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Our Opinion: ‘Dropped calls’ hurt outstate biz

Ma Bell must be rolling over in her grave.

Until it was broken up by the federal government in 1984, the monolithic AT&T had a monopoly on local and long distance phone service in the United States.

The phone system in this country worked, whether you were calling New York or Detroit Lakes, the calls went through.

Not anymore.

For the past few years, long-distance calls coming into rural Minnesota stores and homes have been unreliable.

Shop owners say customers tell them they can hear the phone ringing on their end, but the phone doesn’t ring in the store.

The problem with dropped or uncompleted long-distance calls has been traced to third-party long distance carriers willing to drop calls to save money, according to the Minnesota Commerce Department, which launched an investigation in 2012.

The investigation included examining dropped calls, call routing problems, long set-up times with false ringing, and carriers changing call signaling information to avoid or minimize access charges.

These days, the big long distance company like AT&T, Sprint and Verizon don’t always see long-distance calls all the way through.

Sometimes the calls are routed through one of a half-dozen or so “third-party” service providers.

They aim to route the call to its destination at the cheapest possible cost.

But those mid-level carriers have to pay more when the call ends up in a rural area like Detroit Lakes. There are fewer customers to support the phone network, so routing access charges are higher.

Those mid-level routing companies appear to be dropping calls on purpose to avoid the higher access charges in rural areas.

It may be good business for the third-party providers, but it hurts small businesses in Minnesota, which lose hundreds of thousands of dollars, or millions of dollars, in revenue, according to the Commerce Department.

It’s hard to tell how widespread the problem is, because a lot of people aren’t aware of it due to “false ringing.”

That means the caller hears ringing, but the call was not connected — and people on the receiving end of the line don’t even know somebody tried to call and didn’t get through.

The Federal Communications Commission is on the case.

In 2011, it clarified rules to make sure long distance companies understand that it’s illegal to block calls to rural areas.

Earlier this year, the agency proposed new rules that would require companies to report call-completion data, according to Minnesota Public Radio.

And there is hope: Recently the FCC took its first enforcement action against a long distance company called Level 3, which agreed to hand over data about the actions of its affiliated companies and pay a $1 million fine.

The Commerce Department’s Telecom Division deserves credit for taking the investigation as far as it has.

Now it’s time for the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, which has jurisdiction over calls that begin and end in Minnesota, to get active as well.

Reliable long-distance phone service is vital to outstate Minnesota and must not be held hostage to corporate greed.