Every once in a while I hear a customer story that reinforces the big mistake we made in largely eliminating broadband regulation. This particular story comes from the Chatham News + Record in Chatham County, North Carolina. Some customers there experienced what can only be described as epic outages.
The first outage occurred on October 1 to residents near Charlie Cooper Road from a downed line as the result of hurricane Ian. Duke Power restored power within two days, but it took twenty days for Brightspeed to repair the damage. This is the new incumbent telephone company that purchased the property from CenturyLink. Not to give Brightspeed an excuse, but the outage occurred while the network was still owned by CenturyLink – the sale of the network closed on October 3, two days after the outage. Twenty days is still an extraordinarily a long time to make a line repair, but I’ve been part of the aftermath of the sales of telecom properties, and the first thirty days are often rough on the buyer.
The second outage occurred in the same rural neighborhood on November 28 when a tractor-trailer pulled down wires that were hanging too low. Residents believe that the low wires were a result of a shoddy repair from the hurricane Ian outage. By this time, Brightspeed had owned the company for two months, and it took a full month, until December 27, to restore service.
Customers were highly frustrated because they got no useful response from Brightspeed customer service. There seemed to be no acknowledgment that there was an outage, even as multiple people called multiple times to complain about the outage.
This is not an unusual story in rural America. I’ve talked to dozens of folks who are rural customers of big telcos who have lost broadband for more than a week at a time, and some of them regularly lose service multiple times per year.
The article describes the problems the outages caused for residents. One resident was quoted as saying that broadband access has become as important as having water to the home.
One would think that consumers with this kind of problem could seek relief from the State – that a regulator could intervene to get the telephone company’s attention. When I was first in the industry, a customer complaint that was referred from sent a state commission got an instant priority inside a telephone company.
But a workable complaint process is now a thing of the past. The rules for making a consumer complaint with the North Carolina Utility Commission are a barrier to the average consumer and seem to favor big telcos. It’s not even clear if the NCUC has jurisdiction over broadband – that’s not clear anywhere after the FCC under Ajit Pai walked away from all broadband regulation. The NCUC still lightly regulates telephone service, but it’s not clear if that applies in the same way to broadband.
Regardless of the regulatory issues, the process for filing a complaint is not simple. A consumer must complete an official complaint form and file an original and 15 paper copies – complaints cannot be filed online or by email. The NCUC sends a copy of the complaint to the utility, which must respond in ten days. If the suggested solution from the utility is not adequate, the consumer can either drop the complaint or ask for a formal hearing – which would be an intimidating process for most folks, because the hearing is held in a formal court setting following normal court rules. Not many consumers are going to wade through this highly formal process, which is slanted in favor of utilities and their attorneys and not consumers.
The reality is that consumers have been at the mercy of the big telcos ever since state commissions deregulated telephone service. I’ve heard hundreds of stories over the years of big telcos who have run rough-shod over folks. One of the most common stories I’ve heard in the last few years is of telcos disconnecting DSL rather than trying to fix it.
The first outage for these folks could have slipped through the cracks due to the extraordinary event of the telephone company changing ownership right after the outage. But there is no possible excuse for the second month-long outage. Most of my clients are small ISPs, and they all would have fixed this second outage within a day. I’ve repeatedly cautioned about giving large rural grants to the large telcos, and this outage is one of a thousand reasons not to do so.