MARATHON COUNTY, Wis. (WSAW) -- "My home was effectively cut off from contact with the outside world."
A Marathon County resident calls extended phone service outages in the rural parts of the county "a matter of life and death" for her mother in a DATCP complaint. (WSAW Photo)
Scores of reports, begging the state for help. Elderly residents scattered across rural Wisconsin, dependent on their landline for medical conditions or Lifeline support and living in areas untouched by reliable cell service, remained out of phone service for weeks at a time in the past two years.
"We are both disabled," a Manitowoc elderly couple wrote. "They don't care about us or any one."
A 7 Investigates analysis of complaints submitted to the state about Frontier Communications extended phone service outages revealed that elderly residents with medical concerns waited for an average of more than three weeks--22.24 days to be exact--before Frontier restored their landline after an outage. Many of them waited much longer. The average outage time for the entire group of complaints was just shy of 3 weeks, at 20 days.
As one Wausau resident put it in 2018, it was a matter of life and death for her elderly mother who lived alone and relied on a Medical Alert system, or Lifeline.
Those two words--life and death--were frequently mentioned in record after record where residents waiting for weeks to get service wrote that they feared for their lives in the event of an emergency.
As another elderly couple living in Marathon County simply wrote last September after 25 days without phone service, “Please help!”
Complaints from 2018-2019 regarding Frontier Communications submitted to the Department of Trade, Agriculture and Consumer Protection (DATCP) uncovered at least 70 people across the state who were severely affected by extended phone service outages with Frontier. Many of those people cited neighbors or whole areas who were experiencing similar problems. Given the relatively small sample of people who experience a consumer problem and complete the DATCP complaint process, the number of people impacted is statistically likely to be far higher. The BBB just updated their profile for Frontier, again registering a grade of F--and recording more than 11,000 complaints nationwide for the past three years.
Frequently in the DATCP complaints, customers said they had alerted Frontier service agents of their medical conditions and requested to be moved higher up the repair list. Rarely did those same customers report that alerting Frontier to their condition had helped; frequent comments complained that there were failures to escalate tickets or move residents higher on a list based on medical concerns.
"It was explained that we are older people and have no cell service and need telephone service for emergency medical situations [redacted medical],” one Richland County resident wrote. They were out of service for more than 16 days in 2019, and almost a month in 2018.
One Rock County resident, dependent on phone service to operate his lifeline, said he was out for six weeks. Two people who mentioned a medical condition still waited three months.
A Rosholt resident experiencing a 3-week outage wrote, “I would have to get in my car and drive 3-4 miles just to get signal so that I could dial 911.”
More than half of customers submitting complaints specifically defined themselves as elderly, but it’s likely that the percentage is higher once those who didn’t identify any age at all are accounted for. At least 36 specifically mentioned--or in a few cases simply strongly implied (through explaining fears about emergencies or calling 911)--that they lived in areas where cell service was completely absent or extremely weak. Of 25 elderly customers who had major medical concerns, all but one said they had no access to cell service to make that emergency call.
Based on the complaints, extended phone service outages could largely be traced to two issues: aging or poorly maintained phone lines that went out during rain, snow or other weather events, and major storms that would knock landlines out for weeks at a time.
Two months ago, Marathon County board supervisors began discussions after hearing from a handful of residents in the Hamburg area--where cell service is spotty at best--that emergency calls during landline outages were a concern. From a public safety perspective, officials like Infrastructure Committee chairman John Robinson, Marathon County IT director Gerald Klein, and Marathon County Sheriff’s Office Communications Captain Bill Millhausen were concerned and wanted to find out what role the county could play in addressing residents’ concerns.
Legally, the Federal Communications Commission--which declined to comment on this investigation--told them that not much could be done. Robinson was eventually able to get Frontier to commit to attending a March county meeting.
“From my standpoint here at the Sheriff’s office, there’s nothing I can do to make Frontier or a local telephone company do anything,” Millhausen said. “It’s very frustrating because of course, who do people come to for answers? It’s definitely the person in charge of the 911 center.”
When Frontier purchased Verizon’s landlines in Wisconsin and 12 other states in an $8.6 billion deal back in 2009, the majority of Marathon County’s rural phone lines became Frontier’s responsibility.
In 2011, Wisconsin followed a nationwide trend when the Republican-controlled state legislature deregulated the telecommunications industry. With that move, the state lost the ability—among other things—to force telephone companies to maintain, repair and upgrade their phone service infrastructure. Bills like Sen. Kathleen Vinehout’s 2013 AARP-backed attempt to reinstate the “provider of last resort” would have returned some of that oversight to the state, but have failed to gain traction.
Barry Orton, a now-retired UW-Madison professor of telecommunications, argued against the 2011 deregulation that removed the Public Service Commission’s and DATCP’s oversight of the industry. In a 2010 op-ed in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, he wrote that one of the main issues of deregulation would be the impact on rural and elderly residents. An op-ed on the other side, written by Democratic state rep. Jeff Plale, argued instead that the current laws regulating the industry were not adapting to the changing industry landscape--and that the new laws paved the way for economic development.
