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Essex worried that phone ‘solution’ won’t work

| November 23, 2022 6:30 AM

By JEREMY WEBER

For the Hungry Horse News

After receiving years of sub-par phone service from CenturyLink, the residents of Essex are asking if they will once again be forgotten in the state’s recently announced “solution” to the problem.

At its Oct. 25 meeting, the Montana Public Services Commission (PSC) issued a 45-day ultimatum for CenturyLink to produce a solution to nagging rural customer service issues in the near term while the company addresses bigger infrastructure problems.

CenturyLink’s suggested solution involves the company paying for satellite phone service for those experiencing poor rural service, as the company is already doing for customers in similar situations in Wyoming.

The only problem? The customers in Wyoming say that solution is not working.

“I’ve heard that people in Wyoming are less than thrilled with CenturyLink’s solution,” said Geoff Feiss, general manager of the Montana State Telecommunications Association. “I think the presumption in Montana is that CenturyLink will use the time when they are ordered to provide wireless service to their underserved customers to fix their network, but I am not sure what evidence that is based on. If people are not happy with this solution in Wyoming, I don’t know why they would be happy with it here in Montana.”

According to the Oct. 25 order issued by the PSC, CenturyLink must ensure that its customers in rural Montana receive reasonable and adequate telephone service at just and reasonable rates and, at a minimum, must define which customers will be eligible for any subsidized third party-provided service or alternative service from CenturyLink.

The Commission recommended that an eligible customer be defined as a customer that is located within a rate center that is served by an Anaconda carrier system, which begs the question: What exactly is an Anaconda carrier system?

“There are few things out there that are older than me, but I’m pretty sure Anaconda phone systems are one of them,” Feiss explained. “If you have never heard of them, don’t worry, nobody has. It’s an ancient system with network hardware that nobody uses anymore and parts are not available.”

According to the PSC’s Gary Duncan, Anaconda carrier systems are double-wire phone systems that were in use in the 1960s and 1970s, but fell out of use late in the ’70s. Duncan said that one of the main problems with Anaconda carrier systems is that replacement parts needed for repairs are no longer available short of salvaging older equipment.

Duncan says CenturyLink still operates more than 500 Anaconda carrier systems in Montana.

While the PSC’s 45-day deadline has no penalty attached to it, one option would be for the commission to enforce Montana’s “out of service rule,” which requires telecommunication utilities to repair 90% of service issues within 24 hours.

Essex residents are wondering why the rule has not already been enforced, as the members of the community have gone weeks without service at times.

A 2014 agreement (when CenturyLink was under investigation for the same situation) waived enforcement of the rule on CenturyLink for six years while the utility supposedly fixed its phone systems, but that agreement should have expired more than two years ago.

CenturyLink has petitioned for another exemption from the OOS rule, but it does not seem as if the rule was being enforced.

“I like CenturyLink telling us basically there is no way they can comply with that rule, so let’s waive it for us,” Feiss said. “Most of us would say that if you can’t follow the rules, then you should get your act together and follow the rules. I guess that is not how they think.”

In response to the PSCs 45-day deadline, CenturyLink (an its parent corporation Lumen Technologies Inc.) filed several rebuttal documents Oct. 28 arguing that the PSC was overstepping its bounds.

“The Montana Consumer Council (MCC) seeks to expand the OOS Rule to cover services and programs that the PSC has no authority to regulate. MCC knows that the Commission cannot mandate investment in broadband services. Yet, MCC urges the Commission to use the OOS Rule to leverage CenturyLink QC into making financial commitments it can never recover through public funding or customer revenue,” the company responded in one of the documents.

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