Last February, Chris Valentine’s family in Great Britain had to call her hillside home near Birney almost a dozen times before they could reach her.
“This is a real serious problem for rural areas. We depend on land lines. The nearest cell phone tower is 25 miles away in Ashland,” said Valentine, who retired to Birney to write poetry after working as a drug and alcohol counselor on the Northern Cheyenne reservation.
Jim Schlosser doesn’t know how much business his family has lost due to dropped long-distance calls. Out-of-staters trying to buy some Angus cattle or truckloads of bentonite from their company, Wyoming Sunmade, tend to call once or twice and then give up, he said.
“There were about 30 days last winter when we really didn’t have a phone. Then for a couple of months,
we got about half of the calls, I figure,” said Schlosser, whose family’s ranch sprawls from Wyoming into Montana.
A cell phone works only when he’s lucky.
“You have to be in the right spot and when you get a call, you better sit still,” Schlosser said.
Range Telephone Cooperative in Forsyth serves 7,500 customers spread over 16,000 square miles, an area larger than Maryland.
Range and other rural telephone companies across the United States are demanding action against long-distance carriers that fail to complete calls, apparently to avoid the termination expense. So many calls were lost around Alzada last winter that hundreds of Range customers living in southeastern Montana or northeastern Wyoming had to email each other to communicate.
According to a survey by the Federal Communications Commission in Washington, D.C., at least 80 percent of rural carriers are complaining about poor quality, delayed or lost calls. Customer complaints about this issue jumped 2,000 percent for the 12 months ending last March, the FCC said.
Customers naturally blame their local carriers, but the problem lies with some large long-distance providers.
“The calls aren’t even getting routed to us,” said Range chief executive Rob Stephens. “Instead of making a direct connection from Denver to Billings to Forsyth to the Schlosser ranch, the call might bounce all over the United States.”
Thanks to a practice called “least-cost routing,” calls from other states or countries to rural areas often go missing.
“You hear a ring, pick up the phone and no one is there. Or you hear a message that this number has been disconnected,” Stephens said. “Or the phone never rings.”
In this practice, one company passes the long-distance call on to the next one until it hits the telecom with the cheapest rates — the least-cost carrier, which may or may not make the connection. Each company takes a cut of the intercarrier subsidies offered to pass on a call while trying to avoid the expense of actually sending the call to its final destination.
This is a health and safety issue for rural families, Stephens said.
Adult children living in other states can’t check on their parents. Schools can’t alert families to keep the kids at home during a blizzard. Results from cancer tests may not arrive in time, and emergency calls may not get through.
Even Montana’s largest city is affected, Stephens said.
“In Billings, you’ve gone to your phone and you pick up and there’s nothing there,” he said. “Chances are it was a least-cost-routing call and somebody didn’t want to pay CenturyLink to transfer the call.”
But CenturyLink spokesman Mark Molzen in Phoenix said his company routes all calls.
“Every call is a priority. It doesn’t matter where it originates from or where somebody lives,” he said.
Calls and emails requesting comments from AT&T and Sprint Nextel, other companies offering long-distance service in Montana and Wyoming, were not immediately returned.
Geoff Feiss, general manager of the Montana Telecommunications Association, which represents Range Telephone, agreed with Molzen.
“Anecdotal evidence is not pointing toward CenturyLink or AT&T contributing to this dropped-call problem, but the same can’t be said for other companies,” he said.
In January, 25 U.S. senators, including Montana’s Max Baucus and Jon Tester, signed a petition calling for the FCC to solve this problem and the Wyoming Legislature is considering a joint resolution demanding action.
FCC spokesman Mark Wigfield said his agency became aware of the problem last year and so far has taken several measures.
Earlier this month, the FCC warned carriers that it could fine them under 2007 rules against “blocking, choking, reducing or restricting telephone traffic.”
Last fall, the FCC held a conference on the rural connection issue. And in December, the FCC started phasing out the intercarrier fees offering a financial incentive to pass on calls to the lowest bidder, which effectively undermines rural telephone reliability.
“We’ve made it clear to the carriers they can’t do these practices that are resulting in delayed or failed calls,” Wigfield said.
But phasing out the fees may take years, and that’s too long for Valentine.
“Heavens, no. Six years? It’s been bad enough for one year,” she said.
Stephens said he’s tired of regulatory inaction and said FCC’s focus on the fees amounts to a distraction.
“I’m done doing the studies. You guys know what the problem is,” the Range executive said. “If you ask me, all they would have to do is fine a carrier once or twice, a big fine like $250,000, for not completing the call.”
When asked if the FCC has fined any carriers, Wigfield said the agency is conducting some investigations about dropped calls.
The FCC is focused on improving mobile telephone and high-speed broadband service, but only half of Range Telephone customers are paying for broadband and many don’t want it, Stephens said.
“My customers just want to have a phone that works to call the hardware store, call the neighbors and call in emergencies,” he said.
Montana and Wyoming are large, sparsely populated states. So large for-profit companies would quit serving these rural areas if they could, Stephens said.
Meanwhile, Range is investing another $5 million this year to upgrade its system. But adding digital switching equipment doesn’t help much if so many incoming calls never arrive.
Schlosser said ranchers like him and other rural residents are easy targets for companies not wanting to do their job.
If people in a New York City neighborhood lost high-speed broadband for an hour, he said, “the FCC would be on it like a tall dog.”
“When people from California call out here, they already have a pre-conceived notion you’re a podunk who lives in the middle of nowhere,” Schlosser said. “And when your phone doesn’t work, it reinforces their stereotype.”