Ritter explains long distance issues

Friday, September 21, 2012

Recently, Ritter Communications customers in Poinsett County have been experiencing problems with the quality of incoming long-distance calls. The quality on such calls has either been poor or the calls are not completing at all.

John Strode, VP of External Affairs for Ritter Communications, said Ritter has struggled with this problem periodically, like a lot of other smaller phone companies across the country, but that there has been an increase in complaints since August.

Strode said the problem is not with Ritter's facilities and it is a nationwide problem. He explained the problem has to do with the ways long distance carriers attempt to complete calls. When a person dials a Ritter customer long distance, that person's long distance carrier sometimes tries to hand the call off to other carriers in such a way that will be cheaper for them using something called least-cost routing. The long distance carrier has to pay Ritter a charge for use of their facilities and may decide to hand the call off to another company to avoid paying those charges.

"Small individual companies like Ritter have access charges determined by the Federal Communications Commission," Strode said. "They are higher than those set for bigger companies because we have fewer customers. The originating caller's long distance company is sometimes handing the call off to other carriers. At some point, one of those companies looks at the call and decides they don't want to pay the access charges and tries to hand it off to somebody. Whoever they hand it off to may have the same reaction."

This juggling leads to a loss of call quality. "The network is trying to complete the call, but by the time it's handed off, either the information is not all there or the call quality is diminished, so there is only dead air on our customer's end," Strode said.

The FCC issued a declaratory ruling in February recognizing the problem with such practices and stated that carriers who cause calls to not complete are in violation of the Communications Act of 1934.

"The FCC is aware of the problem," Strode said, "but that's as far as it's gone. There has been no enforcement action against anybody. The FCC has the ability to penalize carriers for degrading or not completing calls. I think if they took enforcement actions, the rest of the industry would straighten up."

"It's frustrating for us because we can't fix the problem," he said. "We don't know where the call originated from. If a customer complains to the FCC, they send the complaint to us."

Strode said Ritter has talked to the Arkansas Public Service Commission and they are making test calls and trying to gather data in the hopes that the PSC and the FCC will investigate and take action.

He added people who have experienced poor call quality or dropped calls on incoming long distance calls can do two things. If they call a person and the call goes through, then the problem is on the other person's end, and they should complain to their long distance carrier. The Ritter customer should then supply the following information to Ritter Communications: the caller's number, the called number, the telephone service provider of the caller and the date and time of the call. "Then we can put together the data and get it to the regulatory commissions so they can investigate and bring those offending carriers into compliance," he said.

Though Ritter is powerless to do much since the problem lies with the companies where the calls are originating from, Strode said he believes the problem should get better because the FCC is reforming access charges.

"The FCC has ordered us to reduce our terminating access rates in a series of steps," he said. "We just implemented a reduction on July 1. Over time, rates will be reduced to zero."

When long distance carriers no longer have to pay Ritter for access to their facilities, the problems with call quality should go away. "But that creates a new set of problems," Strode said. "If they don't pay for use of the network, then the customers do, one way or another."

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