WORTHINGTON — Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn, met with local public officials in Worthington on Sunday to discuss the issue of calls being dropped or delayed in Nobles County.
A national test of 2,150 rural calls, conducted in 2011, found that 344 never reached their destination and another 172 were delayed or of poor quality.
The study found that in rural areas of the U.S., major providers such as Verizon and AT&T contract with intermediaries called “least cost call routers” to connect calls. Klobuchar said these routers at times do not connect calls, as it’s cheaper for them to simply drop calls rather than route them.
Worthington Mayor Mike Kuhle described what such a call sounds like.
“The call starts, and keeps going, but nothing happens — sometimes it will take two or three minutes before you hear a ring,” Kuhle said.
In January 2015, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) fined Verizon $2 million for failing to investigate dropped rural calls in 22 counties, and required the company to invest $3 million in a program to keep better track of rural connection problems.
But it didn’t make much of a difference. In Nobles County, where Verizon serves a large majority of rural customers, public safety officials continue to report issues with calls being dropped or delayed, whether it’s on cell phones or landlines.
“It’s an issue with citizens being able to access dispatch and give them accurate information,” said Buffalo Task Force Commander Nate Grimmius. “When you constantly have dropped calls, it sacrifices safety.”
Klobuchar got wind of the problem in 2015, when various rural businesses, hospitals and schools reported not being able to send messages or calls out, or receive calls. To provide oversight, Klobuchar introduced the Improving Rural Call Quality and Reliability Act, along with Sen. John Thune, R-S.D. and Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont.
“The bill requires the FCC to set call standards so it’s easier to go after them when they do this,” Klobuchar said. “Because they’re just making money off of this — not completing the calls — and half of the time, you don’t know it. Rural people are getting screwed by it.”
In addition to setting new standards for call routers, the bill would require the FCC to maintain a database of the call routers, and require them to register.
“So if Verizon is contracting with someone, they have to contract with someone who’s registered, so it would make it easier for us to track who’s connecting the calls and who isn’t,” Klobuchar said.
The bill passed the Senate on Aug. 3. Rep. David Young, a Republican from Van Meter, Iowa, is the sponsor for the House version of the bill, which Klobuchar said she was hopeful would remain faithful to its Senate counterpart.
At the meeting, public safety officials brought up other cell phone-related concerns to Klobuchar.
Ellsworth Fire Chief Kim Chapa said 911 calls made near the Iowa border are often delayed, and at times transferred to dispatches in Iowa.
“We’ve got calls down in Ellsworth that go to Sioux Center, Sioux City, and now they’re trying to figure out where to reroute it to to get it back where it’s supposed to be,” Chapa said.“If they want us all to have cell service, they better provide the service, because it is basically life and death.”
Also brought up were call scams, which have become more complex and devious in recent months.
“I had a scammer call me on credit card stuff,” Chapa said. “It was a 507-360 number, so a Worthington number, and when I called it back, it was some gal who had no idea her phone number was being used that way.”
Grimmius said the scamming practice, known as “spoofing,” has increased in popularity recently.
“We had a scam like that with Worthington Public Utilities, saying that people had overdue bills, and they would come over and shut their power off, and it came from a local number, so people believed it,” Grimmius said.
To wrap up the meeting, Kuhle said the rural Worthington area’s issues with call quality, cell coverage and a lack of broadband were “devastating” for economic development.
“We’ve got young families that want to move down here, and they won’t do it if the infrastructure isn’t there,” Kuhle said.
Klobuchar agreed, and said she believed more families could move to rural areas for a lower cost of living, if broadband and cell phone coverage were improved.
“We’ve done good work getting federal money towards broadband, but we can do much more,” Klobuchar said.