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Save ourselves

On Thursday, two Marathon County committees held a summit on faulty landline telephone service and heard from two town of Hamburg residents who said that they and others across the county not only have spotty service, but also poor cell phone and internet coverage, thus denying them access to 911 emergency services.

The meeting brought forward new information, but we left feeling frustrated and disappointed.

The committees had brought in spokespeople for all the major players in the landline phone problem, but none among them were willing to take responsibility for it and own it. One after one, these people, often with finely-honed political skills, sloughed the problem off onto somebody else. The people with bad phone service were not left with much.

Thus Scott Bohler, a spokesman for Frontier Communications, said his company pledged to hire an additional five service technicians for Marathon County to improve landline reliability, but, pressed on his company’s commitment to promptly restore landline telephone service, said he could not promise any timely resumption of service, even after three months. He said the state law that deregulated the Wisconsin telecommunications industry in 2010 did not require his company to do so.

If the company is just following state law, then would improving landline service rest with state government? Sen. Jerry Petrowski said no, not really. The senator told the committees the legislature spends $40 million in each budget to hasten broadband access across the state, but much more money is needed. He told those at the meeting to lower their expectations.

“This won’t be fixed overnight,” he lamented.

If the state is unable to improve the landline situation, perhaps, then, the county could dedicate itself to that end. That would be great, said county supervisor Jeff Johnson, Wausau, but he pointed out that the county was just one of hundreds or thousands of counties across the country with the exact same problem. “This is a national issue,” he said.

A national issue? Then perhaps Congress could help. Not so fast, said a spokesperson for U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin. The official said the federal government had already given Frontier Communications $30.9 million in Connect America Fund dollars. The problem was not spending money to improve telecommunications, he said, but getting an accounting of what the company had done with the cash. A letter from Sen. Baldwin asking for a list of expenditures has not been answered, he said.

Sadly, the real problem of Marathon County residents not being able to dial 911 to summon an ambulance got lost in this pile of excuses. We weren’t the only ones to feel let down. “I feel I am getting the runaround,” Mosinee supervisor Jean Maszk said.

The truth seems to be that federal and state governments deregulated the phone industry with the expectation that cellphones and computers would usher in a new age of communications, but failed to anticipate that some people, including those in rural areas, would lose reliable landline service and, in turn, 911 access when customers switched to new technologies.

An action plan must go forward. An obvious thing that needs to happen is that Marathon County, perhaps with an assist from the Marathon County Towns and Villages Association, should identify medically frail residents with poor 911 access and get them to sign a Frontier Emergency Account Letter that gives them first priority for landline phone repair. The letter, which must be signed by a physician, is good for a year. With these letters on file, Frontier will focus its increased manpower where it will do the most good.

Second, the county needs to identify somebody in its organization who can advise families who to call and what to do if a loved one who needs reliable 911 access doesn’t have it. Such an individual won’t be able to solve every problem, but should be able to offer good advice on how families can solve their own unique communications problem.

The point here is simple. It is to save a life. We, as community, need to care for ourselves, even if governments and corporations stay removed from the problems they put into motion.

Editorial by Peter Weinschenk, The Record-Review