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CenturyLink gets new phone outage rules from IPUC

Idaho’s regulated phone companies are getting more time to respond to outages and won’t face financial penalties for taking too long to get the lines back up and running.

The Idaho Public Utilities Commission voted 2-1 July 3 to accept new rules, with commissioners Paul Kjellander and Mack Redford voting for a settlement that benefits CenturyLink Inc., the main regulated provider of landline phone and Internet service in Idaho. Commissioner Marsha Smith opposed the deal, arguing it gutted protections for rural Idaho residents, among others.

Under rules dating back to 1993, regulated phone companies had just 24 hours to restore weekend outages. Those that missed the deadline had to credit affected customers with a month of basic local service.

Under the settlement, companies will have 48 hours to respond to weekday outages, more time for weekend outages and they’ll no longer have to credit customers for missed deadlines.

CenturyLink originally asked to be exempted entirely, arguing it wasn’t fair to hold it to this standard, while allowing unregulated wireless phone companies to skirt such provisions.

The rules might have been OK 20 years ago, in an era of landline-dominated service, but the Monroe, La.-based company contended they had become outdated in an environment when landlines had myriad competition from cellphone and cable companies.

“While there is now fierce competition for these customers among the multiple providers of these various forms of communication, only one competitor — CenturyLink — is regulated” under this rule, the company told the commissioners. “The rule is neither technologically nor competitively neutral, and its application to CenturyLink places it at a competitive disadvantage.”

The regulatory panel’s majority decided easing requirements, while still holding regulated companies to some standards, struck the right balance between proper regulation and allowing competition to play out between telecom providers.

“Other customer service rules still in place require prompt response to outages and the presence of competitive alternatives is adequate in those areas to likely compel reasonable response to reports of outages,” Kjellander and Redford wrote in a statement.

Service rules still in place to protect Idaho customers include requirements that regulated companies “adopt and pursue a maintenance program aimed at achieving efficient operation of its systems to render safe, adequate and uninterrupted service.”

CenturyLink was joined in its bid to soften the rules by Frontier Communications Northwest, Citizens Telecommunications Company of Idaho, TDS Telecommunications Corp and the Idaho Telecom Alliance.

Smith voted against the settlement, arguing that while most customers in Idaho had competitive choices, people in rural, out-of-the-way places were often relegated to using land lines, such as broadband Internet service and cellphones weren’t available everywhere.

“We should not ignore their very important concerns and the vital nature of landline telephone service in their lives,” Smith wrote in her dissent.

She cited comments opposing the rule change that came largely from these areas.

The commission received about two dozen comments from citizens opposed to exempting CenturyLink as well as AARP Idaho. A weekly newspaper publisher in southeastern Idaho also weighed in, arguing a prolonged outage could do real damage to his business.

“My concern is if the service threshold is doubled to 48 hours, it becomes a critical issue to my newspaper business for production deadlines via the Internet which the utility provides,” wrote Mark Steele, publisher of the Caribou County Sun. “Equally as important is my elderly mother, still able to live alone in a rural setting. Part of her security blanket is the hardline telephone service in which she can … reach me by phone at any time.”

Those opposed to the pact still have until July 24 to ask the panel for reconsideration.

About The Associated Press