WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAW) -- Marathon County officials say a long-term fix is needed for residents affected by extended Frontier phone service outages in the county.
Frontier Communications, representatives from Sen. Tammy Baldwin's office, and stakeholders in the phone and cell industries have been invited to attend a March infrastructure meeting to address the problem of residents who say they are left unable to call 911 in an emergency for weeks at a time when their landlines go down. In terms of long-term solutions, board members say the county-funded broadband plan unveiled by Design Nine last month will be a key focus moving forward. The report, which found large portions of the county as “unserved” or “underserved” by high-speed internet under Federal Communications Commission definitions, included plans to reach between 89 and 100% of the county with broadband in the next five to ten years.
Marathon Co. Infrastructure committee members suggested on Thursday that some people affected could be steered towards cell service. As noted in a 7 Investigates special report last week, many elderly residents affected by outages also live in areas where cell service is spotty or nonexistent, including many residents in Marathon County.
“We need a long-term solution, which would be better addressed by the beefing up of the cell towers and the broadband expansion, which would give people more access to 911,” committee member Jeff Johnson said. “I think that’s more of a long-term fix, but it needs to be dealt with now with Frontier, I agree.”
Chairman John Robinson noted that some key issues they expect to address with Frontier next month include questions about the company's legal obligations, the implications of the 2011 state deregulation of the telecommunications industry, options for county residents, and what role the county should play moving forward to address the issue.
“Looking down the road ten, twenty years from now, I don’t foresee a lot of landlines still being in existence. I truly do not,” Johnson noted at Thursday's meeting.
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 to force telephone companies to maintain, repair and upgrade their phone service infrastructure.
7 Investigates examined more than 70 complaints made to the state about extended phone service outages with Frontier Communications, finding that elderly residents with medical concerns and poor or no cell service waited an average of more than three weeks before Frontier restored their landline after an outage. Frequently, the outages would extend long after Frontier had been notified there was Lifeline or another medical concern, according to the complaints.
For the complete investigation, click here.