Can you hear me now? Not in rural areas

A 1896 Swedish Telephone

Yes, really:  These are calls to landlines.  And they're failing in large numbers.

FCC attorney Rebekah Goodheart understands the disconnect.  "You can call across the world, you can use your computer for anything," she says. "But, yeah, actually calling into rural areas has become an increasingly difficult problem."

And a serious one.  This isn’t just Ma and Pa Kent not hearing from Clark when he flies off to Metropolis.

Goodheart says she’s seen a case where a hospital couldn’t reach the doctor on call.  The Minnesota Attorney General's office started logging complaints from public-safety agencieslike police and firemore than two years ago. 

The FCC adopted new rules on Monday to address the problem, but how’d we get here? 

The answer starts about a hundred years ago, when AT&T—then affectionately known as Ma Bell—undertook to connect the whole country with long-distance wires.

"Well, Ma Bell didn’t exactly get everywhere," says Michael Romano, senior vice president for policy at the National Telecommunications Cooperative Association. (Or, as they like to call themselves, "The Voice of Rural Telecommunications.") It represents about 900 local companies serving the areas that Ma Bell never got to. "Our members serve the 4,000 customers outside the 10,000-person town," he says.

Back in the day, Ma Bell would take the call to the virtual doorstep of one of those companies—a switch someplace at the edge of that 10,000-person town and the local carrier would take it from there.

These days, your phone company—for instance, Verizon—hands it off to a third-party company.  There are a bunch, and whichever is offering the best deal probably picks up the call.

And then that third party looks for the cheapest way to route the call. Which could bounce it around a bunch of networks. "The call from Chicago might go through Minneapolis and route around through eastern South Dakota to western," says Romano. "Or it might go out to Denver and then come back. "

And every time the call gets bounced, it can get dropped.  Or the sound quality could degrade past the point of no return. 

This week’s FCC rules require providers to keep track of how many calls actually go through to rural areas and report back.  It won’t fix the problem, but it’ll at least help identify exactly where things are going wrong.  

They also require a novel form of disclosure from providers to the people trying t0 place calls to rural areas:  Silence.  

Currently, when you make a call, you hear the sound of a phone ringing on the other end even if the call never went through.  When nobody picks up, you blame the person you're calling. 

That's over, says the FCC's Goodheart.  "So, if you call, and don't hear a ringing signal, and there's just silence, you'll know it didn't go through," she says.  

You'll be able to stop worrying that Grandma is stuck under a heavy weight, or just ignoring you, and you can bug the phone company instead.

About the author

Dan is a sustainability reporter for Marketplace.

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