WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAW) -- Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D) has sent letters to Frontier Communications and the Federal Communications Commission seeking action in the wake of reports from constituents and a 7 Investigates special report about residents across the state who are unable to call 911 due to landline outages for weeks at a time.
Sen. Tammy Baldwin; image of phone at Marathon Co. dispatch center (WSAW Photo)
A 7 Investigates special report analyzed more than 70 complaints submitted to the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection between 2018 and 2019, finding that elderly people with medical concerns or Lifeline were waiting more than three weeks on average before Frontier restored their phone service after an outage. More than half of all submitted complaints came from residents who said they lived in areas where cell service was poor or nonexistent.
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. Most of the outage complaints were centered in north central Wisconsin and southern Wisconsin, and several said that even after alerting Frontier to a medical condition or Lifeline, elderly residents would still wait days or weeks before their phone service was restored.
“Residents are rightly fearful that this lack of ability to communicate to 911 in moments of emergency may eventually result in loss of life,” Sen. Baldwin noted in a letter to the FCC last week, obtained by 7 Investigates.
Baldwin cited 7 Investigates reporting in a letter to Frontier, which reads in part, “Most troubling are reports of a lack of ability to complete calls to 911 emergency services and rely on medical alert services, including specific reports of life-threatening situations in which a 911 call could not be completed.” In the letter, Baldwin asked Frontier to provide detailed information regarding the steps Frontier is taking to address the issue. Representatives from Baldwin’s office will attend a March 5 combined Marathon County Public Safety and Infrastructure meeting, where a representative from Frontier has said they would attend.
“It’s unacceptable that Wisconsin residents are unable to reach 911, including some who are in life-threatening situations and need immediate help,” Sen. Baldwin said in a statement to 7 Investigates. “My office continues to work with Frontier Communications, the state of Wisconsin, as well as the Federal Communications Commission, to get this resolved as quickly as possible.”
An email to the Marathon County Infrastructure Committee chairman John Robinson from a staffer to Sen. Baldwin notes that the 2011 deregulation of the industry “doesn’t leave many options for elected officials both federally and state.” As 7 Investigates has reported, the Republican-controlled state legislature followed national trends in 2011 when they deregulated the telecommunications industry, relinquishing the state’s ability to control how phone companies repair and maintain their lines. Previously, DATCP and the Public Service Commission provided oversight over the industry.
In the wake of complaints made by Marathon County residents, deregulation has come front and center for Marathon County officials looking to help mitigate the concern. Robinson noted in a meeting last week that some key issues they expect to address with Frontier in March 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.
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.