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Letter to Julius Genachowski, Chairman of Federal Communications Commission

U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) has called on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to fix the problem of dropped, incomplete, incorrect caller ID, and poor quality, long-distance landline phone calls and faxes to customers in rural areas. The growing nationwide problem currently affects rural communities across the country and throughout Washington state, including in Clark, Cowlitz, Kittitas, Lewis, Pierce, Thurston, Whatcom, and Whitman counties.

In Lewis County, The Toledo Telephone Co., Inc. serves about 2,000 landline customers, of which more than 1,200 also subscribe to broadband service. According to Toledo Telephone, one of its customers, a medical clinic, reported only receiving 50 percent of faxes when they came from outside the local calling area. According to the Washington Independent Telecommunications Association (WITA), some of its member companies estimate that up to 90 percent of long-distance calls display incorrectly (as a local number) on caller ID.
In a bipartisan letter sent to the chairman of the FCC last week, Cantwell and 23 other Senators urged the Commission to continue investigating the issue and provide an update on its efforts to identify the cause of the call termination problem.

"There's no excuse for rural Washingtonians not to receive incoming long distance calls and faxes over their landlines," said Senator Cantwell. "Washingtonians in rural areas need to know they will be able to receive calls from family and friends living in other parts of the state or country. Many small businesses still rely on landlines, but dropped calls and faxes hamper their ability to operate. The FCC should investigate this issue to ensure that families and small businesses in rural areas have full access to telephone service."

"Families and businesses in every corner of our state are suffering because a link in the chain that connects rural and urban communities has been broken," said Betty Buckley, Executive Director of WITA, whose members combined serve half the population of Washington state. "Dropped calls present a serious problem when rural doctors can't receive calls and faxes from specialists in urban areas, or when grain producers can't receive calls from buyers and businesses in urban areas. We are appreciative of Senator Cantwell's efforts to get to the bottom of this and restore reliable service to our customers."

"It is fundamental that long distance companies provide the service their customers pay for," said Dale Merten, Chief Operating Officer for Toledo Telephone based in Toledo, WA. Dale testified at the FCC's Rural Call Completion Workshop in Washington, D.C. on October 18th, 2011. "We receive on average one complaint per day where customers can't receive calls or faxes, but we estimate the actual number of customers impacted to be much higher because many have given up reporting the problem. Thousands of calls do not go through to Washington rural businesses, school districts, medical facilities, and households every day. This issue jeopardizes the safety of our communities, and costs Washington businesses millions of dollars in lost revenue."

"We serve about 600 customers southwest of Spokane, and at the peak we were receiving four to ten complaints a day related to dropped calls or calls not going through," said Greg Morasch, General Manager at St. John Telephone Company in Whitman County. "We've heard from folks who have not been able to get through to their elderly parents to check on them. And we've heard from doctors' offices that are not able to call in prescriptions at pharmacies or agriculture businesses not being able to get calls from potential customers. If our business is to remain viable, this issue must be addressed as soon as possible, or our customers will switch to other service providers."

"We've definitely had our fair share of the phones ringing and no one is there," said Lori Stevens, Marketing Director at Airfield Estates Winery located in Prosser. Airfield Estates Winery is marketed nationally with distributors located in the Seattle area, in Florida, and in New York. "It happens just about every day. We always figured it is people on cell phones, telemarketers, or wrong calls. It never crossed our mind that it might be problems with the land lines."

Many Americans, including small businesses, still rely on traditional landlines to engage in commerce, communicate with friends and family, and call for emergency assistance. Nearly two thirds of American households have landline phones, and 62 percent of Americans say the service is a necessity. Yet this problem is widespread and growing.

Between April 2010 and March 2011, complaints from rural customers nationwide have increased a staggering 2,000 percent, according to a letter submitted June 13th, 2011 to the FCC by the National Telecommunications Cooperative Association (NTCA), National Exchange Carrier Association (NECA), the Organization for the Promotion and Advancement of Small Telecommunications Companies (OPASTCO ), and the Western Telecommunications Alliance (WTA). The problem of dropped calls affects 80 percent of rural carriers surveyed by a rural telephone company trade association on the issue, according to the FCC.

The Washington Independent Telecommunications Association (WITA) is urging the problem of call termination be addressed in order to provide reliable landline phone service to WITA members' customers. WITA's members together serve around three million customers located across every county in Washington state.

