CenturyLink, Minnesota’s dominant provider of local landline phone service, has asked the state to be deregulated, saying it faces stiff competition from wireless carriers and cable TV providers.
Two state agencies say the company’s deregulation petition is incomplete and that its plans raise fundamental issues over access to local phone service and its quality and affordability.
CenturyLink petitioned Minnesota’s Public Utilities Commission (PUC) in late June to change its regulatory status, allowing it to be treated as a competitive market telecom provider. The Monroe, La.-based company isn’t under the strict state scrutiny of an electric utility, but it’s still heir to the classic regulated phone company of yore, the regional Bell operation. And it still faces more state regulations than wireless carriers.
CenturyLink’s petition is a “first-of-its kind request in Minnesota to deregulate basic local phone service following legislation enacted by the Minnesota Legislature in 2016,” according to a PUC filing by the state attorney general’s office.
“The company’s request is premised on the alleged existence of adequate alternative means of communication,” the filing said. “Significant questions remain as to the existence of those alternatives on a universal basis — e.g. in all homes, in all parts of the state, etc.”
Minnesota’s “competitive market regulation” law was passed in May, allowing local phone carriers to request a reduced level of regulation.
To achieve that goal, CenturyLink must show that it serves fewer than 50 percent of households in an exchange service area, and that at least 60 percent of those households can choose voice phone service from at least one competitor.
CenturyLink argues it has met those thresholds, providing local voice service to “well less than 50%” of the households in its 154 Minnesota “wire centers,” according to an affidavit filed with the PUC by Robert Brigham, a CenturyLink executive. “In fact, in none of these wire centers does CenturyLink provide voice services to more than 38% of households.”
As for the requirement that 60 percent of customers have competitive access, “nearly all households in CenturyLink QC’s Minnesota serving area have wireless service options, and the vast majority of households have multiple wireless options,” the affidavit said.
Also, phone service offered by cable TV providers is available in all but three of CenturyLink’s 154 wire centers in Minnesota, Brigham wrote. “While the relative number of CenturyLink QC and cable voice connections varies by wire center, it is clear that there is fierce cable competition in each of these wire centers.”
CenturyLink used wireless carriers’ maps to support its 60 percent claim, but these maps are not reliable, the Minnesota Department of Commerce said in a PUC filing. The wireless carriers themselves have disclaimers on their maps, which are used for marketing purposes, the filing said.
CenturyLink “has not met its burden of proof” in all of its service areas that customers can reasonably choose a wireless service as a competitive alternative, according to the Commerce Department.
Both the Commerce Department and the attorney general’s office also said CenturyLink’s petition for deregulation was missing required information.
“CenturyLink has not filed a complete petition, much less demonstrated that it has met the competitive criteria set forth” in Minnesota law, according to the attorney general’s office.