Broadband illustration (Wikimedia Commons)
Beth Hinebauch can’t always use her telephone in Wibaux if it rains.
“If we get a sprinkle of rain, we start getting buzzing noises,” Hinebauch said. “If we have a nice rain, our phone might go completely out for days, and sometimes, the phone will start ringing randomly, usually at two o’clock in the morning.”
At times, telephones will dial 9-1-1 on their own, with no emergency, CenturyLink customers said Tuesday to the Montana Public Service Commission. Other times, customers can’t get service at all and have to drive to get connected to a cell tower.
Mary Adele Stenson said CenturyLink does not understand rural Montana, and she and other residents of the county at the eastern border of the state asked Commissioners for help.
“I don’t know what your authority is exactly, but if you can force them to actually provide the service they’re supposed to provide or allow somebody else to do it, it would be amazing, because it is dangerous,” Stenson said.
The Public Service Commission has accepted a formal complaint by the Wibaux County Commissioners against CenturyLink Communications. The complaint alleges CenturyLink has received federal money to provide telephone and broadband service to Wibaux County but has used the money elsewhere.
“Rural residents in the past year have been without phone service for up to three weeks at a time because CenturyLink has failed to repair their equipment,” the complaint said. “Repairs are sometimes made by taking old used parts from old equipment instead of using new parts.”
Wibaux County needs better broadband service, and large portions of the county have no cell service at all, the complaint said. It also said emergency services weren’t always available.
“The rural 9-1-1 service is often out of service for CenturyLink customers in the rural areas of Wibaux county,” the complaint said. “Storms will often trigger 9-1-1 calls from individuals who have not made the calls, nor are they needed.”
The complaint noted Mid-Rivers Telephone Cooperative has most of the telephone business in the county. It said Mid-Rivers had plowed lines into the town and most of the county, but it also needed upgrades.
Tuesday, two CenturyLink officials and its corporate communications team did not answer a question about why customers in Wibaux were still having problems.
“We strive to provide quality service to all our customers,” said Danielle Spears in an email. “We are aware of the Public Service Commission’s recent action and are reviewing the complaint.”
Darin Miske, a commissioner representing the county of roughly 1,000 people, said 40 percent to 50 percent of Wibaux County is still on copper wire. He said streaming services don’t work after people get out of school, customers can be without phone service for “weeks and weeks,” and unless you’re standing on a hill, most of the county doesn’t get cell service, either.
“Just you name it, it’s a mess in Wibaux,” Miske said in a phone call.
But it isn’t the first time the Public Service Commission has taken up service problems in Wibaux County. In 2014, the PSC launched its own informal investigation into a “concern that CenturyLink’s customers in rural areas are experiencing chronic service quality problems due to the poor condition of the CenturyLink infrastructure serving them.”
The investigation wasn’t directed only at service in Wibaux, but as part of its order in 2015, the PSC ordered CenturyLink to correct problems in Wibaux. As part of a joint stipulation, the PSC would reverse course on a lawsuit it had filed against CenturyLink. A Missoulian story said the PSC was seeking court-ordered penalties because the telecommunications provider wasn’t fixing 90 percent of its out-of-service reports within 24 hours.
Additionally, the stipulation said CenturyLink would accept some $91 million of federal Connect America Fund dollars as part of a plan to bring broadband infrastructure to rural Montana. One year later, in August 2016, the PSC heard a report from CenturyLink that it was generally on track with improvements, according to the Great Falls Tribune.
But none of that money was spent in Wibaux, according to CenturyLink’s media contact.
“CenturyLink made substantial investments to bring broadband to more than 31,000 homes and small businesses in FCC-designated, high-cost locations across Montana over the last six years via the FCC’s Connect America Fund program,” Spears said in an email. “The FCC did not identify any eligible locations in Wibaux under the CAF.”
The PSC’s 2015 docket showed CenturyLink did submit a plan for making fixes in Wibaux. It wasn’t immediately clear Tuesday if commissioners were satisfied with implementation.
Tuesday, Commissioner Randy Pinocci, who Darin Miske said helped Wibaux form its complaint, said he wanted to let people in Wibaux know that the PSC approved Starlink, a subsidiary of SpaceX, as a carrier in Montana. He said he believed Starlink’s internet service via satellite was available to some, if not all, of Wibaux County.
“Hopefully this will help with competition and fill that need,” Pinocci said.
In public comment, Rep. Bob Phalen, R-Lindsay, said a lot of money for communications is available through federal coronavirus relief, and he would like to see some of it directed to help the people who are lacking service.
Kim Miske offered commissioners an example of the link to COVID-19. When the pandemic hit, she said, she had two college students trying to finish their degrees at home. But she said the speed of CenturyLink’s “antiquated equipment” in Wibaux didn’t allow them to work online at the same time.
“We just feel like, if there’s money that’s being spent for better communications, then it should be spent providing that to our rural residents,” Kim Miske said.
Patti Goroski tried to work from home too, but if her husband was working from home at the same time, “it was nearly impossible.” As part of his job, he has to upload and download photos, and she said the task can take an hour-and-a-half.
“There are just more and more people trying to work from home now without having the capacities to do so,” Goroski said.
Stenson said the lack of phone service was a problem when her father up the road was having serious health issues. She said the local repair worker for CenturyLink is good, but the company isn’t helpful, and it also expects calls to take just 45 minutes when the drive to her house alone takes that amount of time — one way.
“They have been a terrible, terrible company to work with, and I don’t feel like they care about us out here at all,” Stenson said.
PSC staff attorney Lucas Hamilton said the PSC will serve the complaint on CenturyLink, and the company will have an opportunity to answer the allegations. If the Commission isn’t satisfied, it can open an investigation and ask CenturyLink to produce relevant records.
If the circumstances warrant it, Hamilton said the Commission has the authority to revoke CenturyLink’s ETC status, its eligible telecommunications carrier status. A company can continue to provide service with its ETC status revoked, he said, but it may not be eligible for some federal funds.
In December 2020, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester announced providers in Montana would receive $125 million to expand high-speed internet to 45,000 locations across the rural parts of the state. CenturyLink would receive an estimated $28.4 million, although it wasn’t clear if Wibaux would be part of the project.
In a statement Tuesday, though, Tester said people in Wibaux need to be able to reach 9-1-1.
“Any reports of prolonged 9-1-1 outages are completely unacceptable,” said Tester, a Democrat. “9-1-1 is an essential service that every Montanan should be able to access no matter where they live, and I will be working to get to the bottom of this issue and ensure those responsible are held accountable.”
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