County unwilling to accept CenturyLink settlement

By Sarah Pridgeon

A public hearing will be held in Cheyenne next month as part of the Public Service Commission’s investigation into alleged problems with CenturyLink in rural areas of Wyoming, including Beulah and Aladdin.

Crook County is currently the only entity involved in the investigation that has not entered into an agreement or settlement with the telephone company.

The case has been ongoing since the PSC received complaints that led to three separate investigations into quality and reliability of CenturyLink service across Wyoming.  The three investigations focused on areas in which old and inadequate equipment remains in service; specific zones of the Wheatland exchange; and zones in the rural areas of Crook County.

In June, 2017, CenturyLink responded by seeking a determination that its basic residential and business services in zone 2 and 3 rural service areas are subject to effective competition and should therefore be exempt from regulation. It listed 29 service areas across Wyoming in which it argues competition exists, a list that did not include the two Crook County areas.

Intervention from the Office of Consumer Advocate (OCA) led to a joint motion in December, 2017 to suspend procedures to allow further negotiations. The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) and Intervenor Independent Telephone Companies then filed a joint motion in February requesting a further suspension for negotiation.

In September, CenturyLink and the intervening telephone companies, which include Range and RT Communications, entered into a stipulation regarding the price at which CenturyLink could set its services for the first year, if the PSC determines them to be subject to competition.

The next month, OCA and AARP entered into a stipulation and agreement that would see CenturyLink provide an alternative to customers in Wheatland and Lusk by partially subsidizing VoIP, or Voice over Internet Protocol, which provides phone service over an internet connection. HughesNet, an unregulated entity not affiliated with CenturyLink, would provide the VoIP service, which would be subject to various negotiated terms and conditions.

All parties had at this point entered into stipulation agreements through which they would no longer oppose CenturyLink’s request – except Crook County.

Crook County submitted testimony at the beginning of November that included witness statements from county officials Tim Lyons, Growth & Development and Commissioner Jeanne Whalen, as well as from local residents describing their issues with CenturyLink service, including Pam Thompson, Todd Leimser, Theresa Curren and Rocky Courchaine.

“Based upon my 20 plus years of experience driving and working in the 643 Beulah exchange area I find there are significant gaps (areas of no cell service) in this area,” said Lyons in his testimony, which accompanied exhibits showing service coverage from companies including Verizon and T Mobile.

“These gaps in service vary in size and location depending upon the wireless cell phone provider an individual is using.”

Lyons repeated this finding for the Aladdin/Colony exchange. Whalen concurred that customers in these areas cannot rely on cell coverage, often even after purchasing boosters for their homes.

“Some people can get texts but not full phone service. Quality just depends on where one is standing, move a foot or two and service is lost,” she said, noting also that the only internet available is through satellite and the amount of customers they can accept is “limited”.

“As an individual user and a county commissioner I have heard complaints about the telephone system since 1990. I have attended the original hearing in 2008 at Ranch A and the 2016 hearing in Aladdin. Both hearings were well attended by residents of the area,” Whalen testified.

“I have heard the complaints and concerns from my constituents in these two exchanges and most people have given up complaining to CenturyLink and the PSC, because nothing happened.”

Representing Crook County, Whalen suggested in her testimony that the county has been a cooperative participant in the settlement proceedings but does not feel there can be any moving forward until a decision has been rendered in the original three investigations.

“Our residents have customer complaint fatigue. Nothing happens,” she said.

Whalen also questioned why the settlement does not find that Crook County’s customers are qualified to benefit from the subsidized HughesNet service.

“We find nowhere in the settlement agreement where Crook County customers get anything out of the settlement,” she continued, responding to a question as to why the county did not agree to it.

“According to the settlement guidelines, a CenturyLink customer must file even more complaints to the PSC before they qualify for the VOIP service. We feel our citizens should have primacy before the other customers since we have been complaining the longest.”

Whalen additionally shared the county’s recommendation that Beulah and Aladdin customers get the same opportunity for VoIP service; that customers are given a concise summary of their rights; that CenturyLink advertises its public education meetings in newspapers, billing statements and by mail; that education is focused on porting existing telephone numbers to a new voice service; and that quality issues are resolved in the two exchanges.

“We want our residents to have decent telephone service that Century Link should have been providing all along; and if we agree to the settlement that our residents get the same opportunity for VOIP service at the same cost for the same amount of time as the others are being offered,” she said.

“Century Link insists there are few quality of service complaints in Zones 2 and 3 in Crook County even though there have been complaints since at least 1998 through the last PSC hearing in Nov. 2016. We cannot agree to the settlement until the PSC rulings from the Quality of Service hearings are made when our residents get nothing from the deregulation settlement.”

Whalen also vehemently argued against the idea of CenturyLink having competitors in the Beulah and Aladdin areas, pointing out that she is not aware of any other VoIP services and that satellite services are twice the price.

Kristin Lee rebutted the testimony on behalf of CenturyLink, referring to witness testimony that they own cell phones and, in at least one case, have dropped their CenturyLink services.

“Any customer leaving our landline service for a competitor is evidence that the market is competitive,” she said.

Lee also presented a review of trouble tickets, claiming that the company does not have recurring service quality problems in Crook County and meets the PSC service quality rules. She also stated that customers would be able to ask for the HughesNet offer “if they have recurring service quality problems that cannot be fixed” – a criteria she also said Crook County customers do not meet.

The hearing will take place on December 10 at 9 a.m. in the PSC hearing room in Cheyenne. If you wish to make a public comment but cannot attend, the PSC will accept them through its conference call number 1-877-735-7186; you will be prompted to comment and are asked to mute your phone at all other times.