Roundup: Verizon Settles over Rural Calls

The phone company will pay the largest settlement to date in the FCC’s efforts to improve phone service to customers calling rural landlines • Temple Grandin tells Farm Bureau that farmers can’t hide from the cell phone • News coverage loses importance in political campaigns, consultants say • Liability concerns close rural obstetrics service.

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Telephone giant Verizon has agreed to a $5 million settlement with the Federal Communications Commission over issues related to the phone company’s service to customers trying to call landlines in rural areas.

The settlement over rural calling is the largest the FCC has made with a phone company since 2013, when the regulatory agency started scrutinizing the problem of “rural call completion” in response to phone company and consumer advocate complaints.

Verizon will pay a $2 million fine and spend another $3 million on a three-year plan to improve long-distance service to rural areas.

“All Americans, no matter where they are located, have a right to make and receive phone calls,” said Travis LeBlanc, chief of the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau in a release.  “Phone companies are on notice that the FCC will hold them accountable for failures to investigate and ensure that calls go through to the rural heartland of the country.”

The FCC said that Verizon failed to investigate complaints that its customers were having trouble placing long-distance calls to rural landlines.

Three other phone companies have settled with the FCC over their long-distance service to customers who are placing calls to rural areas. Those are Matrix Telecom (an $875,000 settlement), Windstream ($2.5 million) and Level 3 (nearly $ 1million).

 In 2013 the FCC approved a rule that will require phone companies to track their rates of dropped long-distance calls to rural areas.  (For a more complete description of the “rural call completion” problem, see Harold Feld’s Daily Yonder article from 2013.)

The FCC charged that Verizon did not investigate customer complaints about dropped calls to rural areas. In addition to the $2 million fine, Verizon agreed to:

·       Spend another $3 million over the next three years to address the problem of rural call completion both at the company and in the industry.

·       Appoint a Rural Call Completion Ombudsman within Verizon to centralize analysis of rural call completion problems.

·       Develop a system to automatically identify customer complaints that may be related to rural call completion issues.

·       Limit its use of intermediate providers, i.e., telecommunications providers between the Verizon network and the local rural provider, that are often the source of call completion problems.

·       Monitor its call answer rates to individual rural areas and conduct an investigation when rates to an area fall below a set threshold in any month.

·       Host industry workshops and sponsor an academic study on methods to detect and resolve rural call completion problems.

·       Provide quarterly summaries of its investigations to the FCC and meet periodically with FCC staff to identify lessons learned.

·       Prepare a report to be publicly filed with the FCC at the end of the three-year compliance period.

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Internationally known animal scientist Temple Grandin says the livestock industry has a lot of work to do to improve how it handles animals and how it communicates with consumers about its work.

Grandin spoke at the American Farm Bureau Federation conference in San Diego earlier this month:

“But what we’ve got to do is there are some practices that are going to have to change…. And there are some people in the ag industry that are not happy with me because I won’t defend everything that ag does. And we’ve got to change some practices, but what we’ve got to do is we’ve got to communicate with the public. We also have to remember that everybody has one of these [holds up cell phone] and you can’t get away from the video cameras any more. So what we need to be doing is change some practices and open up the doors.”

Grandin’s quote is part of this week’s “Policy Pennings” by University of Tennessee ag school faculty  Daryll E. Ray & Harwood D. Schaffer

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Traditional news coverage is becoming irrelevant for political campaigns, according to an opinion piece by partners in a Democratic media firm. Candidates should be focusing on reaching voters directly through social media and advertising, say Bill Fletcher and John Rowley of Fletcher Rowley.

… [T]he main point we would submit is that campaigns and candidates have to reassess how much time they put into earned media [news coverage] strategy, versus social media strategy, versus fundraising versus direct-voter contact. We would argue in most races that aren't for president, almost none of the candidate’s time should be spent dealing with the media.

The Democratic operatives aren’t happy about the lessened role of journalism in informing voters. But they say, for most candidates, it’s better to work on direct contact with voters than on trying to get newspapers and other media to cover them and their issues. Part of the reason is that to get news coverage requires getting off message.

There’s almost no space in newscasts or local news pages for a positive policy idea or coverage of someone trying to improve the community.

How do you make news? Attack an opponent, announce fundraising results or talk about a poll. These process stories don’t contribute much to the conversation, but they're about the only stories you’ll get other than the obligatory “candidate profile” a couple of weeks before the election.

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Liability concerns are forcing Cook County North Shore Hospital in Grand Marais, Minnesota, to end obstetric services in the small community on the shore of Lake Superior. The cessation of services follows a nationwide trend in closing rural obstetric clinics, the Duluth New Tribune reports.

At the  Ely-Bloomenson Community Hospital in Grand Marais, the end of obstetric services came after a liability insurance report that said the hospital’s care did not meet current standards.

Speakers at a recent meeting to discuss the closure argued that the standards weren’t suitable for a small, rural hospital:

[The] standards don’t make sense in a community such as Grand Marais, said Betsy Jorgenson, a transplant from Minneapolis who has had her two births at the Cook County hospital within the past two years.

“The tangled web of liability is reaching into the community where maybe the same rules shouldn’t apply,” Jorgenson said in an interview. “You can’t apply the same logic to every situation.”

Dr. Bruce Dahlman, a family physician in Grand Marais, made much the same point when he addressed the audience and board on Thursday.

Dahlman has spent large parts of his career in Africa, where he has worked to bring birthing services closer to rural communities, he said.

“Here in my own community, where I established my care and practice, we’re going the other way,” he said. “That seems very ironic.”

The hospital has an excellent record of safely delivering babies, Dahlman said.

“If you look at evidence, there’s no reason for an insurance company to say that you’re unsafe,” he said.

 

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