Montana

CenturyLink ordered to fix poor service in rural Montana

After long periods of poor service in rural Montana, CenturyLink has been given 45 days by Montana regulators to find a solution.

CenturyLink’s customers in rural Montana were without service for weeks, particularly in Wibaux County, where the corporate descendant of Qwest Corporation also fails to provide broadband speeds fast enough to support video streaming.

Now CenturyLink is asking the Montana Public Service Commission to repeal Montana’s “Out of Service Rule” for telecom companies. The rule requires telcos to resolve 90% of service issues within 24 hours. But PSC employees do not believe that CenturyLink provides the reasonable, reliable service required by law.

“I find it unfortunate that CenturyLink’s customers have not only not had adequate phone service for some time, but as far as I know there is no compensation on their bills for the lack of service,” said Commissioner Tony O’Donnell, the South Central – and Southeast Montana represents. “I think it’s an unfair business practice for people to be charged for something they didn’t get. We’re not talking about an outage, an hour here, an hour there, little things. We talk for weeks at a time in some of the comments I’ve read. I think CenturyLink needs to come up with a solution to this, which they should have proposed a long time ago when they were in this situation.”

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A big problem, according to PSC staff, is outdated equipment. Lewis and Clark County and Flathead Valley Commissioner Brad Johnson said the future of legacy fixed-line systems like CenturyLink’s is in question. Federal funding to improve telecommunications services in rural areas focuses on broadband, i.e. fiber optics.

CenturyLink is proposing that its affected customers receive up to two years of satellite phone service, which the company says it would pay for, as CenturyLink addresses the causes of its poor rural service. The company has done the same in Wyoming, which has faced similar rural service issues.

The commissioners have given CenturyLink 45 days to come up with a plan specifically to address the company’s poor customer service in rural Montana.

The problem, according to Montana Consumer Counsel, is that there is no competitor in much of CenturyLink’s Montana service area. The scenario is exactly what Montana’s “off-duty rule” was created for.

Consumer adviser Jason Brown is trying to persuade commissioners not to waive the decommissioning rule, arguing that CenturyLink could use the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, a key infrastructure bill passed by President Joe Biden in 2021, to drive the upgrade CenturyLink equipment more affordable in rural Montana.

“However, CenturyLink could significantly mitigate these costs with federal funds made available by Congress through IIJA,” Brown argued.

According to Brown, several of the broadband service issues CentryLink faces meet the purpose of the Infrastructure Act.

Dubbed the “Bipartisan Infrastructure Act,” the $1.2 trillion bill included $42.5 billion for the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program. These funds were specifically allocated to states for underserved and underserved areas.

“The company’s past failure to invest in a modern network for all Montana customers should not be rewarded with a waiver that allows CentryLink to indefinitely provide inferior service to certain customers,” Brown argued in comments that aimed at CenturyLink’s request for residency.

Century Link’s customers in rural Montana were without service for weeks, particularly in Wibaux County, where the corporate descendant of Qwest Corporation also fails to provide broadband speeds fast enough to support video streaming.

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