The FCC entered into a Consent Decree with a major phone carrier after an investigation into whether the carrier violated the Commission’s Rural Call Completion Rules.

According to the FCC, consumers in low-population areas face problems with long-distance and wireless call quality. In an effort to address these problems, the FCC has promulgated a series of directives that prohibit certain practices it deems unreasonable and require carriers to address complaints about rural calling (“Rural Call Completion Rules”).

In 2012, the FCC’s Wireline Competition Bureau determined that a carrier may be liable under Section 201 of the

Act for unjust or unreasonable practices if it “knows or should know that calls are not being completed to certain areas” and engages in practices (or omissions) that allow these problems to continue. This includes (1) failure to ensure that intermediate providers (companies that connect calls from the caller’s carrier to the recipient’s carrier) are performing adequately; and (2) not taking corrective action when the carrier is aware of call completion problems.

Since 2014, the FCC has prohibited the use of “false ring signaling,” the practice of triggering a “false” ring tone before the call reaches the rural provider (making it appear that the call has been connected when it has not). The FCC has continued to update its Rural Completion Rules as recently as this month.

In 2016, three rural carriers in Wisconsin complained to the FCC that customers of the major carrier were unable to complete long-distance calls to consumers serviced by the rural carriers. These rural carriers also complained of false ring tones used for these incomplete calls. Around the same time, individual customers complained directly to the major carrier. The major carrier determined that each of the reported failed calls had been handed off to intermediate providers, and concluded that the intermediate providers had since remedied the problems. The Enforcement Bureau subsequently issued an LOI to investigate whether the major carrier degraded service to rural-bound calls and conveyed false ring tones to customers.

Regarding the incomplete calls, the Enforcement Bureau found repeated call problems from the major carrier to at least ten different rural carriers. The Bureau also found that, beginning in 2007, the major carrier had begun automatically inserting false ring tones for calls that took too long to complete and continued this practice for some calls even after the FCC prohibited it.

According to the terms of the Consent Decree, the major carrier agreed to (1) admit that it did not correct the call delivery problems to rural callers associated with its intermediate providers; (2) admit that it violated the FCC’s prohibition on inserting false ring tones; (3) institute a compliance plan to address future rural call completion problems; and (4) pay a $40 million fine to the U.S. Treasury.