‘Embrace new tech” CenturyLink says

LUSK – For the past few weeks the Lusk Herald has reported on the issues residents in the Hat Creek area have endured with telecommunications. As with every opinion, there are three sides to every story. Your side, their side and the truth that lies somewhere in the middle. Recently, Century Link representatives have reached out to present their perspective on this issue.

Ron and Alyce Carter, and several others from the Hat Creek area, have testified before the Wyoming Public Service Commission (WPSC) and the Wyoming Legislature Telecommunications Committee (WLTC) six times, traveling to Cheyenne, Lander and Thermopolis at their own expense. The residents of Hat Creek have had questions regarding these meetings. Century Link representatives David Johnson, Century Link Manager of Regional Operations and Kristin Lee, Century Link Director of Wyoming State Regulatory and Legislative Affairs took the time to address their concerns.

 Kristin Lee responded to the proceedings related to the last hearing on December 10, 2018. The ultimate decision is still pending; however, she believes the final order will come, possibly in March. According to Lee, the WPSC did agree with Century Link the company was subject to competition and did, in their opinion, accept the offer of settlement. The settlement addresses offering some people the option of a choice to go to Hughes Net if they are concerned with Century Link’s service or they may stay with Century Link, and the company hopes that they do stay with.

Century Link is not affiliated with Hughes Net, but if customers choose to utilize a different technology, Hughes Net would be an option. If customers choose that option, Century Link will subsidize that choice for two years. They will pay for the all equipment to move to Hughes Net and pay the upfront cost of the voice and data product to connect with the alternative service. That is Century Link’s offer and their interpretation of the basis of the settlement.

Hughes Net is one of two nationwide satellite Internet providers in the United States, with the other being Exede. Hughes Net Internet service is comparable to wired service from providers like CenturyLink and AT&T, according to the website highspeedexperts.com..

But there are actually three issues in play. The first is Century Link’s case before the Wyoming Public Service Commission, the second is the complaint brought to the WPSC by Ron and Alyce Carter and the third part is the hearings before the Wyoming Legislature Telecommunications Committee.

The federal Telecommunications Act of 1996, Section 254(b)(3) states consumers in all regions of the nation, including rural and high cost areas, should have access to telecommunications and information services that are reasonably comparable to urban areas. Lee absolutely believes their company is in full compliance with this.

A Quality Service Improvement Plan was completed in this area in 2013, ordered by the WPSC. Exact figures were not available, but Lee reports a significant amount of money was spent to complete the plan. She said funds have also been spent on ongoing maintenance and a substantial investment in the fiber network in the area. 

Johnson said, from an expense perspective, when they go out and do additional maintenance on the network in compliance with the improvement plan, one outcome was service enhancement. Since a 2011 merger with Qwest, they have upgraded the fiber facilities in the “urban” areas of Lusk to increase the internet speeds and brought fiber to the areas of Manville and Node, increasing internet speeds up to 100 Mbps. The Lusk Central Office was upgraded to almost double broadband speeds, businesses are offered gigabit services, for high-speed networks and they upgraded the cell phone providers that service this area and that subscribe to Century Link service to a fiber-based network to improve service. Century Link’s fiber network also provides ethernet broadband to the schools in this area.

“We have made a significant investment in upgrading the services in this area,” Johnson said.

In the January 23 Lusk Herald article, it was reported the Office of Consumer Advocates contracted Dr. Robert Loube to develop a plan to provide fiber optic service to rural customers at the price of approximately $3.2 million for the Lusk exchange, $1.8 million for the Wheatland exchange and $500,00o for Crook County, a total of $5.5 million. Century Link countered the estimate was closer to $53.5 million. Johnson said, while he appreciated the work that the OCA consultant did on providing some estimates, Century Link builds these networks everyday as part of their business and they used, in their estimate, what their current pricing is to do this work using their known entity to complete this work. Based on this, it is their contention the estimate was “grossly understated” based on what they know and what they do every day. 

Lee said Century Link has lost a significant number of customers to competitive choice. In Wyoming, she estimated an approximate 80 percent customer loss and a statistic from AT&T, nation-wide, 63 per cent of customers have “cut the cord,” meaning customers no longer have land lines. In Lusk, Lee estimates that 40 per cent have left Century Link for other providers. 

Even without the proposed settlement, former CenturyLink customers have chosen other services, Johnson said.

At the last hearing before the WLTC, the plan to install Hughes Net was to be offered to 205 customers, with that number reduced to 160. Lee said Century Link looked at what it would take to bring fiber networks to customers, with that remaining 160 left on the unfeasible list. Another 45 have left Century Link. 

Specific client information was not released.

The Hughes Net system was chosen after only three test calls, but Lee believes “This is absolutely the best solution. 

“We are not in the position to get rid of customers,” she said. “We are offering this, but customers will have the option of staying with us as well.”

 In the three separate WPSC investigations, the quality and reliability of old, inadequate, unserviceable or obsolete equipment was addressed. Century Link does not deny this. The technology that serves the Hat Creek customers is at the “end of life.” Lee said. If customers choose to stay with Century Link, the service will never be upgraded to fiber optic service. 

“The cost is just uneconomic.”

Another possible option would be Vistabeam. Vistabeam uses fixed wireless technology in licensed and unlicensed spectrums to provide broadband connectivity in some of the most rural areas of the United States. Since 2004, Vistabeam has grown to cover nearly 40,000 square miles in eastern Wyoming, northeast Colorado and western Nebraska. 

The problem with offering this option for wireless high-speed broadband, in some rural areas, is the lack of line-of-sight into neighborhoods. Smaller cell antennas can be mounted on a high point, such as a barn or house, as long as it has an unobstructed view to the main cell tower. 

Johnson encourages customers to “embrace the technology,” as difficult as that may be at times. He believes this is a solid solution and it functions similar to a landline. They are confident Hughes Net is a good product for the customer. 

Lee added that even though Hughes Net is their competition, they find themselves in a dilemma. The next generation of technology is placing fiber optics everywhere. The only way to recover that cost would be through a federal program and those dollars are going toward satellite technology. Solving customer’s needs means trading customers to the competition. 

Part of the settlement includes education to help customers. Following the final determination from the hearings, Century Link representatives will be coming to Lusk to fulfill that obligation and to assist with embracing the technology.


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