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Montana senators want answers for degrading rural landline quality

WASHINGTON - SEPTEMBER 21:  Federal Communicat...
Julius Genachowski

Noticed problems with your landline lately? You’re not alone. According to Phillip Dampier at, the FCC saw a 2,000 percent increase in the number of complaints over rural landline service between April 2010 and March 2011.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., announced today that he and others in the Seneate have signed a letter to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, demanding that his agency do something to address the adverse effect unreliable phone service is having on businesses, residents and public safety in rural areas. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., also signed the letter.

The problem is so bad that the FCC has formed a special task force to look into the problem. The Rural Call Completion Task Force, announced in September, will investigate the growing number of dropped, delayed and incomplete calls on rural landlines. (A nearly 3-hour video of the task force’s October workshop is on YouTube here.) The letter signed by Tester and Baucus urged Genachowski to give a report on this committee’s progress.

A special report from in November pointed out that many Americans in rural areas have no choice but to live with deteriorating phone networks that companies no longer want to maintain.

AT&T, the report says, told investors in October that it had no further interest in expanding the wired networks it owns. Replacing all that copper was too expensive when the number of landline subscribers was falling. At the same time, wired networks are failing, and in some places where AT&T says it wil never upgrade its service:

AT&T has been content asking lawmakers to ease up on the phone company, urging that minimum service standards and oversight be abolished, along with the power of regulators to fine the company for repeated transgressions.

For its part, Verizon started selling off older, wired networks years ago. Some of those local telcoms left to run the aging networks have since gone out of business, the StopTheGap report states. Instead of repairing its copper networks, Verizon focused on its fiber-to-the-home systems until the economy forced the company to put that expensive program on hold.

As the report says:

At the same time, Verizon is loathe to maintain investment in its antiquated copper wire landline network, which in some areas was supposed to be retired in favor of FiOS. (This is not just a rural problem.)

So, the gist of it is that Verizon and AT&T — and presumably other telcoms — see landlines as a losing proposition and would rather get rural customers switched over to wireless solutions, which are cheaper to deploy. Also, the companies charge more for the wireless access, and people must pay for the equipment needed to access them, whether it’s a computer, cell phone, antenna or router.

What has been your experience with landlines in rural areas?