“The problem is that many rural areas of Wisconsin don't have any alternative to the current phone provider, and many elderly consumers in areas where alternatives are available still would not consider switching,” Orton wrote in 2010. “These landline customers are precisely the people who most need the protections that the bill strips from the PSC's powers.”
Now ten years later, he believes that the problem surfacing in Marathon and other rural counties is an example of the effects of deregulation.
“After 2011 when the Public Service Commission laws were eliminated, then the companies were free to let their old-fashioned copper landlines deteriorate without maintaining them, without fixing them, without replacing them when they go bad or rot or the squirrels eat them,” Orton explained in a phone interview with 7 Investigates. “As the equipment deteriorated, so does the service.”
It’s a complaint echoed in the notes of a DATCP complaint from a Forest County resident in the fall of 2018, who detailed what happened after Frontier’s 2009 purchase of the landlines that serviced her home.
“We had no say; there was no option,” she said of the purchase. “Not having phone service happens often. For years they have neglected upgrading their equipment.” The Crandon resident said she had just come off an 11-day phone service outage when she submitted her report.
And as one Merrill resident noted after reporting five outages in two months including an 11-day outage at the time of her complaint, “Frontier does not seem to care about their customers at all. Never had issues like this till Frontier came out here.”
Wisconsin residents aren’t alone in a pattern of Frontier neglect, however. In 2018, a Minnesota investigation found that complaints “show direct violations of Minnesota law and Commission rules, and indicate broad, systemic problems with Frontier’s service quality, recordkeeping, and business operations.” Frontier Communications has scored an F with the Better Business Bureau for several years, according to a BBB spokesperson. In California last year, a public utilities commission report found that they were “deinvesting” in infrastructure in a way that was “most pronounced in the more rural and low-income service areas.” Essentially, according to an ongoing report by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, “Frontier has shown a pattern of failing rural America.”
Frontier has agreed with Robinson to attend a March meeting at Marathon County to hear complaints. While they did not answer specific questions from 7 Investigates or provide an interview for this story, they issued a statement that read in part, “In large, geographically diverse territory, service interruptions occur...We recognize we experience service issues and delays and we work on resolving issues as quickly as practical.” (For the full statement, check the bottom of this article.)
Bloomberg News has reported that Frontier Communications is seeking to file for bankruptcy, an action that industry experts say could be the only way for them to continue service given a reported $16.3 billion in longterm debt.
For some Marathon County residents who have already ditched the landline, frustrations are still high. Marcia Stencil, living with spotty cell service and no landline near Little Chicago, had to call 911 recently for her young grandson. Twice, the call with dispatchers dropped.
“We feel as if our voice isn’t being heard,” Stencil said. “We feel our concerns aren’t being recognized.”
Marathon County supervisor Gary Beastrom represents some of the areas affected by poor Frontier phone service. Of that--and cell and broadband coverage--he said, “It’s 2020. I think everybody deserves better.”
Area business owner Sarah Lammer, frustrated daily by the spotty service and frequent outages on her landline, says her struggles are minor compared to the handful of elderly residents that she takes responsibility for checking on regularly.
“Some people didn’t have a phone for yeah--probably 6 weeks,” Lammer said of last fall. “You have to go check on them to make sure they’re gonna be okay.”
For Marathon County and the industry overall, experts and elected officials alike look to broadband as the future for communications and the answer to the struggle with telecommunication providers. Design Nine, a contractor hired by the county, recently unveiled a multi-million dollar broadband plan that could provide high-speed internet to the vast majority of the county--and with it the expanded possibility of Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), or technology for making calls using the internet. But with the plan comes up to 10 years of installation, and a price tag that the county doesn’t yet have a plan to finance.
Robinson acknowledges that in the long term, solutions like these will mitigate the problem of rural phone service. But during the years it takes to implement?
“We have a good number of people that rely on hard-wired landlines for access to emergency services and communications,” he noted. And in the absence of any state-mandated authority to provide oversight to the industry, Robinson says the county is left struggling to find ways to meet the needs of its residents.
“If somebody dies because they’re not able to connect with [the] 911 system for emergency dispatch, that’s a tragedy that could be prevented.”
Reporting to FCC and DATCP
When reached for comment, both the FCC and DATCP declined to respond to specifics of the investigation, but did issue encouragement for customers to submit complaints to their departments. However, DATCP declined to answer what value those complaints have in an era of state deregulation, while the FCC responded to the same question with this link.
Full Frontier response to 7 Investigates
Frontier Communications offers service across Wisconsin to approximately 105,000 telephone customers. This includes service to some of the most rural areas of the state —places that our competitors largely choose not to serve because these areas often have challenging terrain, are more sparsely populated, and are the most expensive to serve. In a large, geographically diverse territory, service interruptions occur. Uncontrollable circumstances like severe weather, construction crews cutting cables, cars hitting telephone poles or equipment cabinets, or a variety of causes can delay response and restoration efforts. We recognize we experience service issues and delays and we work on resolving issues as quickly as practical. We will continue to work collaboratively with partners and agencies to evaluate and implement strategies to improve our service and ensure customers continue to have access to reliable and affordable service. Serving our customers remains our priority.
Javier Mendoza, Vice President, Corporate Communications and External Affairs
Have you been severely affected by phone service outages? Investigative reporter Naomi Kowles wants to hear from you. Email email@example.com