Century Link or weak link of the century

Roxie Sharp/Lusk Herald The photo above was taken June 6, 2011 and demonstrates Century Link “taking care of their customers”. Roxie and Roy Sharp reported a broken pole that was potentially the cause of phone outages. Roy offered his post hole digger, tractor and services to replace the pole. They were told that their service technician would be doing all of their repairs in the future because “Century Link takes care of their customers”. The pole held up by a shovel solution remained for approximately four months.

LUSK – In January of 1962, Mountain States Telephone and Telegraph Company began the process of building a 43-mile, $47,000 feeder line from Lusk to Red Bird, providing 80 new outlets of service. The project was a continuation of the company’s expansion, which made the Lusk exchange the center of one of the largest Wyoming areas served. 

Eight branch lines were constructed out from the new feeder line. Ranchers did most of the construction and paid for it
as well.

The Lusk Exchange had 1,288 phones in three counties, not including the 80 that were added by the new feeder line. Of those 80 customers added, many had never had service before and those who did had inadequate service. (The Lusk Herald archives Feb. 15, 1962).

By August of 1963, the last in a series of major expansion programs to bring telephone service to the majority of Niobrara County and rural residents was completed when the Hat Creek line went into operation.

The program called “Do it Yourself”, was brought here in May 1960 and built lines throughout Niobrara County making this one of the most widely served areas in the United States. Service extended out of Niobrara County and made local calls possible into some areas of Platte, Goshen and Converse counties.

In all more than 300 ranch families were able to make local calls as far as 65 to 70 miles away.

The Mountain States Telephone Company sponsored the project and allowed up to $225 per rural subscriber. The subscriber then provided the balance of the cost and with the others in the group, built the line. The line became the property of the telephone company upon completion and the company agreed to make any necessary repairs and maintain service.

The Hat Creek rural group which built the 45 miles of line between the Ray Larson and Dudley Fields residences included Leslie ZumBrunnen, Bob Boner, Donald Kraft, Fred Bryant, Marvin Jensen, Lewis Osborn, Joe Klemke, Dudley Fields, Ruth Joss, Charles Lewis, George Walker, Paul Percival, Dan Jordan, Bill Hales, Ray Larson Duane Piper, George Christian, Vernon Chard, Russell Thompson and Jack Pfister.

Eight parties were on each rural line and in the Hat Creek area, included: Group A, Christian, Bryant, Jensen, Klemke, Percival, Walker, Kraft and Lewis. Group B, Piper, Chard, Jordan, Thompson, Boner, Pfister, Hale and Larson. Group C, ZumBrunnen, Fields, Osborn, plus five subscribers out of the Hat Creek area.

No other major operations were planned, but smaller programs were planned or planned to be completed. Lines in the Red Bird area were nearly complete, and some residences were already being served. (The Lusk Herald archives August 8, 1963).

In November of 1975 it was reported crews had completed a telephone cable route survey that was to be used to upgrade the rural eight-party telephone service for Mountain Bell customers in Niobrara County. 362 customers, served out of the Lusk central office, were promised to receive four-party, or better, service by 1976 as a result of the Mountain Bell’s rural improvement program. 

The program was designed to eliminate eight party service in the state by 1978. Mountain Bell was reported to be in their second year of a five year, $15 million project. Survey crews mapped cable routes in Niobrara County north of Lusk to the Weston County line, south 15 miles into Platte County and west to the Converse County line. (The Lusk Herald archives November 13, 1975).

In January of 1976, it was promised that nearly $1.2 million would be spent in the Lusk area to improve telephone service. According to Keith Gamble, local Mountain Bell manager, the expenditure would go for projects to help meet customer demand for new and improved telephone facilities including additional telephone lines and the major program to improve service for eight -party rural customers. 

The phone company recognized the demand for new and improved telephone service that was expected to grow steadily in some areas and boom in others as a result of energy development. $40 million was expected to be spent on statewide service, about $10 million more than the two years previous. (The Lusk Herald archives January 29, 1976).

By the end of December 1976, eight-party telephone service had ended and more that 370 subscribers had four-party or better service. Gamble stated, “The improved service means rural phone users will have less competition and fewer interruptions when making calls.” The final total for the improvements was $1.6 million for the Lusk portion of the rural improvement program. (The Lusk Herald archives December 23, 1976).

In an article titled “A short history of the telephone industry and regulation”, Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone in 1876 and formed Bell Telephone, which licensed local telephone exchanges in major U.S. cities. AT&T was formed in 1885 to connect the local Bell companies. 

