At Up North Sports, about 20 percent of business comes over the phone. But that crucial tie to customers from across the nation often breaks.
For the past few years, long-distance calls coming into the sporting goods store have been unreliable. Although customers say they can hear the phone ringing on their end, sometimes the phone doesn't ring in the store.
"We'll be talking to people and the call will just drop, or people will try to call us and they can't get through," co-owner Steve Fogelson said. "And we get phone calls from hopefully most of them, but we don't know how many people just kind of give up and don't call us back."
Rural phone customers in Minnesota and other parts of the country have complained about dropped or uncompleted long-distance calls for several years. The problem stems from third-party long distance carriers that are trying to save money, officials with the Federal Communications Commission say.
Up North Sports receives hundreds of long-distance calls every day during the peak months of November through January. Fogelson estimates more than a third of those calls are affected.
"It gets real frustrating for us, because being in a small business, you know, every sale that you miss hurts the bottom line," he said.
Fogelson reported the problems to his local phone provider, Paul Bunyan Communications in Bemidji. The company fielded more than 400 similar complaints last year, and continues to get dozens more each month, spokesman Brian Bissonette said.
Paul Bunyan technicians determined the trouble wasn't a local problem. They also learned that rural customers across the country are plagued with dropped calls.
"As you can imagine, they're frustrated with not being able to receive calls," Bissonette said. "The caller who is trying to reach them is frustrated because they can't reach them, and we're stuck in the middle trying to get things resolved."
When someone is trying to call Fogelson at Up North Sports in Bemidji, for example, the call might originate from a network belonging to a big long distance company like AT&T, Sprint or Verizon. But the call might also be routed through half a dozen third-party service providers. Those companies promise to route the call to its destination at the lowest possible cost.
However, mid-level carriers have to pay more when the call ends up in a rural area like Bemidji. That's because there are fewer customers to support the phone network, so routing access charges are typically higher.
Telecom experts suspect those mid-level routing companies may be dropping calls intentionally to avoid the higher access charges in rural areas.
Bissonette said rural telephone associations and members of Congress have put pressure on the FCC to fix the problem.
"People have an expectation... and rightfully so, [that] when you pick up the phone to dial it, the call is going to be completed," he said. "And if it isn't, it's for a technical reason that can be fixed, and not because of a decision by a company because they want to try and cut costs."
In 2011, the FCC issued rule clarifications to make sure long distance companies understand that it's illegal to block calls to rural areas. Earlier this year, the agency proposed new rules that would require companies to report call-completion data.
Last month, the FCC took its first enforcement action against a long distance company called Level 3, that that agency officials suspected of blocking calls. In a settlement with the FCC, Level 3 agreed to hand over data about the actions of its affiliated companies. It will also pay a $1 million penalty.
The data from Level 3 will help identify other companies that are not following the rules, said Michael Steffen, a legal advisor for the FCC.
"We didn't expect any single settlement or enforcement action to be a silver bullet," Steffen said. "This is a complicated problem. We have a multi-pronged effort ongoing. But we have made it clear that we take this extremely seriously."
Some telecom companies report that call completion problems have intensified in recent months. The FCC's proposed rule changes designed to fix that will likely be approved later this year.