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Silence on the line in SD


MITCHELL, S.D. -- Two years ago, Larry Weelborg noticed something wrong with his telephone service.

"Calls would come in and nobody would be on the line," Weelborg said. "It would ring, hang up and be gone."

Weelborg, who owns JaLar Transportation Inc. in Custer, S.D., said customers started saying calls weren't going through and strange messages were popping up about the line being disconnected.

So Weelborg called Golden West Communications.

"They could never track down what was going on, the way it seemed," he said.

Weelborg isn't the only one facing dropped calls.

In South Dakota, dropped calls have been an issue for the past year and a half, said Chris Nelson, chairman of the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission.

In April, a group of rural telecommunications associations performed test calls and published the results in May. The group found call failure rates in rural areas were 13 times higher than non-rural areas.

"The issue is the call never gets to South Dakota," Nelson said. "We don't have the ability to investigate."

The state has not done, nor does it have the capacity, to conduct its own study, according to Nelson.

"If the call never gets to South Dakota, we don't know its origin," he said.

Weelborg was told the same when he called Golden West. Calls would come from out of state and Weelborg would ask Golden West to track it down.

The calls couldn't be tracked because there wasn't enough information -- long distance carriers outside of the state were dropping the calls, Weelborg was told.

Nelson said the call first goes to the local telephone company before being transferred to a long distance company to connect. To save money, long-distance companies subcontract through least-cost routers. Least-cost routers are companies that carry long distance call traffic for less money, moving calls from one company to another.

"Your call may go through three or four companies," Nelson said. "So who it is through the whole string, we don't know. That's the frustrating part of it."

In February, after forming a task force the previous fall to look into the issue, the Federal Communications Commission released a declaratory ruling. The FCC clarified that "it is an unjust and unreasonable practice" for a carrier to fail to correct the problem or fail to make sure companies employed by the carrier are performing adequately.

For Weelborg, the frustration finally boiled over.

"It got so bad we finally switched to the Voice over IP (Internet Protocol) system," Weelborg said. "We got rid of Golden West."

Voice over Internet Protocol technology carries phone calls through the Internet rather than traditional phone lines.

Weelborg said he hasn't had issues with VoIP. But nomadic VoIP had the biggest percentage of dropped calls in the test by the rural telecom associations -- 28.4 percent of the nomadic VoIP calls were incomplete, compared to landline calls dropping 3.5 percent of the time. Nomadic VoIP is the kind of service that can be used wherever an Internet connection is found.

In South Dakota, 15 percent of long distance calls are placed through VoIP technology, Nelson said.

Weelborg, who gets VoIP through NexVortex, said the only issue with VoIP is when Internet goes down, which doesn't happen often.

At Mitchell Telecom, dropped calls happen every now and then in spurts, said Ryan Thompson, general manager of Mitchell Telecom and Santel Communications.

When complaints reach Mitchell Telecom, the first place checked is the local side before contacting the long-distance carriers.

"Up to this point, that's where the majority (of dropped calls) show up," he said.

The solution to the problem will have to come from higher up, said Larry Thompson, CEO and founder of Vantage Point Solutions in Mitchell. He has met with the enforcement bureau in the FCC and said there has been more awareness of dropped calls.

Both Nelson and Larry Thompson agree the only way for the issue to stop is for the FCC to penalize the offenders.

"Right now, it seems like there's no penalties associated and there has to be some sort of incentive to get them to stop," Larry Thompson said.

The main reason companies go through least-cost routers is the financial motivation, Larry Thompson said.

"If there were penalties ... if the (financial) incentives were taken away, it would stop quickly," he said.

Ryan Thompson thinks the solution lies with national carriers such as AT&T and Verizon. He said it's easy for Mitchell Telecom, which has 15 employees, to sort out dropped calls.

But to get the attention of national carriers, he said, the smaller companies need to pool together information to get the bigger carriers to respond.

"When you suggest to a large, Fortune 500 carrier that they have a problem ... it's the customer in South Dakota they don't care about," Ryan Thompson said. "They are only as engaged as they want to be."

Dropped calls lost Weelborg business. Now, he said he spends more money every month because he pays for high speed Internet from Golden West plus VoIP from NexVortex.