For three days in December 2018, Century Link’s national network experienced failures that caused 911 calls to fail, cellular service to be unavailable and businesses to be without the ability to process credit cards or perform normal operations. The Federal Communications Commission announced during the outage they would be investigating an equipment failure at Century Link and its impact on millions across the United States, including emergency services.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai issued the following statement, “When an emergency strikes, it’s critical that Americans are able to use 911 to reach those who can help. The Century Link service outage is therefore completely unacceptable, and its breadth and duration are particularly troubling. I’ve directed the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau to immediately launch an investigation into the cause and impact of this outage. This inquiry will include an examination of the effect that Century Link’s outage appears to have had on other providers’ 911 services. I have also spoken with Century Link to underscore the urgency of restoring service immediately. We will continue to monitor this situation closely to ensure that consumers’ access to 911 is restored as quickly as possible.”
For the consumers in the Lusk exchange Zone 3, the distressing outage was just another normal and expected failure of service. Something they have abided for over two decades.
When the telephone coverage became intolerable for Hat Creek residents, Ron and Alyce Carter, they filed a formal complaint with the Wyoming Public Service Commission and requested a public hearing against Century Link on September 21, 2016. They alleged unreliable and intermittent telephone service at their residence and place of business on Hat Creek Road in Zone 3 of the Lusk exchange. The Carter’s are not complainers, but this had been a recurring problem for over 20 years. The Carters contended that after several weeks, Century Link would eventually patch the problems but never made a permanent fix. They continued to experience service quality issues such as dropped calls, static or other noise on the line, phantom rings and periods of no dial tone. Their concern was that in an emergency, they would be unable to call for assistance due to having no cell phone coverage in their area.
On October 10, 2016, Century Link filed its response generally denying the complaint. They contended, at least four times, in their response, that it was “extremely costly”, their remote area made it difficult to serve and that it was not “economically feasible to extend fiber telecommunication lines to 12 customers”. Century Link asserted that they have been responsive, but that the Carter’s issues involved exogenous events, such as cattle damage, rodent chews and weather events. The also reported that they deployed technicians that resolved the troubles within one to three days of the report. The Carter’s countered that they were very satisfied with the service technicians assigned to the Lusk exchange and found them to be competent field technicians. The issue was the inadequate and unreliable landline service Century Link was providing.
There is one interesting fact related to telephone service in rural areas that occurred during the blizzard of 1949. Snow, wind and frigid temperatures devastated parts of Wyoming and neighboring states. For nearly two months, towns and ranches were marooned by enormous drifts, some reportedly eighty feet tall. And yet the telephone system remained intact. Neighbors were able to talk to neighbors. And yet, almost 70 years later, with all of the technological advances, this is not always the case in the Hat Creek area.
On February 8, 2017, a public hearing was held in Cheyenne. The Carters appeared, as well has Century Link customers Matt Dockery, Kerry Sheaman, Debbie Sheaman, Ginger Webb, Buddy Webb, Daniel E. Ritter and Niobrara County Commissioner Pat Wade, to provide testimony voicing their concerns for the reliability and adequacy of landline service in the Hat Creek area. Century Link Area Operations Manager Dave Johnson testified on behalf of Century Link.
At the close of the hearing the Carter’s requested that the commission table their decision for 90 days to allow Century Link time to address and resolve the service issues discussed.
The federal Telecommunications Act of 1996, Section 254(b)(3) states that consumers in all regions of the nation, including low-income consumers and those in rural, insular and high cost areas, should have access to telecommunications and information services, that are reasonably comparable to those services provided in urban areas and that are available at rates that are reasonably comparable to rates charged for similar services in urban areas.
The Carters kept detailed service logs which showed that they had fewer than nine consecutive days of telephone service before experiencing a service issue. Reliable cell phone coverage in the area is non-existent, even with signal boosters, and they would have to drive approximately 18 miles before they could receive a cell phone signal. The logs also showed that their phone did not work properly 50 – 60 percent of the time in an average month.
Following the February hearing, Buddy Webb had heard of a fail-proof system for an alternative phone system called Verizon Home Phone. They had been told that this system had never failed, and it was definitely their answer to all of their problems. If there was even a hint of cell phone service, this system would amplify it by 700 times. But it didn’t. When contacted, the Verizon representatives could not believe their infallible service had failed. They were sure that that a defective unit had been sent, so they brought their office system and a Wilson Weboost out to Hat Creek. After several hours, and much to their dismay, the fail-safe system did not work, at all.
Ron Carter heard about their second try at a solution. NetTalk, an internet-based telephone service. The Carter’s brought the idea to Century Link. Century Link thought it was a splendid idea, but they refused to install it and after installation, refused to pay the almost $50 per year service fee. The commission ordered Century Link to pay. Unfortunately, the NetTalk service had a 308 (Nebraska) area code and would not connect with local emergency services when 911 was dialed and required external power to place or receive calls when the power was out.
The public hearing was continued on July 13, 2017, in Cheyenne. Sworn public comments and testimony was offered by Niobrara County Commissioners, Pat Wade, Richard Ladwig and John Midkiff, as well as the Carters. They described continued service quality issues and concerns regarding access to emergency services.
Representatives of AARP and the Office of Consumer Advocates, OCA, also backed the Hat Creek group. The OCA even went as far as to hire, and pay for, an expert, Dr. Robert Loube from Maryland, who worked out a plan to provide fiber optic service to rural customers for a price of approximately $3.2 million for the Lusk exchange, $1.8 million for the Wheatland exchange and $500,000 for Crook County, a total of $5.5 million to bring Century Link’s rural customers into the 21stcentury, no pun intended. Century Link countered that the cost would be closer to $53.5 million and refused to even entertain the resolution.
The Carters and several others from the Hat Creek area have testified before the Wyoming Public Service Commission and the Wyoming Legislature Telecommunications Committee six times, traveling to Cheyenne, Lander and Thermopolis, at their own expense. Following the last hearing on December 10, 2018, Century Link approved a plan to install Hughes Net Satellite systems to initially, 205 customers and then reduced it to 160 consumers. The reduction came with no reason why or even who the lucky clients would be for this experimental resolution. When asked why the decrease in customers to be served, by the experimental trial and who would be receiving the service, Carter was told that this information is “confidential”.
The Office of Consumer Advocates, AARP and the Wyoming Public Service Commission all heartily agreed, after only three test calls, that this was the experimental answer to everyone’s prayers, even though rural Niobrara County residents are technically guinea pigs of this untried system.
After a two -year trial, Century Link will be allowed to deregulate which makes them no longer responsible. For urban areas, it means choice. For areas that have only one service provider the result will be that there will be no restrictions or requirements relative to the pricing or even providing services. Consumer protections will be unenforceable against telecommunication companies from engaging in discriminatory or anti-competitive behavior. The Wyoming Universal Service Fund will cease to exist. The end result is that customers could possibly pay more than 130 per cent of the weighted state-wide average rate. Companies will no longer be subject to pricing requirements and will not be required to maintain price schedules which could potentially leave rural customers without affordable service alternatives. (http://psc.state.wy.us/oca/Sunset).
Living in the least populated county in the least populated state in the nation is a matter of pride for many of us. Unfortunately, that pride comes at the price of being statistically insignificant when it comes to receiving fair and comparable telecommunication service.