After complaints from affected residents and local government officials, the Montana Public Service Commission is beginning to formally ask questions of Frontier Communications regarding the state of their service in southern Lincoln County.
The Public Service Commission sent Frontier a letter on Jan. 15.
Happys Inn resident Mike Ody said he has been trying to find out for almost a year why battery backups that maintain phone service in his area during power outages haven’t been replaced.
Without those backups, there is no service at all during outages, leaving Ody and his neighbors completely cut off from reaching emergency services for hours at a time.
Ody said that the issue appears to have been in existence since a storm struck on Presidents Day, Feb. 19, 2018.
Ody isn’t just dissatisfied with Frontier though. He questions whether the Public Service Commission has done everything they can to remedy the issue.
Ody said he believes the failure of the backup batteries and extended time it has taken for them to be replaced by a company that receives federal subsidies represents nothing short of theft.
“This company has been allowed to lie, cheat and steal from the citizens of the state of Montana, and it’s the public service commission that’s supposed to protect you from that,” he said.
“The Frontier company has received federal dollars, and all of this is to provide adequate services,” Ody said. From his view, not being able to reach 911 during any power outage — no matter how short — fails to meet the definition of “adequate service.”
Ody said he wants the Public Service Commission to take Frontier to court, where they could seek fines against the company.
Lincoln County Commissioner Mark Peck has offered similar — if somewhat more subdued than Ody’s — criticisms of Frontier’s response to the situation faced by Ody and his neighbors.
During the Jan. 8 County Commissioners meeting, Peck said that he found out about the problem in June.
Jeff Hoyer, another resident of the Happys Inn area, came to the Commissioners meeting to discuss his concerns.
Despite complaints to the Public Service Commission, county officials and even the FCC, “We still have a whole pile of people out there that have no phone coverage when the power’s out,” he said.
Hoyer said he had come to question why he was paying a phone bill when he isn’t getting the service he pays for.
“I would appreciate it if you guys could help in any way, shape or form, because the risk is huge out there,” Hoyer said.
Peck told Hoyer that the Commissioners had a meeting with Frontier executives this past summer, but that he felt the executives had been less than forthright.
Peck said that the commissioners are working closely with Sen. Jon Tester’s office, and that he had met with Lincoln County Sheriff Darren Short and County Attorney Marcia Boris to discuss options.
“We’re trying to see if we’ve got any avenues, since we are legally required to provide 911 service out of the Sheriff’s Office,” he said.
Peck expressed frustration from his attempts to get better information out of Frontier.
“We’re talking about routine maintenance on your phone switch system,” Peck said.
At the meeting, Peck said that the Commissioners and Short intend to write a letter to the Public Service Commission outlining the dangers to the life and safety of both residents and anyone who travels Highway 2.
Peck said that the priority is replacing the batteries, but that he feels ultimately Frontier needs to go away.
Justin Kraske, chief legal counsel at the Montana Public Service Commission, said the commission first became aware of the problem in the Happys Inn area in October.
After repeated changes in projected timelines from Frontier, the commission sent the Jan. 15 letter to Frontier.
That letter states that the commission has received complaints from seven customers since Oct. 2, 2018. It states that the complainants have told the commission the problem has existed since February 2018.
The letter also states that Frontier has repeatedly pushed out dates that it gave to the commission regarding when the problem would be resolved.
In a Jan. 16 phone call, Kraske spoke about Frontiers changes to the timeline.
“The deadlines keep kind of moving out, so we’ve had some concerns,” he said.
“The customers in this remote area have no cell coverage, and they have gone almost a year without battery backup during power outages,” the letter states. “The Commission has grave concerns with the additional delay in the battery installation, which is placing these residents at great risk during a potential emergency situation.”
Ody also raised concerns about switch station with battery backups located in other areas, such as north of Libby on Pipe Creek Road.
Kraske said the commission shares Ody’s concern, and that is why the letter tells Frontier to provide information regarding the status of battery backups and measures they are taking to assure this type of battery failure does not occur in the future.
The letter ends in a lengthy paragraph detailing the information the commission is requesting from Frontier, including a timeline of events and proof that the commission and media were notified of service outages as required by state regulations.
“Additionally, what actions has Frontier taken to prevent a future battery back-up situation from arising, such as having additional batteries in stock,” the letter asks.
This reporter reached out to Frontier on Jan. 14.
Frontier was asked to respond to criticism that they have not fulfilled their service obligations to customers affected by the backup battery failures. They were also asked why the batteries were allowed to go so far out of their service life without replacement under a regular maintenance schedule. And, finally, they were asked what they intend to do to ensure this situation does not repeat.
In an email response on Jan. 18, Javier Mendoza, vice president, Frontier Corporate Communications and External Affairs, gave his answers.
His response, in full:
“Frontier is committed to providing affordable, reliable, and sustainable telephone and internet service to our customers and the Montana communities we serve,” Mendoza wrote.
“The service interruptions in Lincoln County are largely the result of unplanned power outages that interrupt the interconnected service originating at Frontier’s Libby, MT central office that connects at remote terminals at several locations. Although the Libby office has generator and battery back-up power, when the main electric power goes out, the communication connection from Libby and the remote terminals is interrupted and requires manual intervention to restore. This requires long drive times and simply takes time to restore.
“The batteries that help maintain service at remote terminals are in stages of being replaced and should all be in place within a few weeks. However, these provide limited backup and a lengthy power outage that impacts the Libby office could still result in loss of service for the areas served by the remote terminals.”
Kraske said that the Public Service Commission is going to attempt to have a meeting in Libby that will include Frontier representatives, county officials, Public Service Commission representatives and be open to the public.
The Public Service Commission does have legal options by pursuing fines through the court system, Kraske said. They also oversee the federal subsidies that Frontier receives for providing phone service.
“But I think most of that would be premature at this point, because really what we’re trying to do is talk to some of the people impacted up there, and make sure — at least initially — that this battery backup issue gets resolved,” he said.