Guest column: Decisions by phone companies cost South Dakota customers

Farm Forum

In much of rural America, including South Dakota, it is getting more difficult for long distance calls coming from out-of-state to connect to landline telephone customers. Those who experience this “rural call completion problem” might hear from someone who tried to call them that their phone “just kept ringing” when, in fact, it never rang in South Dakota. Others report their phone rings, but there is only dead air when it is answered. In some cases, the call connects, but is of extremely poor quality. Lastly, customers report calls come through with inaccurate or misleading caller identification numbers.

This is having a profound impact on South Dakota. Businesses that rely on out-of-state customers report lost revenue when those customers can’t connect their long distance call. Security and health are threatened when calls made from a school to parents regarding schedules or weather events never reach the intended recipients. One South Dakota school that uses an out-of-state vendor for parent notification couldn’t get those calls through to landlines in its own district.

What causes this problem? The answer goes deep into our nation’s telecommunications system. Every time a long distance call is made, money flows from one long distance company to others involved in routing the call to its destination. Frequently, the caller’s long distance company will subcontract the call to other companies called “least cost routers” that transmit long distance calls via the least expensive route. If least cost routers determine it costs them more to deliver a call than they are getting paid for the call, they have a financial incentive to lose (not connect) the call, even though they are required by law to complete it.

The result has shaken the telephone system on which we rely. We are subject to out-of-state companies making calculations on whether they will make or lose a fraction of a penny per minute on connecting or losing a long distance call that has been placed in their care.

This is an issue of great concern to your state public utilities commissioners, whose job is to ensure reliable utility service. Unfortunately, because this problem is occurring outside of South Dakota, the PUC lacks authority to solve the problem. This is a national issue that requires a solution from the Federal Communications Commission.

In 2011, the FCC held a workshop to gather information to better understand this issue. In 2012, the FCC issued an order to long distance telephone companies, essentially telling them, “don’t do this again!” Because that order had no teeth, the problem remains. The FCC seems unwilling to find the companies who are the perpetrators and slap them with meaningful fines. The FCC’s inaction has become so blatant and troublesome that, recently, 36 U.S. senators, including Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., and Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., signed a letter to the FCC demanding enforcement. Even that has failed to move the agency to action.

The FCC has dropped the ball for rural America. Despite this inaction, your PUC continues to push the FCC to do its job. You can help. If you experience calls that don’t complete and can document those failures, report those problems at