INVESTIGATION: Phone company accused of neglecting rural customers

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SCOTT COUNTY, Va. (WJHL) – June 5, 2018 was Ferne Grimm’s 92nd birthday. 

The widow, known for her faith and spunk, was living alone in Upper Possum Creek, a neighborhood enclosed by mountains in rural Scott County,Va.  

Carol Alley, Grimm’s daughter, didn’t call before visiting her mother that morning. She knew her landline had been out for six days and no one in the neighborhood has cell service. 

Ambulances were already in the driveway when Alley arrived with her mother’s birthday cake. 

The sitter that the family had hired was the first to find her. Family members say, when the sitter arrived, Grimm was sitting in the hallway, blood spilling from her forehead. 

“She went to the phone in the living room, there was blood there. She went to the phone in her bedroom, there was blood there. The bathroom looked like a war zone,” Alley said. “A lot of valuable time was wasted because there was no phone connection…you know in a situation like that minutes count.”

“A strategy of abandonment”

For people living in rural areas, with little to no cell service, their landlines are their lifelines. 

Yet experts say regulatory changes in states like Virginia are leaving the most vulnerable customers–those farthest from emergency services–at risk. 

Susan Baldwin, a telecommunications policy expert and independent consultant, has testified in regulatory proceedings in at least 16 states, arguing that major voice service providers may have a corporate strategy of abandoning their rural customers.

Family members said, prior to the day Grimm fell, CenturyLink, the main voice service provider in the area, had already missed two appointments to fix the phone. 

“Just about everyone in the family called trying to get them to fix mother’s phone and no results,” Alley said.  

Neighbors like Wanda Skeen said this is typical for CenturyLink. They said the company has failed to sufficiently repair copper phone lines in the area, despite repeated complaints from the community over several years. 

Skeen said her son’s phone seems to go out every time it rains. It has no dial tone for hours, days or even weeks. Other times there’s static, humming or crosstalk on the line. 

Neighbors claim even when CenturyLink technicians respond to maintenance calls the fix is often poor or incomplete. 

These are all symptoms of what Baldwin calls service quality neglect, a practice prohibited by the Federal Communications Commission that she says has become increasingly common as phone companies retire copper lines and transition to newer technologies.  

Does competition cure all?

Phone companies have called service quality neglect a myth. 

CenturyLink declined to release a detailed history of outages in Southwest Virginia and when asked about Grimm’s case, a spokesperson said they did not find any “widespread prolonged outages of note.” They said in a statement that the company is continually investing in and upgrading its operations in the region. 

Baldwin has a different theory. 

“Phone companies have gotten bigger and bigger and more removed from their customers, and regulators in some states have bought the notion that competition cures all,” she said. “As a result, in rural areas, phone companies are not bothering to invest because it’s not profitable and that’s the thorny problem facing legislators taking interest in this and regulators.” 

Ken Schrad has worked for Virginia State Corporation Commission, the agency that oversees landline service quality, since 1986. 

He said the consumer protection agency still records and relays complaints about CenturyLink but it’s been about a decade since the commission has had service quality rules that apply to phone companies. 

Currently, under Virginia state law, Schrad said CenturyLink is classified as a “competitive local exchange carrier.” 

“The idea is that the company should have a competitive incentive to keep customers and provide quality service,” Schrad said, “There are certainly pockets of every state, primarily rural areas, where you can question whether there’s effective competition.” 

If a competitive company has a long list of complaints, Schrad said there’s nothing regulators can do about that besides pass them on to the company.

Previously, he said the commission could threaten litigation.  “No company wants to have a case before the commission airing service quality issues so that’s why companies were typically responsive and did not violate service quality rules.” 

Schrad estimated the commission received around 600 complaints about CenturyLink from January through September of this year. He says the vast majority were related to service reliability. 

Without regulatory oversight, Baldwin says that companies would rather roll out new technologies, like fiber, than properly fix an old copper line in a rural community. 

“Whether its profitable or not, it needs to be done,” Baldwin says, “The issue now is how to get phone companies to maintain those copper networks until such time as there is truly an effective alternative for the customer.” 

Baldwin believes states like Virginia need to reimpose regulations on companies like CenturyLink. 

But currently, she says there are several states considering rolling back the red tape. She recently testified on behalf of the American Association of Retired Persons against CenturyLink’s push for deregulation in Wyoming.  

The rural risk 

Family members said CenturyLink didn’t fix the phone until after they buried her on June 25th, 2018. 

“She died from complications of the fall,” Alley said.

Baldwin says there are still millions of people, just like Grimm, across the country who rely on landline service. She says three out of four people ages 65 and older still have a landline. 

Skeen carries one around with her when she goes out in her yard, just in case. “I have been through enough to know that something can happen and I want to take care of it before it happens” 

If you’ve had problems like those detailed in this story with CenturyLink, or any other major voice service provider you can email News Channel 11’s Jackie DeFusco at jdefusco@wjhl.com or give her a call at (423)972-1711. 

CenturyLink Statement: 

“Centurylink is continually investing in its operations to bring our customers the latest technological advances in our industry. These advancements are often accompanied with changes to our existing systems and processes. A recent upgrade to our network in the area of Gate City, Va., has improved service and, since its installation a few weeks ago, our network in this area is fully functional. We are committed to serving Southwest Virginia, and are continually monitoring our network to ensure the reliability of our communications services.”

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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