Advocate intervenes in CenturyLink case

By Sarah Pridgeon

CenturyLink customers in Beulah and Aladdin may wish to attend a public meeting on January 22 about the negotiations aiming to solve the outages, crackles, buzzes and cross-conversations that have plagued telephone lines in rural parts of Crook County for almost two decades.

The gathering will inform customers about the work being done on their behalf by the Office of Consumer Advocate (OCA) and allow representatives from that agency to gather feedback as the case moves forward. The OCA is hoping to negotiate a settlement that will see CenturyLink upgrade the reliability of its service in return for relief from government oversight.

The issue was first investigated by the Public Service Commission (PSC) in 2008 after complaints from local customers; when no improvements were made, customers led by Commissioner Jeanne Whalen once again complained in 2016 in the wake of a two-week service outage. Crook County’s case was later combined with similar problems in other areas of eastern Wyoming.

“When the investigation was opened by the commission into the quality and reliability of service in Crook County, as well as in Lusk and Wheatland, we entered our appearance and intervened,” says Bryce Freeman, Administrator and case representative for the Office of Consumer Advocate.

“We are the state-chartered agency that is responsible by statute for representing utility customers before the Public Service Commission.”

The Public Service Commission opened its Crook County investigation in 2016. At that time, Freeman hired two consultants to look at CenturyLink’s network in all three areas and make recommendations as to what the company would need to upgrade in order to provide adequate, reliable service.

The consultant’s findings were presented in November, 2017, along with testimony from CenturyLink. Recommendations were made for various network upgrades that Freeman says his network engineer believes would cost around $5.5 million for all three areas.

“In the meantime, CenturyLink had filed an application to have its local exchange voice service in Wyoming deregulated pursuant to provisions in the statute that allow them to do that,” Freeman says.

“They can file an application with the commission that essentially finds their local voice service is subject to effective competition and therefore should be deregulated.”

This has already happened for CenturyLink’s service in more populated areas, says Freeman, including metropolitan zones such as Casper, Cheyenne and Gillette. The new petition states that other providers are now available in rural parts of the state and CenturyLink has been losing customers as a result, which the company argues proves its rural services are also competitive and thus should be exempt from oversight.

“We also intervened in that case and filed testimony in December, essentially recommending that the commission not deregulate their zone two and three areas. But the commission wondered if we might be able to come to an agreement regarding both of those applications, so that’s what we’re doing now,” Freeman says.

“We’re trying to look at ways that CenturyLink could upgrade their service to the areas that have poor quality service and at the same time achieve some relaxed regulation.”

The OCA, says Freeman, feels that the two CenturyLink cases are inextricably linked.

“In the testimony that I filed with the commission in the service case, I said, gee whiz commissioners, you can’t really grant deregulation if you intend to do anything about the poor service quality in these areas because, if you deregulate them, then they will have no obligation to address the service quality issues,” he says.

“In fact, I went so far as to recommend that the commission consolidate the two cases so that we could actually make an informed decision about what areas might actually merit deregulation and what areas the commission needed to retain jurisdiction over.”

Combining the two cases did not happen. As things stand now from a procedural standpoint, says Freeman, the service problems and the deregulation request are standalone proceedings.

“But CenturyLink finally understands, I think, that you can’t really do any meaningful settlement discussion without discussing both cases and so that’s what we’ve been doing,” he adds.

With the potential of a settlement in mind, the OCA has scheduled public meetings in all three affected areas: Lusk, Wheatland and Crook County. The agency has already investigated the issues in the three areas and is not in need of information from customers about how the service problems have affected them.

Rather, Freeman invites the community to come listen to the story so far and share thoughts on how the next chapter should unfold.

“We’ve got some ideas from the company and we’ve got some ideas of our own, so when we come up to Sundance we would like to make as many of the affected customers as we can aware of what we’re thinking about, what the statutory challenges are, what the practical challenges are, and get their input on what they think a good settlement would be for them,” he says.

At time of going to press, the OCA had already held an open meeting in Niobrara County attended by 36 customers and was soon to visit Platte County. The responses received in Lusk were something of a mixed bag, Freeman says.

“There are some residents that think we ought not to be using the issue of deregulation in the rest of the state to get benefits for the three areas in eastern Wyoming because they fear that customers in other parts of the state may have similar problems, or could in the future, and, if the commission deregulates those areas, then those customers wouldn’t have any recourse,” he says.

Meanwhile, part of the statutory code giving authority to the PSC to manage telecommunication regulations will sunset on July 1, 2019 unless the legislature acts to extend that date. For this reason, says Freeman, some participants felt it would be best to get the best result possible right now, knowing that, should the case drag out for the next 18 months, it may become impossible to get anything at all.

After the public meetings, says Freeman, the next step will be to use the feedback to continue talks with CenturyLink about a possible resolution.

“We’ll have the benefit of [customers’] perspective on this when we go back to the negotiating table with CenturyLink and, to the extent that we can negotiate a good deal with CenturyLink that really provides demonstrable reliability improvements to the customers in those area, then we would do that,” he says.

“Otherwise, if we can’t reach an agreement with the company, if they’re not willing to really do what is required to restore the networks in those areas, then the commission has a record from the proceeding they conducted in November and would deliberate and issue a decision. I don’t know what they would decide, they’re not bound to do anything, so they presumably and hopefully would direct the company to do something.”

The OCA meeting is schedule for January 22 at 3:30 p.m. in the courthouse community room.