The solution offered by CenturyLink may overlook Essex customers

After years of subpar phone service from CenturyLink, Essex residents are wondering if they will once again be forgotten in the state’s recently announced “solution” to the problem.

At its Oct. 25 meeting, the Montana Public Services Commission (PSC) issued a 45-day ultimatum for CenturyLink to find a short-term solution to nagging rural customer service issues while the company addresses major infrastructure issues.

CenturyLink’s proposed solution would have the company pay for satellite phone service for those who have poor rural service, as the company already does for customers in similar situations in Wyoming.

The only problem? Wyoming customers say the solution isn’t working.

“I’ve heard people in Wyoming are less than enthusiastic about CenturyLink’s solution,” said Geoff Feiss, general manager of the Montana State Telecommunications Association. “I think the guess in Montana is that CenturyLink will use the time they are instructed to provide wireless services to their underserved customers to fix their network, but I’m not sure what evidence that’s based on. If the folks in Wyoming aren’t happy with this solution, I don’t know why they should be happy with it here in Montana.”

Under the October 25 order issued by the PSC, CenturyLink must ensure that its rural Montana customers receive fair and reasonable telephone service at fair and reasonable rates and, at a minimum, define which customers are eligible for subsidized third-party-provided service or alternative service by CenturyLink.

The Commission recommended defining an Eligible Customer as one located in a fare center served by an Anaconda carrier system, raising the question: What exactly is an Anaconda carrier system?

“There are few things out there that predate me, but I’m pretty sure Anaconda phone systems are among them,” Feiss explained. “If you’ve never heard of them, don’t worry, no one has. It’s an ancient system with networking hardware that nobody uses anymore and pieces of which are unavailable.”

According to PSC’s Gary Duncan, Anaconda carrier systems are two-wire telephone systems that were used in the 1960s and 1970s but fell into disuse by the late ’70s. Duncan said that one of the main problems with Anaconda launch systems is that spare parts needed for repairs become unavailable unless older equipment is salvaged.

According to Duncan, CenturyLink still operates more than 500 Anaconda launch systems in Montana.

While the PSC’s 45-day deadline carries no penalty, one option for the commission would be to enforce Montana’s “Out of Service Rule,” which requires telecom companies to fix 90% of service issues within 24 hours.

Essex residents are wondering why the rule has not already been enforced as members of the community were at times off duty for weeks.

A 2014 agreement (when CenturyLink was under investigation over the same situation) waived enforcing CenturyLink’s rule for six years while the utility reportedly repaired its phone systems, but that agreement should have expired more than two years ago.

CenturyLink has requested another exception to the OSS rule, but it doesn’t appear the rule will be enforced.

“I think it’s good that CenturyLink is telling us there’s no way they can abide by that rule, so we’re waiving that for ourselves,” Feiss said. “Most of us would say if you can’t follow the rules, pull yourself together and follow the rules. I think they don’t think like that.”

In response to the PSC’s 45-day deadline, CenturyLink (a parent company of Lumen Technologies Inc.) filed several rebuttal documents on October 28, arguing that the PSC was overstepping its bounds.

“The Montana Consumer Council (MCC) is seeking to expand the OOS rule to cover services and programs that the PSC does not have the authority to regulate. MCC understands that the Commission cannot dictate investments in broadband services. However, MCC urges the Commission to use the OOS rule to induce CenturyLink QC to make financial commitments that it can never recover through public funds or customer revenue,” the company replied in one of the documents. “While the number of CenturyLink QC technicians per thousand access lines has increased slightly since the PSC first granted a temporary exemption from the OOS rule in 2014, it is not practical or economically viable for CenturyLink QC to hire, train and deploy enough technicians , to comply with the OOS rule.”

According to CenturyLink, even with government support, the funding gap to repair Wibaux’s phone systems — the focus of the investigation — would be nearly $2 million for an area that includes just 39 customers.

The company also complained about the cost of fastening systems at Whitehall.

Nowhere in the documents was Essex and its ongoing problems mentioned.

“Essex isn’t specifically mentioned in any of these documents, and Essex is kind of an afterthought, but this has become a nationwide investigation at this point,” Feiss explained. “That means it should apply to them, but who knows at this point.”

Unfortunately for CenturyLink and its customers, federal dollars may not be provided.

CenturyLink applied for nearly $8.5 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding through the state’s ConnectMT program in April, but it seems unlikely that any of the proposed projects will be supported.

CenturyLink argues that much of the funding will go to competitors in underserved areas that the PSC refuses to recognize.

“Requests for ConnectMT grants have doubled the available funds. Many of these requests are

from the very competitors that MCC refuses to recognize,” the document said.

In a new twist Friday morning, a report from Fierce Telecom says Lumen’s answer to its Montana woes may be to sell its properties there.

According to an article on the company’s website, Lumen intends to divest its assets in Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota under the name “Project Yellowstone.”

Although nothing has been confirmed by Lumen yet, their customers are once again wondering about their future.

“There are many questions and not many answers,” said Feiss. “But that’s been the case for a long time.”

Reporter Jeremy Weber can be reached at [email protected]