When the Grant County 911 center received a call about a house fire on Martin Road in late May, director Peggy Bobo Alt said it was already too late.
The family escaped, but they still lost their home. Standing on a now-empty lot months after the house burned down, Bobo Alt said the family was one of approximately 400 homes without landline phone service at the time of the fire.
Frontier Communications, which provides landline service to much of Grant County, confirmed the outage lasted from May 24 to May 29, after a bolt of lightning struck a cable in the area.
The family didn’t respond to requests to speak with West Virginia Public Broadcasting, but Bobo Alt said their story is one of the most powerful examples of her community’s problems with Frontier.
She should know -- for years, Bobo Alt says she’s been submitting work requests to Frontier during widespread outages when her friends and neighbors’ phone lines are down. She’s been tracking outages from her office and relaying that information to her elected officials and the Federal Communications Commission, trying to find someone who will listen.
“The truth is, this location is not near a fire station. But this is West Virginia! This is most of West Virginia, right here, where you see,” she said. “And with no way to call for help, you’re significantly delayed. ... It’s just not right.”
Even after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last year that roughly half the state’s adults are wireless-only, cell service and internet options remain poor in rural West Virginia, leaving residents dependent on landline phones for their telecommunication needs.
Landlines are a state-regulated utility, by decision of the West Virginia Legislature. In August 2018, the West Virginia Public Service Commission initiated a general investigation on Frontier’s copper network for landline phones.
“Well, the Commission has been receiving increasing and more concerning complaints about Frontier over the last several years,” said Susan Small, Communications Director for the West Virginia Public Service Commission. “So they decided that they would initiate an investigation, and require Frontier to hire a private auditing firm to determine what the condition of the copper network was.”
Nearly a year had passed since the commission initiated its investigation, and Frontier had still not selected a firm the commission deemed acceptable.
On Thursday, July 25, the commission announced it had selected a firm for Frontier. Small called it an unusual move.
“This is an important issue,” she said. “It’s a very unusual kind of case. It’s not the commission’s preference to micromanage utility companies.”
That audit is set to begin immediately and will adhere to a six-month schedule set by the commission, including a preliminary summary due about four months in. The audit will examine the quality of service relating to the network, the adequacy of its staffing levels and whether Frontier is investing enough money in maintenance.
Commissioners agreed to initiate a general investigation on Frontier’s copper network nearly six months after receiving a petition from the Communications Workers of America, AFL-CIO, a union representing several Frontier employees working in West Virginia, including the technicians tasked with maintaining their employer’s copper network.
Days after the CWA filed its petition in March, its members at Frontier went on a three-week labor strike to protest job cuts and how the company treats its copper network.
In the six months between the CWA’s request and the commission’s decision to pursue an investigation, hundreds of Frontier customers across the state sent letters complaining about the company’s landline service. Not only did these comments describe more frequent and longer-lasting outages, they also expressed dissatisfaction with the company’s response to landline failures.
Customers have told the commission it’s difficult to get in touch with the company when there are problems, solutions are usually only short-term and people say they feel Frontier is overcharging them.
Many also addressed similar problems customers are having with Frontier’s internet service. Internet is not a state-regulated utility, but the Grant County Economic Development Authority hopes to solve that issue with an economic feasibility study to attract new companies to the area.
“What we have is wholly inadequate for this day and age,” said Tammy Kitzmiller, executive director of Grant’s EDA. “But the landlines -- that service has been around long enough. The lines are here, the people have been paying their bills for years and years, and I would venture to say the service now is worse than it was ten years ago.
“We’ve got people that cannot call an ambulance when they need it, they cannot call a fire truck when they need it, they can’t call their neighbor to get assistance if they fall, they are just completely at the mercy of absolutely nothing, when they have no way to reach out from their homes.”
Being in a Tough Spot
The National Center for Health Statistics found in a wireless substitution study in 2017 that 52.7 percent of all adults in West Virginia are exclusively using wireless services, and 10.5 percent are mostly using wireless services.
With more West Virginians leaving their landlines for wireless networks, Frontier’s number of landline customers has notably declined in the past decade.
By the end of 2017, Frontier reported in documents to the Public Service Commission it had 385,832 access lines in West Virginia, 37 percent fewer than the 611,443 it had at the end of 2010, after acquiring more than 600,000 access lines from Verizon following a quality of service investigation onto the latter company in 2008 by the commission.
The same NCHS study, which aims to provide trends on how people use landline and wireless telephones throughout the U.S., reports 13.2 percent of the state’s adults use mostly landline service and 9.1 percent use landlines exclusively.
“Frontier provides service in the most rural areas of West Virginia where other providers choose not to invest to deliver service and where the challenges of remoteness are greatest,” said Allison Ellis, the company’s senior vice president of regulatory affairs, in an emailed statement on Monday.
There’s no denying Frontier has had to spend large sums of money on maintaining its copper network. When Frontier acquired the Verizon lines in 2010, it agreed to spend $30 million on the lines during the second half of 2010, $75 million in 2011, $63 million in 2012, and $63 million in 2013.
That isn’t to say Frontier hasn’t received any help -- after volunteering to acquire the Verizon lines in 2010, Frontier had access to $72.4 million Verizon left in escrow solely for the maintenance of its former copper network.
“In acquiring the Verizon system, Frontier not only accepted the challenges of a declining landline customer base, it presented to the Commission a picture of how it could prosper and build that service,” commissioners wrote in a June 2019 order. “Unfortunately, the historic application of significant capital to a declining landline customer base has not seemed to ameliorate the adverse impact of that decline on customer service.”
People in Danger
Ronna Goldizen is a registered nurse, serving clients throughout an eight county area including Grant, Hardy and Pendleton counties.
Her clients are all homebound due to age or disabilities. Sometimes, the only socialization they get all day is over the phone she said, and sometimes the only way to report an emergency is through life alert buttons connected to the landline.
“Anytime it rains, I automatically go check these people,” Goldizen said. “Because I know anytime it rains, or it snows … we have no phone system.”
Late on a Wednesday night in July, Goldizen found the oxygen tank for one client, her grandfather-in-law, was malfunctioning. His phone lines were down.
“Grand Pap’s oxygen wasn’t working. It took us an hour to get help, because I had to drive 22 miles to get cell service to call 911,” she said.
Goldizen said she got to his house around 11 p.m., and couldn’t call 911 until 1 a.m. She said he didn’t get to the hospital until 3 a.m.
When West Virginia Public Broadcasting spoke to Goldizen, the commission had not yet selected its audit firm, making the investigation it had announced almost a year ago seem in limbo.
“They need to really investigate this system,” Goldizen said. “What we’re paying … and the service we’re getting is ridiculous, and it’s not reliable. There’s people getting hurt because of it. There’s people that are in danger.”
Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member.