Essex may have to live with poor phone service

CenturyLink customers in Essex could soon see a stopgap solution to outages and poor phone service there, but the telecoms giant’s proposed plan raises as many questions as it answers.

On December 19, CenturyLink filed a proposal with the Montana Public Services Commission offering certain Montana customers a $1,500 grant to pay for a year of available satellite or wireless service in their area. The proposal identifies Eligible Consumers as CenturyLink’s on-premises Exchange customers in Montana whose services are provided through Anaconda or Go Digital systems/facilities, of which the Company estimates there are close to 600.

Despite offering to pay for a year of third-party service, CenturyLink claims there is nothing wrong with its phone system.

“Overall, CenturyLink’s service in Montana, including service provided through Anaconda and similar copper facilities, is fair, reasonable and reliable. CenturyLink easily and consistently meets that standard,” the company wrote in the proposal. “While CenturyLink refutes allegations that the Company’s network and services as a whole are inadequate, inadequate or unreliable, CenturyLink respects the Commission’s concerns and remains open to a reasonable settlement that meets the needs of all parties and Montana consumers.”

CenturyLink customers in Essex, who have struggled with outages and poor service there for decades, disagreed.

“I’ve had a CenturyLink phone since 1995 and it’s always had problems. Often pops or cracks when speaking and sometimes [it] separates. I’ve never had a refund for a breakdown and it takes longer to get a partial refund than it’s worth,” Essex-based Bob Fisher wrote in an email. “There were people up there trying to push that [commission] been asking for help for years but see little results. It is also amazing that most of eastern Montana has fiber buried hundreds of miles to remote homes, farms and ranches and this company does not support that community.”

Essex residents are complaining about the proposal

CenturyLink wouldn’t be particularly helpful as no phone service works well in the area. The proposal also comes with the stipulation that participants must divest themselves of CenturyLink.

In addition, CenturyLink asked for another six-year exemption — the telco has been exempt since 2014 — from the state’s out-of-service rule, which dictates that disruption reports can’t exceed six per 100 local loops per month. Essex seems to exceed that standard.

The proposal provides that acceptance of CenturyLink’s plan would end the Public Service Commission’s investigation into the company, which has been ongoing since December 2021.

While the commission maintains that CenturyLink is committed to providing all of its customers with reliable phone service, the problem boils down to funding and profit margins.

In its proposal, CenturyLink complains about project costs arising from a state law that requires operators applying for broadband financing to contribute at least 20% of the construction cost of each bid.

While the company has requested millions of dollars through the American Rescue Plan Act, it claims it is not economically feasible to use the money to reach remote rural locations like Essex.

“There is simply no economically viable way to serve these communities, even with hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding,” CenturyLink wrote in its proposal.

As for the people of Essex, despite the Commission’s ongoing investigation, residents are losing hope. “I don’t think we will come together again as a community to discuss this,” said Annette Geyer-Leverington. “We all hate CenturyLink but have to accept it for what it is.”