Verizon Fined $2 Million For Failing To Investigate Rural Calling Problems

Verizon and other operators of copper wire landline service have been accused in recent years of letting these old networks fall into disrepair in order to shift consumers over to wireless and fiberoptic services. It certainly doesn’t help Verizon’s case when the company spends months failing to investigate problems with rural phone service that its own data showed existed.

According to a consent decree [PDF] adopted yesterday by the FCC, Verizon collected eight months of evidence that “reflected potential problems with its delivery of calls to rural areas of the country,” but failed to actually investigate the issue, which affected 26 different rural communities.

The cost of being remiss in investigating the complaints, Verizon must pay $2 million in fines to the FCC, and spend $3 million over the next three years to improve call completion in rural areas.

This could have been avoided years ago. In June 2011, the FCC was given the heads-up about an apparent “nationwide and industry-wide epidemic” of calls to rural service areas that failed to complete or demonstrated low quality connections. A few months later the FCC created a Rural Call Completion Task Force “to investigate and address the growing problem of calls to rural customers that are being delayed or that fail to connect.”

In Feb. 2012, the FCC’s Wireline Competition Bureau issued a ruling clarifying that phone service carriers who know of call completion problems and engage in “acts (or omissions) that allow or effectively allow these conditions to persist,” may be in violation of federal law, as could the use of routing practices that “result in lower quality service to rural or high-cost localities than like service to urban or lower cost localities.”

Even though the writing was on the wall that landline providers were going to be held liable for the quality of their rural service, Verizon apparently did not improve its service to these areas.

Then in Nov. 2013, the FCC began requiring providers to record, retain, and report to the Commission call answer rates for long-distance calls.

Verizon was already collecting this sort of data, but when the FCC reviewed the company’s reports for all of 2013, it noticed that there were persistently low call completion rates in 39 different rural areas. The Commission asked Verizon what it had done to address these problems, but Verizon admitted it had only initiated investigations or taken remedial action for 13 of the 39 areas, failing to do anything about 26 of them in spite of having evidence of a problem.

After being chastised for not investigating, Verizon finally took a look at these areas and claimed that its network and routing practices were not to blame.

In addition to the combined $5 million in fines and improvements, Verizon has agreed to a handful of other commitments, including the appointment of a “Rural Call Completion Ombudsman” at Verizon the development of a system to automatically identify customer complaints that may be related to rural call
completion issues; putting limits on Verizon’s use of intermediate providers that provide service between Verizon’s network and local providers’ networks.

“All Americans, no matter where they are located, have a right to make and receive phone calls,” said Travis LeBlanc, Chief of the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau. “Phone companies are on notice that the FCC will hold them accountable for failures to investigate and ensure that calls go through to the rural heartland of the country.”


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