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Public Service Commission to investigate CenturyLink for poor phone service

The Montana Public Service Commission is launching an investigation into CenturyLink Communication’s “legacy infrastructure” because customers in rural areas continue to report telephone problems including the inability to reach 911.

“If we don’t have correctly working 911, people’s lives are at risk,” said Commissioner Randy Pinocci at a PSC meeting last month. “I can’t make it any more clear than that.”

But Commissioner Tony O’Donnell said old telephone equipment is part of the problem, and new parts aren’t being made. He said transition to new technology isn’t simple.

“This is a problem that is being experienced over the entire country,” O’Donnell said.

Last year, Wibaux County Commissioners and area residents told the PSC about problems with their phone service, and the commissioners filed a formal complaint against CenturyLink. At its December meeting, the PSC granted CenturyLink’s motion to dismiss the complaint alleging poor broadband, cellphone and 911 services. The Commission found in part that its authority was limited in addressing concerns, such those with broadband.

However, given the litany of complaints and persistence of the problems, the Commission accepted a staff recommendation to launch a separate investigation into “the adequacy of legacy infrastructure” owned and operated by CenturyLink and its affiliates in rural areas. On a voice vote, commissioners unanimously approved the motion.

In a statement, CenturyLink defended its service and also noted broadband will likely be a solution for the future.

“We take our obligation to serve customers very seriously, and the health of our network remains robust,” CenturyLink said. “Areas that are less populated are difficult for any communications provider to serve due to the costs of building and maintaining the network infrastructure, which is why policymakers are implementing historic levels of funding to support broadband buildout in rural areas.
“We strongly support closing the digital divide and look forward to continuing to work with policymakers on the best ways to do so.”

In a phone call Monday, PSC public policy and consumer relations coordinator Dan Stusek said the agency will conduct the investigation in house, and discovery will be issued shortly. Stusek, an attorney, said Wibaux County is the focus, but public comment will inform the review, which could extend anywhere in Montana.

“The Commission has received formal and informal complaints alleging CenturyLink has failed to provide adequate infrastructure to the residents in rural areas,” said the Notice of Commission Action. “Among concerns raised were long service outages in rural areas, the inability to access 911 services, and storms causing CenturyLink infrastructure to initiate false 911 calls.

“The issues raised are concerning to the Commission. The alleged problems impact the ability of rural Montanans to conduct their everyday lives and businesses. Most worrisome to the Commission is the impact on public safety if CenturyLink customers are unable to access 911 service.”

It isn’t the first time the regulatory body launched an investigation after hearing concerns from CenturyLink customers. In an order in 2015, the PSC told CenturyLink to fix problems in Wibaux, and the company had a plan to make improvements.

At the PSC meeting in December, staff member Gary Duncan said customers in urban areas have more and more choices when it comes to providers, but people in Wibaux don’t. They have CenturyLink, he said, along with its equipment installed by Mountain Bell in 1982, or even earlier, and a company that’s clearly trying to get out of the legacy phone business.

“Supposedly, they did fix the service, but I think it’s obvious in the case of Wibaux that all they did was slap on a Bandaid,” said Duncan, who also noted the problem isn’t 911, but a caller’s ability to reach it.

O’Donnell, though, said service problems aren’t unique to Wibaux; rather, they’re nationwide, and the options for fixing the system are limited given its age. 

“My understanding of this is that components of this system cannot really be fixed except with Bandaids because nobody is manufacturing equipment, replacement equipment, right now,” O’Donnell said.

Either way, the problems in Wibaux have continued, said County Commissioner Darin Miske. In a phone call Monday, he said people in Wibaux stand ready to help the PSC with its investigation, which he anticipates will turn up plenty of problems — and no lasting solutions from the earlier investigation.

“They’re going to find quite a bit wrong here when they start diving into this,” Miske said.