Frustrated CenturyLink customers in areas with “higher-than-normal occurrence of trouble” might soon find relief after years of wrangling over poor phone service.
CenturyLink/Lumen and Connect Holding say they will agree to increased oversight and make commitments to rehabbing their copper cables in at least four counties in Virginia if the State Corporation Commission allows control of telephone services to be transferred to Connect Holding.
The Virginia State Corporation Commission held hearings Wednesday and Thursday as part of its efforts to determine whether to allow the transfer.
Last year, Lumen Technologies, the parent company of CenturyLink, announced it was selling its incumbent local exchange carrier operations — its physical mostly-copper telephone and DSL network — and residential fiber broadband in Virginia and 19 other states to affiliates of Apollo Global Management, a private equity firm, as Connect Holding. According to documents, Connect Holding will operate under the name Brightspeed.
Many CenturyLink customers in Albemarle County, and across the state, have had long-standing issues with the company’s phone and internet service, and with getting service issues in a timely and consistent manner. Across Central Virginia, many people have no other options except CenturyLink for phone and/or internet services.
Margaret Snoddy, who lives in Buckingham County, said at the Wednesday hearing that she has had phone services from CenturyLink the 33 years she’s lived in the county. In the last five years, she said there has been a “significant deterioration” in the service.
“At this point, the service is abysmal, both with the phone itself and the customer service line you are forced to call to report a problem,” Snoddy said. “The phone will just go totally dead … I cannot receive calls nor can I make calls. This happens if it’s raining, cloudy or on a clear, sunny day.”
While some rural area residents are seeing companies place fiber cables for phone and internet services, many are still reliant on older, copper wires for their services, as companies say it’s not economically feasible for them to build out fiber to fewer customers in less dense rural areas.
The SCC ultimately needs to approve the transfer of the telephone services under state code. As part of the sale, Lumen Technologies will transfer control of its Virginia local exchange carriers United Telephone and Central Telephone, which both do business as CenturyLink, to Connect Holding.
“As incumbent local exchange carriers, United Telephone and Central Telephone are carriers of last resort and have a continuing obligation to provide reasonably adequate service,” John Farmer, Assistant Attorney General, said on Thursday.
Farmer said the Office of the Attorney General’s Division of Consumer Counsel intervened in this SCC case out of the concern regarding ongoing service quality issues.
“All the testimony heard yesterday tends to show that CenturyLink is currently falling short in meeting that obligation,” he said. “It may well be, as stated in the joint petitioners’ testimony, that this transfer of control to Connect Holding is precisely what CenturyLink needs to make necessary improvements in its service.”
During the portion of the hearing on Wednesday, elected officials and residents from six counties spoke about issues they and their constituents have with CenturyLink phone and internet service.
Randall Bartlett, who lives in Huntly, said his area had a phone service outage for 28 days in November.
“While this phone outage constituted a huge inconvenience, there was a much more serious threat to health and safety in our community,” he said. “Poignantly, on January 2, 2022, we had a major fire at our house. If the 28 day November outage had been in effect at that time, we would have lost everything. Nobody in the neighborhood could have helped us either because all the area phones were down.”
More than 200 comments from customers were also filed online or sent in by local elected officials.
To try to get answers about the consistent phone and internet service issues, Albemarle’s Board of Supervisors supervisors had a work session in January with representatives of Lumen. They gave few answers to the board at that time, and it’s unclear if a response has been given yet to the county.
As part of the SCC case, testimony was submitted from commission staff including Sheree L. King, an associate deputy director in the Division of Public Utility Regulation, who expressed concerns over the existing copper network.
“Staff has ongoing concerns with the quality of service generally and the condition of the copper network of both Central Telephone and United Telephone,” she said in filed testimony. “An absence of sustainable and proactive preventive maintenance plans and insufficient funds allocated for upgrading the copper infrastructure will result in continued degradation of reliable service to citizens living in the rural areas of the Commonwealth.”
The filed testimony from the companies has addressed improving the existing copper plant, she said, but these statements apply to the entire 20 state footprint of the sale.
“At this time, Virginia specific-information regarding copper improvements, investments, and maintenance is unknown, and staff has been advised that this information will not become available until after the transaction has closed,” King said.
Last week, Lumen and Connect Holding, along with other parties in their case, and SCC staff filed a joint stipulation to help resolve the issues raised by King and other SCC staff. The motion filed includes a settlement term sheet outlining what the companies will do.
The settlement terms say that the company will continue to work to identify copper cables with a “higher-than-normal occurrence of trouble,” and that data will be used to choose which cables to rehabilitate or replace, “thereby resulting in fewer future customer outages.”
Currently, the company is focusing on 78 copper cables and 3,600 working lines across four counties. A majority of those — 52 cables and 2,486 working lines — are in Albemarle.
After the transfer, when receiving complaints of telephone outages or service affecting issues, United Telephone and Central Telephone must restore no less than 80% of phone service within 48 hours and no less than 95% within 96 hours (per calendar month on a statewide basis), the agreement says. However, complaints reported during severe storms would be excluded from those metrics.
Reports of compliance must be made until the companies demonstrate compliance with the metrics for three consecutive months. If the commitments are not met, “additional action by the Commission may be taken.”
The company must also report “measurable and verifiable commitments regarding the plans for the maintenance, repair, and replacement of the copper network,” to SCC staff after the sale. Annually for five years, it will need to report projects completed, projects started and a forecast of upcoming projects.
SCC staff, Farmer and attorneys representing Centurylink/Lumen and Connect Holding all said Thursday that supported the joint stipulation.
“Staff submits the joint stipulation and term sheet if, adopted by the Commission, will assist the Commission in ensuring that customer complaints are timely addressed by their respective telephone companies and ensure that reasonably adequate retail service is provided in accordance with the statutory provisions applicable to these carriers under the Code of Virginia,” said Raymond Doggett, who spoke on behalf of SCC staff.
Ann Berkebile, a senior hearing examiner with the SCC, said she will now work to compile the record and make a recommendation to the Commission, who ultimately has the deciding authority.