CenturyLink has asked Minnesota regulators to eliminate or modify what it calls archaic telephone rules — at the same time two state agencies say the company is violating those regulations and several others.
The Minnesota Department of Commerce and the Minnesota Attorney General's Office have blasted CenturyLink for its landline customer service, claiming long delays for repairs and slow response times to customer calls.
"Customer complaints reveal an alarming pattern of regular and extended landline telephone service outages," the Attorney General's Office said in a filing last week with the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC). "Given CenturyLink's seeming lack of attention and indifference to landline customer inquiries, requests and complaints, it is no surprise that customer wait times are an issue."
The Commerce Department, meanwhile, concluded that the company "may need to be subject to penalties for violations [of PUC rules] to provide the economic incentive for CenturyLink to update its network and employ adequate staffing."
CenturyLink, part of Monroe, La.-based telecommunications giant Lumen Technologies, defended its network in a statement on Wednesday.
"Over the past several years, we have made significant investments to modernize our network to enable the deployment of more broadband and increased speeds for consumers throughout Minnesota," the statement said.
CenturyLink, Minnesota's largest landline phone service provider, said in a PUC filing last month that its landline service quality "remains strong."
The company said further in its Wednesday statement: "We constantly conduct maintenance and repair on our networks, and there is always work to do. ... As can be expected, at any given time some facilities require repairs due to vandalism, snowplows, automobiles, animals and age."
The Attorney General's Office and Commerce Department filings were made last week as part of a PUC inquiry into the company's landline service. The two departments effectively represent consumers in the regulatory process.
In June, CenturyLink separately petitioned the PUC to abandon two longstanding customer service regulations covering customer service response times.
The company argued in its filing that the rules effectively mandate that "legacy" phone service providers like CenturyLink prioritize their landline voice customers — a dying breed — over broadband consumers.
"These 'telephone utility' rules no longer serve the public interest and, in fact, hinder progress toward important public policy goals, including advancing the deployment and servicing of Minnesota's broadband network," the filing said.
CenturyLink has 334,000 landlines in Minnesota, 52% of which are residential, while the rest are business.
The company says it has lost 85% of its wired phone business in Minnesota since 2001, and that only 4.4% of all state households rely solely on a landline for voice phone service. The company's technicians spend about 2% of their time installing voice service compared with 46% for broadband, which is not regulated.
CenturyLink has asked the PUC to eliminate or modify the "interruptions of service" rule, which states that landline providers should take care of 95% of out-of-service phone complaints within 24 hours after they're reported.
"A 95% objective for out-of-service repairs comes at the expense of doing damage to the portion of the business that is now the priority for customers — broadband," CenturyLink said in the filing.
The company also wants the PUC to rescind or change its "answering time" rule, which says landline providers need to answer 90% of their customer service phone calls within 20 seconds.
It is not necessary anymore, CenturyLink said in the filing, as the "penalty for failing to resolve customer concerns or inquiries quickly ... is imposed by the competitive marketplace." Customers will drop the landline service.
The Commerce Department and the Attorney General's Office have both recommended that the PUC deny CenturyLink's request to rescind or alter phone service rules.
In the separate PUC proceeding, both agencies concluded that CenturyLink is failing to meet several landline service quality standards, including the two that the company wants to jettison: the "answering time" and "interruptions of service" rules.
That proceeding was launched after the Communication Workers of America, a union representing CenturyLink technicians, filed a complaint with the PUC in 2020, alleging landline rule violations. The PUC then started its own inquiry.
"The timing of this complaint and the issues raised in it by the union ignores the reality of today's marketplace and the impact of the past 18 months on our business," CenturyLink said in a statement.
CenturyLink declined to comment on specific allegations made by the Attorney General's Office and Commerce Department.
The two agencies concluded that CenturyLink isn't answering 90% of calls within 20 seconds as required. In its PUC filing, the Commerce Department listed examples where customers were left on hold by CenturyLink for as long as three hours.
Nor has Century Link restored 95 % of service troubles within 24 hours, the agencies say. "Not only does CenturyLink not meet the goal using its own metrics, but the [Commerce] Department believes the troubles are underreported due to the inabilities of customers to reach customer service."
In a survey of 180 CenturyLink customers, the Commerce Department found that only 5% of respondents reported quick restoration of service after an outage; 18% reported long waits, including from three days to several weeks.
The Attorney General's Office's claims that due to sustained outages, CenturyLink's landline customers often lack 911 service for more than 24 hours.
"Many of these outages involve landline-only customers and/or customers that rely on landline service for emergency and medical purposes," the office said in a PUC filing.
"To the frustration and often the peril of CenturyLink's landline customers, the company has invested in its broadband infrastructure while letting its landline infrastructure fall into disrepair."
Minnesota's second-largest landline phone provider, Frontier Communications, said in a PUC filing it supports CenturyLink's petition to eliminate or modify landline service rules.
Norwalk, Conn.-based Frontier has had its own issues with Minnesota regulators in recent years.
The PUC began an inquiry into Frontier in 2018 after directly fielding a host of customer complaints about shoddy phone and internet service. Investigations by the Commerce Department and the attorney general found a broad array of alleged violations at Frontier, leading to legal settlements with both in 2019 and 2020, respectively.