rural.

Jim Swanson owns Antler Chandeliers in Sherdan. He says for the past year he’s suffered from a drop in quality in his telephone service.

He explained, “You can’t hear the person talk, they can hear you. Since there’s no caller ID there’s no ability to know who called you.”

Swanson tells us he began keeping a log of phone calls coming into his business. He says that beween April 17 and 22, 40 percent of the calls were incomplete.

He worries, “That 40 percent could be the ones that actually want to do business with me.”

Swanson reported the calls to his phone company, 3 Rivers Communications. He says they told him his phone calls were not properly being connected by the carriers contracted to do so.

Don Serido with 3 Rivers Communications told us, “Until it got to our network, there’s no way to know that calls are not being completed.”

3 Rivers Communications tells NBC Montana the calls are routed before they get to their lines, and there is no way to tell which carriers are having the problems.

The long distance and wireless carriers contracting with the third parties are trying to avoid access fees. Access fees are set by the government, based on how much line upkeep costs rural phone companies.

Serido said, “At some point it’s determined that its going to be more expensive than they want to connect that call.”

There have been attempts by the FCC to control the issue, but not all carriers fall under FCC regulation and don’t need to register with any government agency, ultimately making it difficult to identify the third-party carrier causing the problem.

For Swanson, he just wants to make sure that when a customer calls, he can take it.

Swanson said, “We deserve the same telecommunications that the rest of the nation enjoys.”

The Federal Communications Commission has a task force to investigate rural call completion, and has settled with companies over the issue.

In February of this year Windstream Corporation, which operates in 49 states, agreed to pay $2.5 million after an investigation into the company’s rural call completion.

In March of 2013, Colorado-based Level-3 Communication agreed to pay $975,000 and up to $1 million more if it failed to meet certain benchmarks for completing rural calls.

Sen. Jon Tester is also working to address the issue of rural call completion. Since 2012 he has written two letters to the FCC. He recently co-sponsored legislation that would require the FCC to establish basic long-distance standards and would require intermediate call carriers to register with the FCC and comply with those standards.

Tester says by requiring intermediate carriers to register, it would make it easier to identify where the problems are occurring.