CenturyLink to PSC: Reject complaint from Wibaux County Commissioners

PSC to set hearing on allegations of company neglect of communications service problems in Wibaux

By: - August 17, 2021 4:38 pm

Broadband illustration (Wikimedia Commons)

CenturyLink Communications said it isn’t at fault for the communication problems Wibaux customers have reported with cell phones and broadband, and it pointed a finger at other providers, according to a filing this week with the Montana Public Service Commission. 

At a meeting in June, phone customers who live in the Wibaux area told the Montana Public Service Commission their telephone and broadband service was riddled with problems, including random ringing if it rained, undialed rings to 9-1-1, lack of service, improper repairs made using old equipment, and service outages for weeks. 

In response, the Public Service Commission accepted a formal complaint against CenturyLink Communications LLC filed by the Wibaux County Commissioners. At the time, a PSC staff attorney noted the regulatory body has the authority to open an investigation if it isn’t satisfied with CenturyLink’s response.

However, in the response filed this week, CenturyLink argued the Wibaux County Commissioners don’t have the standing to make a complaint because the alleged conduct does not “directly affect” the Commission nor is it a customer. CenturyLink pointed to other entities as responsible, it denied allegations, and it asked the Public Service Commission to reject the petition.

Additionally, CenturyLink said neither CenturyLink Communications LLC nor CenturyLink QC provides cell service in Wibaux County: “The Wibaux County Commission raises public policy issues that are not properly the subject matter of a complaint. Moreover, the regulation of broadband services does not fall within PSC jurisdiction.”

CenturyLink also said it isn’t the right respondent, nor does the complaint name anyone who operates a public utility as defined by statute. It said CenturyLink Communications LLC isn’t the “incumbent local exchange carrier” in Wibaux and doesn’t provide emergency services in the territory. It pointed to affiliate “Qwest Corporation dba CenturyLink QC” as the correct carrier, and it said the 911 provider is VisionNet.

“Moreover, nothing in the rules permits investigation of complaints directed at ‘officers, agents or employees’ of (CenturyLink),” said the response.

The federal government has authorized millions of dollars to be spent on rural broadband, and customers said CenturyLink did not use any of the money to bring services in the Wibaux area up to date. In the response, though, CenturyLink notes the Federal Communications Commission identified locations where CenturyLink QC could spend money for broadband, and it didn’t include any locations in Wibaux. It also said CenturyLink QC hasn’t received federal money for phone service since 2014.

The response noted Viasat was awarded federal funding to serve Wibaux with broadband and voice service in 2018, and Space Exploration Technologies won a bid in 2020: “No other provider won locations in Wibaux County in these auctions.”

CenturyLink also argued the LLC doesn’t provide service in Wibaux County in response to allegations customers have been without phone service for up to three weeks because CenturyLink has failed to repair equipment or does so using old parts.

In 2020, CenturyLink QC received 10 customer calls indicating service issues, but just two of them turned out to be part of the CenturyLink QC network after investigation, the response said. It also said CenturyLink QC received five total calls through May 2021, and four were related to out-of-service conditions.

“CenturyLink QC serves about 40 customers in Wibaux County,” said the response.

Mid-Rivers provides service in and around the town of Wibaux, according to CenturyLink, and the complaint notes the Wibaux County Commission complains about Mid-Rivers but doesn’t name it as a respondent. It said Space X, HughesNet and Viasat all offer satellite services throughout the county, and ATT and Verizon offer cellular wireless service in the Wibaux area.

CenturyLink also said emergency services are offered through Fallon County by VisionNet. Of the 911 service provided to VisionNet by CenturyLink QC, five out six outages in 2021 lasted four hours or less, and one lasted roughly 18 hours, the response said.

“More generally, if ‘rural 911 service’ means the local service provided by CenturyLink QC to its customers, CenturyLink QC denies that rural 911 service is ‘often’ out of service,” said the response. “While CenturyLink QC recognizes that service to a small number of customers in rural areas served by miles of cable can be disrupted by storms and other influences, CenturyLink QC works to minimize the extent of these service troubles and any resulting disruptions. CenturyLink QC also recognizes that storms can cause ‘noise’ on lines that in some circumstances could potentially cause inadvertent calls.”

Tuesday, staff attorney Lucas Hamilton said a hearing date should be set within a week or so. In an email, he said the hearing date will depend on the extent of discovery the parties envision for the docket.

“The Montana Consumer Counsel may intervene as well, which would require us to find a hearing date that works for one more party,” Hamilton said.

The response from CenturyLink, though, questions the power of the Public Service Commission to address the complaint at all: “The complaint seeks to force the named respondents to spend money on services not subject to PSC regulation (i.e., broadband). The complaint implicitly and improperly seeks relief (the direction of state and federal broadband funds) that the PSC has no authority to grant.”

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. In Montana since 1998, she loves hiking in Glacier National Park, wandering the grounds of the Archie Bray and sitting on her front porch with friends. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana. She worked there from 2006 to 2020. As a Missoulian reporter, she was named a co-fellow by the Education Writers Association to report on a series about economic mobility; grantee of the Society of Environmental Journalists for a project on conservation from the U.S. to Africa; and Kiplinger Fellow in Digital Media and Public Affairs Journalism. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune and Missoula Independent, and she earned her master’s in journalism from the University of Montana. She lives in Missoula with her husband, Brock, who is also her favorite chef, and her pup, Henry, who is her favorite adventure companion. She believes she deserves to wear the T-shirt with this saying: “World’s most mediocre runner.”