(First published in the March 12, 2020 issue of City Pages)
Some rural residents can’t call 911 in an emergency. A struggling communications company is the cause.
Marcia Stencil talks with Frontier Communications Manager of Government and External Affairs Scott Bohler during a meeting Thursday about the 911 crisis.
When an 18-month-old child was choking on a peanut at Marcia Stencil’s home in the town of Hamburg, northwest of Wausau, in 2008, she tried to call 911. The call would not go through. She rushed to her nearest neighbors, but no one was home. Finally, she got in her car and drove the child to the hospital herself, about 30 minutes away.
That scenario might sound like a fluke, but it’s becoming more common. Complaints are rolling into the state about 911 service not working. The problem is the result of a failing telephone infrastructure and the failure of a telecom company to fix it.
That and more was discussed by a joint meeting of the Marathon County Public Safety and Infrastructure committees Thursday to fix the problem.
The crux of the problem: The area is currently serviced by Frontier Communications, which is on the verge of bankruptcy as it sheds customers and has huge debt payments due this month that it can’t pay, according to Bloomberg and other news sources.
U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, who had a staffer present at Thursday’s meeting in Wausau, sent a letter to Frontier saying that weeks-long outages are unacceptable and causing a serious public safety concern.
“Residents are rightly fearful that this lack of ability to communicate to 911 in moments of emergency may eventually result in loss of life,” Baldwin wrote in her letter to Frontier Communications. Baldwin, as did others at Thursday’s meeting, bemoaned the federal deregulation in 2011 of a requirement that telephone providers maintain service to all their customers. They also questioned what Frontier did with a $30.9 million Connect America Fund grant it got from the feds. That expenditure accounting has not been provided, Baldwin’s staff say.
Frontier Communications Manager of Government and External Affairs Scott Bohler told the committee and audience Thursday morning that Frontier had dedicated five more service personnel to Marathon County to help address the shortages, but wasn’t able to say for sure that effort would stop the outages.
That did little to assuage concerns as reports show Frontier is in trouble nationwide. A report last year from Minnesota’s Department of Commerce, for example, found that Frontier was letting its networks falter. According to the report, Frontier violated at least 35 different laws and rules the commission has jurisdiction over. The report also showed that consumer complaints “had become, mysteriously, ‘lost.’”
The committees met in order to discuss local officials’ role in addressing the outages, but without state and federal help, there isn’t much Marathon County can do, many said. County Board Member Sandi Cihlar likened it to rural electrification in the 1930s. “I don’t see the moral obligation as being any different,” Cihlar says. “This isn’t a luxury.”
The problems come as the county is trying to address the lack of broadband in the county. Fixing that could help provide options for dialing emergency services, says Melinda Osterberg of UW-Extension, using services such as Voice over Internet Protocol. But even that can be subject to power outages.
The chocking toddler at Marcia Stencil’s home survived, and since then, Stencil has spent roughly $10,000 in special antennas and services to try to get some kind of phone service at her home, she told the committee last week, but still to no avail.