WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAW) -- Frontier Communications is increasing their workforce capacity in north central Wisconsin and making other changes to address resident complaints, in the wake of 7 Investigates reporting and a call for action from Senator Tammy Baldwin. However, at a joint meeting of the Marathon County infrastructure and public safety committees on Thursday where Frontier announced those improvements, some county board members questioned whether their response is sufficient.
A rising number of elderly residents have come forward in recent months with complaints about an inability to call 911 or depend on medical alert services across Marathon County and beyond.
“There are many others with medical issues who may not get help in time,” Hamburg area resident Heather Hoyt said at Thursday’s meeting during a presentation. “It is not a single person issue, it is a multiple area issue,” she told 7 Investigates later. Hoyt has been a key community member leading the rising awareness of the problem in the Hamburg area through its Facebook community page.
Complaints regarding extended landline outages with Frontier leaving residents without a way to call 911 took center stage at Thursday’s meeting, with representatives from both Sen. Baldwin and Sen. Ron Johnson in attendance, state senator Petrowski, and spokesperson Scott Bohler for Frontier Communications.
While Bohler noted that Frontier had reshuffled their technician force to move 5 additional technicians into Marathon County to help shorten wait times and were also reviewing their program in Wisconsin, some board members felt like not enough was being done.
“This has been going on a really long time, and I feel like I’m being given the run-around today,” Public Safety committee board member Kelley Gabor said. “I really think that lack of statistics, lack of your knowledge, and lack of your company’s ability to address these really dire issues of people in need in this county is starting to really make me want to wear farm boots.”
Supervisor Jeff Johnson honed in on Madison’s 2011 deregulation of the phone industry in Wisconsin, remarking that prior to that, Frontier would have been required by law to maintain their phone lines.
“I think maybe we need to go back to that requirement,” Johnson noted. But Bohler pushed back on the idea they’d abandoned their rural customers as a result of that law.
“It sounds like there are issues with restoral times, and that’s a separate issue,” he noted. Petrowski, who voted to deregulate, stopped short of addressing the impact of the deregulation law.
“Every budget, we’re putting money in for [broadband] purposes. It’s just a matter of putting enough into bridge that gap,” Petrowski told 7 Investigates.
The county recently unveiled a plan, compiled by third-party contractor Design Nine, to reach most of the county with broadband. But the plan comes with a hefty price tag and a 5-10 year timeline to implement, leaving the county still looking for more immediate solutions.
“I would urge you folks to take the message back,” supervisor Sandy Cihlar said, looking at representatives of Sen. Baldwin and Johnson. “This needs to come as a national policy.”
Baldwin representative Greg Wavrunek urged those in attendance to continue submitting complaints to DATCP, which can be done here. Representatives of area companies with the ability to boost cell signal for price tags ranging from $1500 into the thousands were also on hand to provide alternative solutions. Wavrunek provided a list of grant funding resources to the county as examples of potential options moving forward.