Most people have experienced a dropped call or a connection where the phone just keeps ringing, but Fox 9 News has learned the issue is significantly affecting rural communities nationwide and officials are concerned.
It's not only an economic issue for rural Minnesota, but a matter of public safety. Turns out, when calls are dropped or simply don't go through, chances are the problem doesn't rest with the local telephone company. Instead, the blame rests squarely on the shoulders of a telecommunications middle man saving a few pennies at the customer's expense.
Many people can relate to the experience of calling a rural relative but having the phone ring without any answer before the call suddenly ends.
"We hear complaints from businesses that their customers can't get a hold of them," Commerce Commissioner Michael Rothman told Fox 9 News.
What most people probably don't know is that the phone on the other end isn't even ringing.
"A business complained that 14 to 17 calls weren't getting through each day," Rothman continued.
West central Minnesota seems to be particularly plagued by the problem, especially residents along the Interstate 94 corridor. In fact, small phone companies say it's costing customers in communities like Brainerd and Little Falls real money.
Fox 9 reporter Tom Lyden discovered the problem when calling his parents in rural California and his mother-in-law in rural Iowa. Calls were either dropped or simply never went through, and phone companies couldn't explain why.
That's because the problem isn't with the big phone companies like Century Link, or even with the smaller providers. The intermediary providers are the culprits -- people who have set up shop in their basement or garage. Known as "Least Cost Routers," as the name implies, their goal is to get the call where it needs to go as quickly as possible.
"It's like playing wack-a-mole," Brent Christensen said.
The Minnesota Telecom Alliance, an industry trade group, has been dealing with the issue for years and insists there are a few bad actors who make trouble for everyone. Since rural phone companies charge more, Least Cost Routers will go to great lengths to reroute calls thousands of miles out of the way -- or sometimes drop them altogether.
"That call comes in, you have 27 calls coming in and 25 channels, 2 calls get lost," Christensen explained. "They just get lost."
Rothman is now asking Minnesota's Public Utilities Commission to continue an investigation he started, but because most of the long-distance middle men operate out of state, there may be little Minnesota can do except listen to that endless ring.
"We want to get to the bottom of it and see why it's still happening," Rothman said.
CTC Telecom out of Brainerd told Fox 9 News they've even had problems with calls dropped to a local police department, which poses a real public safety risk.
The Federal Communications Commission also tried to deal with the issue a couple of months ago by requiring telephone companies to track dropped or uncompleted calls. They've also banned the use of a false ring tone, but it appears to still be happening.