Current CenturyLink customers in Albemarle County may see some improvement in their phone service after years of issues.
The Virginia State Corporation Commission will allow control of CenturyLink/Lumen telephone services in the state to be transferred to a private equity firm.
In a final order issued late last month, the commissioners approved the transfer, subject to an agreement that includes increased oversight and commitments to rehabbing the copper cables in at least four counties, including Albemarle and Buckingham County.
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 and across the state have had longstanding 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.
Some rural area residents are seeing new companies place fiber cables for phone and internet services, but many are still reliant on older, copper wires for their services. Many companies say it’s not economically feasible for them to build out fiber to fewer customers in less dense rural areas.
The SCC ultimately needed 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.
The SCC held hearings in February as part of its deliberations over whether to allow the transfer. At that hearing, commissioners heard from CenturyLink customers and elected officials about poor service.
Albemarle Board of Supervisors Chair Donna Price said the company must be held accountable.
“They must meet their obligation to actually provide the services for which they are being paid, and that customers be compensated when that service is not being provided, acts of God excluded,” she said.
As part of the 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.
Before the hearings, 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.
After the hearing, Ann Berkebile, a senior hearing examiner with the SCC, recommended the commission approve the proposed transfer, subject to the terms of the joint stipulation.
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.”
The company is focusing on 78 copper cables and 3,600 working lines across four counties, according to the service quality settlement term sheet that is part of the joint stipulation. A majority of those — 52 cables and 2,486 working lines — are in Albemarle, according to the stipulation.
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.
The transfer of the company is expected to occur by July, according to the order.