WITA's members include statewide providers CenturyLink and Frontier and the following smaller local companies:

CLARK COUNTY: TDS Telecom (LaCenter)
COWLITZ COUNTY: Kalama Telephone Company (Kalama)
ISLAND and WHATCOM COUNTIES: Whidbey Telecom (Langley)
KITSAP: Inland Telephone Company (Roslyn)
KITTITAS COUNTY: FairPoint Communications (Ellensburg), Inland Telephone Company (Roslyn)
LEWIS COUNTY: The Toledo Telephone Company, Inc. (Toledo), Rainier Connect (Eatonville)
MASON COUNTY: Hood Canal Communications (Union), Inland Telephone Company (Roslyn)
PIERCE COUNTY: Rainier Connect (Eatonville)
THURSTON COUNTY: Tenino Telephone Company (Tenino)
WAHKIAKUM COUNTY: Wahkiakum West Telephone (Rosburg)
WHITMAN COUNTY: Pioneer Telephone Company (LaCrosse), St. John Telephone Company (St. John)

The text of the letter sent January 19th, 2012 follows:

The Honorable Julius Genachowski
Chairman
Federal Communications Commission
445 12th Street, SW
Washington, D.C. 20554

Dear Chairman Genachowski,

As reliance on high-speed Internet and mobile communication continues to grow, it is important to recognize that many Americans still rely on their traditional landline phone to engage in commerce, communicate with friends and family, and call for emergency assistance. Nearly two thirds of American households have landline phones, and 62 percent of Americans say the service is a necessity. Unfortunately, this service has become less reliable in certain rural areas due to a call origination, routing, and termination problem that is preventing the delivery of a growing number of calls to customers of rural local exchange carriers.

As you know, representatives for rural carriers have reported a staggering 2,000 percent increase in complaints between April 2010 and March 2011 from consumers who have experienced calls that fail to complete, are delayed, have poor voice quality, lack correct caller ID information, or where the originating carrier simply refuses to place calls to certain rural areas. This problem, commonly referred to as "call termination," "dropped calls," or "call completion," is widespread and has been reported by local exchange companies in 36 states.
The failure to complete calls is having a negative effect on local businesses and people throughout rural America and also presents a serious safety concern for affected consumers. Small business owners who are affected by this problem are rightfully frustrated and demand a solution, noting that in this challenging economic climate, businesses rely on reliable telephone service and cannot afford to lose a business opportunity because of a dropped call. Additionally, incomplete calls raise a significant public safety concern that could yield devastating outcomes if this problem is not effectively and promptly addressed.
Despite efforts by rural local exchange companies, state regulatory commissions, and telecommunications trade associations to identify the cause of this problem, there remain many unanswered questions. We appreciate the Commission's creation of the Rural Call Completion Task Force and the workshop that was conducted with key stakeholders on October 18, 2011 to examine the extent of and reasons for the call completion problem. We also hope that the industry can continue to work with the Commission to examine the technical problems and help develop meaningful and effective solutions. We remain concerned, however, that this problem will continue to persist and negatively affect rural consumers without continued action and oversight by your agency.

We respectfully request that you update us about the Commission's efforts to identify the cause of this problem. Should your investigation reveal that responsible parties are engaging in activities that violate the Communications Act or a Commission rule or order, we believe it is critical that the Commission takes the necessary actions to protect consumers and ensure that the widespread and frequent occurrence of undelivered calls to rural areas is addressed. We appreciate your attention to our concerns regarding this problem and look forward to your response.

Sincerely,

Senator Maria Cantwell
Senator Tim Johnson
Senator John Thune
Senator Kent Conrad
Senator Ben Nelson
Senator John Hoeven
Senator Jeff Merkley
Senator Richard Durbin
Senator Mark Kirk
Senator Tom Harkin
Senator Daniel Coats
Senator Chuck Grassley
Senator Debbie Stabenow
Senator Bernard Sanders
Senator Jon Tester
Senator Max Baucus
Senator Michael Bennet
Senator Mike Crapo
Senator Patrick Leahy
Senator Mark Udall
Senator Mike Johanns
Senator Al Franken
Senator Amy Klobuchar
Senator James Risch


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