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911 busy signals for rural Wisconsin residents could continue

Frequent outages involving a local telecom provider have spurred dozens of complaints

Chris Rickert
The Wisconsin State Journal

MONDOVI, Wis. — After a portion of Mike Wright’s shed collapsed on him last year under the weight of several feet of snow, his wife called 911 repeatedly for help to free him from the 10-foot-long pipe and other debris he found himself pinned beneath.

Each time, the rural Mondovi couple said, she got a busy signal.

A busy signal was also all a Mondovi dentist’s office heard when it tried to reach 911 for help with a disabled girl who was choking on a piece of dental equipment a couple of years ago, according to Mondovi volunteer firefighter and street superintendent James Rud.

“Everybody’s frantic because they’ve called five times and got a busy signal on 911,” he said at a Dec. 20 public meeting in Mondovi organized by the city’s administrator to discuss problems with local landline and internet provider Frontier Communications.

If you call 911 and “nobody picks up, your anxiety level goes from a bad situation to a (really) bad situation,” he said.

The inability of rural Wisconsinites to contact 911 in life-threatening emergencies is the most serious consequence of a company that has long been the subject of complaints about poor telephone and internet service in the rural areas of Wisconsin where it is often the only option for either.

And because Frontier is reportedly on the verge of bankruptcy and state lawmakers have ceded most regulatory oversight of the telecommunications industry, there appears little that consumers can do about it.

Neither Wright nor the girl from the dentist’s office suffered any permanent injury. Wright said his brother-in-law, who was there when the roof caved in, was eventually able to free him. Rud said someone from the dentist’s office was eventually able to get through to 911 on a cellphone.

The problems they experienced are not unique to the Mondovi area. From Jan. 1, 2019, to Jan. 10 of this year, Wisconsin residents filed 93 complaints, totaling 405 pages, about Frontier with the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. Phone and internet outages spurred many of them, including from elderly people in rural areas. One Barneveld man with health problems went so far as to have his physician send letters to the company emphasizing his need for a working landline, in case of emergencies.

In December, according to the records, Marathon County’s IT director contacted the state’s Public Service Commission — which contacted DATCP — to complain that officials there had been trying “for months” to get Frontier to upgrade a trunk line the county needed to implement a new 911 system.

“Our 911 system is maintained by Frontier but the equipment is long since past end-of-life,” Gerard Klein wrote to the PSC on Dec. 27. “Can I file a complaint with the Wisconsin PSC or can you give me other advice on how to get Frontier’s attention? Is this something that should be given to the FCC?”

Outside of Wisconsin, an investigation into Frontier released last year by the Minnesota Department of Commerce found “frequent and lengthy service outages, including loss of customer access to 911 emergency services.” Areas of West Virginia and South Carolina also reported significant outages last year.

Frontier operates in 29 states. In Wisconsin, the PSC last created a map of Frontier’s service area 10 years ago — when, prior to deregulation, it still kept track of such information. It shows Frontier covering about a fifth of the state, including a large swath of north central Wisconsin and other areas roughly southeast of Oshkosh and in the southwest quarter of the state.

Wright said that shortly after his accident, Mondovi’s local Frontier technician told him the company’s service to 911 had been out for eight hours the day of the accident. At the Dec. 20 meeting, about five of the approximately 50 people in attendance raised their hands when asked by a moderator whether they’d been unable to contact 911 through their Frontier landlines.

Frontier declined to make a company official available for an interview, but in a statement, spokesman Javier Mendoza said, “from time to time our customers experience service disruptions.”

“In March 2019, a disruption of 911 services affecting customers around Mondovi was reported and resolved within a day,” he said. “In the unlikely event of these occurrences, Frontier has a team of 911 services specialists who respond immediately, communicate with appropriate agencies and work round-the-clock until the issue is resolved.”

Less regulation

Those who track the telecommunications industry say Frontier’s problems largely stem from the industry’s push beginning about 20 years ago to, as UW-Madison professor emeritus and telecommunications expert Barry Orton put it, “hollow out the regulation state by state.”

A 2011 Wisconsin law essentially stripped the state’s PSC of its powers to investigate telecom providers and force them to make changes.

Now providers “don’t have to maintain (phone lines),” Orton said. “They don’t have to maintain a system checking that they work.”

Christopher Mitchell of the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance said that access to 911 in rural areas of the country today is “absolutely” worse than it was 15 or 20 years ago.

“And it could get a lot worse,” he said.

The thinking among deregulation backers has been that fewer rules and less oversight would spur more investment and competition in a fast-changing industry, including as people moved away from a reliance on landlines and toward cellphones.

But the hilly topography in some rural areas of the state interferes with cell phone signals, and in areas such as Mondovi (population 2,600) and Buffalo County (population 13,000), there is often not the population density to ensure that if companies invest in wired and wireless infrastructure there will be enough consumers using them to make the companies’ investments profitable.

Mitchell said policymakers “did not do their due diligence” to ensure cellphone coverage was as ubiquitous as telecommunications companies had led them to believe. “There are places in the state that will never have adequate cellphone” coverage, Orton said.

The head of the state telecom industry’s lobbying group, the Wisconsin State Telecommunications Association, said deregulation was about “leveling the playing field” between traditional landline phone providers and cable and other companies seeking to provide voice and video products.

WSTA executive director Bill Esbeck also contended that a more open market will ultimately lead to better services at a lower cost but acknowledged that providing service in rural areas can be financially difficult for companies. “There is no magic bullet that will solve the issue,” he said.

It’s hard to know to what extent other companies providing service in rural areas are encountering the same problems; Orton said that since deregulation, fewer entities are collecting such information. Mitchell has been tracking Frontier’s financial and service woes since at least 2015, and called it “the worst of a small group of similar companies.”

Esbeck predicted Frontier’s bankruptcy, if it happens, will ultimately allow the company to make the changes it needs to make to improve reliability.

“I expect that situation to become significantly better in the near future,” he said.

Co-ops could help

Mitchell said one possible way to provide better 911 service in rural areas is through smaller, regional telecommunications cooperatives that make investments in infrastructure based on longer-term projections of a community’s growth, not on providing short-term profits to shareholders.

Esbeck similarly lauded investments made by small providers “woven into their communities” in Wisconsin, although he couldn’t say how much of Wisconsin’s market such companies currently serve.

Orton advocated consumers talking to lawmakers about the need to move away from a deregulation mindset.

“They have to say, ‘You have to reverse this stuff,’” he said.

Democratic State Sen. Jeff Smith, whose district includes Mondovi and who was at the Dec. 20 meeting, said he “was as taken aback as anybody to hear the stories” about problems connecting to 911.

He said he’s offering a bill that could make it easier for companies to lay new fiber optic lines or other communications equipment in public right-of-ways, but that there’s not much appetite for re-regulating phone service in the Republican-controlled Legislature.

Republican state Rep. Treig Pronschinske, of Mondovi, did not respond to requests for comment.

“Technologically, we can do whatever we want,” Mitchell said. “The question is, what can we require these companies to do? ... What do our elected officials require of the service and it being available all the time?”


©2020 The Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wis.)