Tuesday some rural Montana residents convinced the state’s Public Service Commission to do something about what one of them calls their "crappy phone service."
"Sometimes it doesn’t work. For instance, I run a small business out of my home, and I can run it with an answering machine….," says Ellis Misner, who lives near Craig between Helena and Great Falls.
Cell service doesn’t reach Misner's neck of the woods, and there’s no cable provider, so, like his neighbors Misner uses a wired phone on the CenturyLink network to hear from his clients. That is, when it’s working.
"But what happens is people call my phone and what they hear is the phone ringing and ringing and ringing and no pickup. So I lose this contact that I could have handled with an answering machine," Misner says.
Sometimes the services doesn’t work at all, especially after a rainstorm. Or Misner says, the voice quality is poor, with crackling sounds on the line. His wife, Virginia Jamruszka-Misner and a neighbor, Adrienne Kernaghan, say this isn’t just a problem in Craig. Many rural Montana towns are plagued by hit-and-miss phone service.
“Wherever Centurylink is, that’s where there’s a problem," Kernaghan says. "Havre, Kila, Big Arm Mammoth, Kalispell. Did I say Havre? Missoula, Lolo, I could keep going on. Wibaux, oh Wibaux. Real bad problems in Wibaux."
Kernaghan says she’s literally seen better service in the developing world.
"I go to Ecuador, plug in my computer. I have high-speed internet. I don’t have that here in the United States. In Montana."
The problem, according to Montana Public Service Commissioner Travis Kavulla, is that much of Century Link’s rural Montana service is run on equipment that is decades old, and long out of production.
"And so whenever there’s a serious problem with CenturyLink’s equipment, they go out and scavenge the junkyards of the United States to try to get this equipment back into service," Kavulla says. "So what you’re having here is a serious problem with infrastructure. The people who receive phone service now are served off of equipment that is simply not going to be able to be maintained."
CenturyLink did not have a representative at the Montana PSC meeting Tuesday.
After listening to the complaints of Ellis Misner and his neighbors from Craig, the PSC Tuesday Morning voted to sue CenturyLink under its Quality of Service terms, which require the utility to restore telephone outages within 24 hours, at least 90 percent of the time. Kavulla says the company is meeting the 24-hour deadline only 50 to 60 percent of the time currently. If the District Court finds the company failed to meet its terms of service, it could face financial penalties.
The PSC also decided to apply some additional financial leverage, by voting to consider cancelling CenturyLink's eligibility for $10 million a year in federal subsidies to improve rural phone service. Kavulla says CenturyLink appears to be taking the money but using it to pay for upgrades in more competitive urban areas, instead of improving service for rural customers.
"So we’re doing what we can to try to make the program function according to its intent, rather than simply having it be a kind of slush fund for CenturyLink to draw upon for its urban buildout."
Attempts to get a CenturyLink representative on the phone were unsuccessful. Instead the company provided a written statement, saying:
CenturyLink values its Montana customers and strives to provide quality service to them. We welcome the opportunity to work with MPSC and other parties to the proceeding to develop a targeted plan to improve service quality for rural Montanans. CenturyLink believes that penalties and litigation are counterproductive to working out a meaningful rural service quality improvement plan for our Montana customers.
No immediate solution is on the horizon for Ellis Misner and his neighbors in Craig, but he’s hopeful it’s the beginning of a process that will hold the utility accountable for keeping the dialtone humming in every part of its service area, no matter how remote.
"It’s been a long process," Misner says. "I think that’s what’s driving many of us nuts, is we have to keep driving in, testifying before the PSC, trying to get some action, and today they’re finally moving on it."
The PSC’s complaint will be filed with a District Court by September 1. After that, it’s up to the court to decide when to rule on it.