State threatens CenturyLink over Applegate phone service – Medford News, Weather, Sports, Breaking News

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Priscilla Weaver, who lives on Little Applegate Road, points out phone equipment near Buncom. Weaver is among residents who urged the Public Utility Commission to investigate CenturyLink after years of unreliable landline phone service. [Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune]

Priscilla Weaver rarely gives out her landline phone number, because she can’t trust that it will work. And in the Applegate area that can be a problem, because cellphone service can be spotty.

Weaver and her neighbors in the Applegate have reported numerous phone service problems to the Oregon Public Utility Commission over the past year, prompting state regulators to investigate CenturyLink’s parent company Lumen Technologies.

“We’ve had multiple multiday outages every year for years,” Weaver said.

Most recently, Weaver said she made “some very pointed oral comments” at a Sept. 22 public meeting where state regulators threatened five-figure fines if the area’s landline phone service issues aren’t resolved.

The Oregon Public Utility Commission is conducting an investigation into telecom company Lumen Technologies — which sells landline phone and internet services under the name CenturyLink — over a host of service quality complaints in Jacksonville, Ruch and surrounding areas that range from frequent dropped calls to routine outages.

Weaver is among residents who urged the utility commission to investigate the phone company last year after what she described as years of unreliable basic landline phone service.

“Our problems go back to 2014 at least,” Weaver said.

The investigation is focused on phone and internet service reliability within the 97530 ZIP code, as well as “safety related issues regarding Lumen poles,” according to a news release issued Thursday by the public utility commission.

CenturyLink rebranded itself as Lumen Technologies in 2020. It owns companies that provide residential phone service under the CenturyLink brand that include CenturyTel of Oregon, United Telephone Company of the Northwest and Qwest Corporation.

When reached for comment, Lumen emailed the following statement:

“Lumen understands it is frustrating when service issues arise. That is why our local team works hard to address them as quickly as possible, even under the most challenging circumstances. We’re currently working with our valued customers and Oregon’s Public Utility Commission to resolve any and all local service issues.”

Weaver described wide-ranging but persistent service issues ranging from “spotty” service for three weeks in September causing dropped calls, as well as outages this year that rendered her and her neighbors’ phone lines unusable.

According to the utility commission’s December 2021 request to open the investigation, the investigation was spurred by customer complaints dating back to late 2016.

As of Dec. 2, 2021, “approximately 60-80 customers have been impacted with 11 outages ranging from four to eight days before restoration is complete,” according to the complaint. It notes that Jacksonville “is a very rural city, and the customers do not have internet or cellular service as an option. … As a result, the CenturyLink telephone outages present a very dangerous circumstance if there were to be an emergency of any kind.”

A Sept. 18 complaint to the utility commission described “over a dozen multiday outages” in the 10 months since the commission began its investigation in December.

Weaver said she and her neighbors began contacting the utility commission and state Rep. Pam Marsh last fall after one of her neighbors needed to call 911 for an Oct. 24 medical emergency. Her neighbor successfully called for help that day, but one day later phones were down.

“None of us had phones for five days,” Weaver said.

The utility commission ordered CenturyLink to roll out a dedicated customer support line for customers reporting service interruptions in Jacksonville, Applegate and its surrounding areas in a Sept. 22 public meeting. Customers in the 97530 ZIP code now are asked to report outages at 1-844-304-5337.

“Lumen must address all tickets and make repairs to the customer’s satisfaction within 48 hours of the creation of the ticket,” the utility commission’s release states.

CenturyLink customers with service issues outside the Jacksonville area should call CenturyLink’s standard customer service line at 1-800-244-1111.

The utility commission’s Consumer Information Center is available to resolve disputes with utilities at 1-800-522-2404 or by emailing puc.consumers@puc.oregon.gov.

For Weaver, the dedicated support line is a victory after years of having to navigate CenturyLink’s phone tree customer service 1-800 number attempting to report that her calls are dropping.

“Here we are in Little Applegate driving down to Ruch … to report an outage,” Weaver said. “It’s crazy, just crazy.”

At the Sept. 22 utility commission meeting, regulators ordered Lumen to maintain its current pricing for the duration of its investigation — preventing rate increases for at least nine months and requiring Lumen to track and retain information on all repair tickets generated through the 97530-only line.

Lumen must provide a report every two weeks until Jan. 1. If the telecom utility fails to meet the state’s requirements, it faces a penalty of $50,000 per day until the violation is resolved.

Weaver said she doesn’t want “fines for fines’ sake,” but she wants to know that she can trust her phone to call for help in an emergency.

“It’s frustrating, and it’s scary,” Weaver said. “Because they won’t do prompt and effective repairs.”

Marsh said in an email that she’s “very pleased that the (utility commission) now has issued clear direction to the company.” Marsh said she has worked with Weaver for months “to get the (utility commission) to pay attention to CenturyLink’s abysmal service record.”

Marsh said she’s recently heard of outages in another neighborhood within her district, near Tyler Creek Road outside Ashland. She’s gathering details from those constituents in order to “make sure the (utility commission) is aware of CenturyLink’s multiple failures in Jackson County.”

Marsh urged the utility commission to send a “clear message” to CenturyLink in an email before the Sept. 22 meeting. She highlighted the telecommunications company’s receipt of state funding through the Oregon Universal Service Fund. The funding stemming from surcharges on all Oregon telecommunications sales was passed by the state Legislature in 1999 as a measure to offset the higher costs for basic telephone service in rural areas.

Marsh advocated for fines worth roughly a quarter of the state service fund’s support.

“This should get the company’s attention; moreover, it is absurd for the state to issue (service fund) subsidies to a company that has consistently failed to perform,” Marsh stated.

Lumen is disputing whether the order was lawful.

In a hearing request filed last week by Lumen’s lawyers Lawrence Reichman of Portland and William Hendricks III of Hood River, the lawyers argued the 48-hour standard is unlawful because it “exceeds the Commission’s statutory authority” and violates that requirements be “nondiscriminatory,” meaning that it does not apply equally to all telecommunications carriers.

The hearing request further disputes the utility commission allowing individuals to report outages on behalf of multiple addresses, which the lawyers claim “creates unmanageable problems with respect to tracking requests, the accuracy, authenticity and reliability of information reported, and confidentiality of customer information.”

Further, Lumen claims the penalty exceeds the utility commission’s authority because it did not permit Lumen to submit a corrective action plan before penalties are imposed, failed to provide Lumen an opportunity for hearing before ordering added remedies, and claims “the Commission has no legal authority to impose penalties in these circumstances … and does not have legal authority to consider each day a separate violation.”

Chief Administrative Law Judge Nolan Moser ordered a prehearing conference for 9 a.m. Oct. 5 in Salem with a full hearing scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Nov. 21 and a tentative decision by Dec. 20.

Reach web editor Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @MTwebeditor.





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