Competition began creeping in by 1956 when the courts overruled an FCC ban on Tom Carter’s Hush-a-Phone, a device which snapped on to a telephone and made it possible for the user to speak in a whisper. This was perhaps the first step in the dissolution of the telephone monopoly.

On January 1, 1984, a court forced AT&T to give up its 22 local Bell companies, establishing seven Regional Bell Operating Companies (RBOC). A few local companies that were not wholly-owned subsidiaries of AT&T remained independent, but the RBOCs were very powerful and covered the U.S. Since that time, mergers have reduced the number of RBOCs to four: Verizon (originally Bell Atlantic and Nynex), Qwest (Qwest Communications International took over US West), BellSouth and SBC (originally Southwestern Bell and Pacific Telesys). (http://som.csudh.edu/cis/lpress/471/hout/telecomHistory/).

In April of 2011, Century Link Inc. and Qwest Communications International Inc. merged. With this union Century Link’s position rose to the third largest telecommunications company in the nation serving 37 states, 17 million phone lines, five million broadband customers and 190,000 miles of fiber network. However, the FCC placed conditions on the merger including fulfillment of a promise by CenturyLink to offer for up to five years, low-income customers $150 personal communication service (PCS). Qualifying households would also receive, starting from the approval date, a year’s worth of broadband starting at $10 per month, and rising the second year to $15 per month. The company also had to agree to significantly increase the capacity of the Qwest network, bringing broadband with actual download speeds of at least 4 Mbps to at least four million more homes and businesses, and at least 20,000 more anchor institutions, such as schools, libraries, and community centers. (https://washingtontechnology.com/articles/2011/04/04/qwest-centurylink-deal-close).

PCS is very similar to digital cellular service and in some cases, the two terms are interchangeable.

Dismantling the Bell monopoly unleashed a flood of technical innovations, choice, and lower costs in the telecom industry. During the monopoly years, the average consumer’s telecom and broadcast choices were a rented phone, a radio, and a TV that, if fortunate, received four channels. Following deregulation, choices in service became available because of competition. In an urban setting, competition is king for customers. Residents of rural, or in some cases frontier, Niobrara County do not have the luxury of choice. They are left with an antiquated communication platform and the proposed solution of cellular service that is unfeasible in the Hat Creek area. Reports of prolonged periods of disrupted service, for which they are still required to pay for, are common. Many rural customers feel their complaints are met by Century Link responding with minimal bandages placed on arterial bleeds. 

Rural Niobrara resident Roxie Thompson Sharp shares the following. “Our phone was installed in about 1975 with materials purchased and installed by the neighboring ranchers.  It was then turned over to the phone company to be connected and serviced.  Roy and I moved to this location, on the ranch, which had been vacant for 20 years in 1997.  The phone to this house was ignored since we are at the end of the line and no one lived here.  When we started working on the house, we tried to get the phone connected and it took three months of calling and pleading to get connected.  There were 17 breaks in the line at that time, however, Roy had the correct pulley, I found the splices to be used at Herren Brothers in Harrison, and we repaired the lines.  I ran the tractor and he crawled, willingly, on the bucket of the tractor and we repaired the lines.  One of the telephone repairmen actually stood on my front porch and told me I had no right to expect to have phone service where I lived, he also said that “you people just build houses out in the middle of nowhere, and then the phone company is supposed to provide service.”  I informed him that this house had been built by Len Christian, Mark Lohr’s grandfather, in the 1920’s and that my family had helped build the first line in the 1960’s and the second line in 1975. I felt it was not such an issue to expect to have service.  The phone has been giving us fits since the beginning.”

Several Niobrara residents have attempted to take a stand against the Goliath telecommunications company, expending more money out of their pockets, possibly, than has been spent on their telephone service in 43 years. The Wyoming Public Service Commission has received complaints and reports from CenturyLink customers regarding the quality and reliability of telecommunications service they provide. 

As a result of receiving service quality related complaints and reports, the commission opened three separate investigations to address the quality and reliability of the telecommunications service provided in which old, inadequate, unserviceable, or obsolete equipment remained in service. These investigations include the Wheatland exchange Zones 2 and 3, Rural areas of Crook County Zones 2 and 3 and the Lusk exchange Zone 3.

Next week the Lusk Herald will continue to explore the steps Niobrara residents have taken to ensure that their expectations of service will be acknowledged, and that their voices will be heard. Reliable communication is not a matter of convenience, it could conceivably be a matter of life or death for our local rural citizens and perhaps, the tourism that passes through our Lusk exchange Zone 3.

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