By Jasper Craven, VTDigger
The U.S. House has unanimously passed a bill co-sponsored by U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., that aims to improve the quality of rural phone service.
“Whether an emergency call or a business order, Vermonters should have confidence that their calls are completed without disruption,” Welch said in a statement. “This bill helps address the epidemic of dropped calls in rural America and will ensure calls to emergency responders, businesses, customers, family and friends are reliably connected.”
The bill, titled the Improving Rural Call Quality and Reliability Act, amends the 1934 Communications Act to “prevent unjust or unreasonable discrimination” in phone service quality for rural residents.
According to the Federal Communications Commission, residents of Vermont and other rural states experience persistent problems with incoming long distance and wireless calls. The FCC reports that such calls are often plagued by choppy sound quality, long ring periods or even prolonged silence before the call connects. Sometimes long distance calls to rural areas will simply not connect, or faxes won’t go through.
The reason relates to the higher charges long distance and wireless carriers have to pay to local telephone companies to complete calls. In the complex process of routing a call to a local company’s network, a national company must pay an additional access charge, which helps cover the higher-than-average costs of setting up rural phone networks.
In efforts to shrink these additional costs, some wireless and long-distance carriers have contracted with third-party companies that route calls as efficiently as possible. In this process, service quality can suffer.
Beginning in April 2015, all major carriers were required to log phone data from calls over 1,300 rural phone networks and report back to the FCC.
The current legislation directs the FCC to establish basic standards for all voice call providers to ensure that quality is consistent across all geographic areas.
If the FCC finds that carriers are not meeting quality standards, it has the power to file civil charges against those companies for violating the Communications Act, which established the FCC and set forth its regulatory powers.
Rep. David Young, R-Iowa, the bill’s chief sponsor, hailed Welch’s work on the bill after it passed out of the chamber last week on a voice vote.
“Americans deserve consistent, quality phone service no matter where they choose to live,” Young said. “I appreciate the support this important legislation has received from members on both sides of the aisle, especially Congressman Welch, as we continue to move it forward and improve phone service for folks in Iowa communities and across rural America.”
A version of the rural call bill passed out of the House and Senate Commerce committees during the last session, and a Welch aide said the Senate is expected to pass the bill soon.