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Frontier customers worried about 911 service

A 2011 bill that deregulated the Wisconsin telephone and internet business is now creating problems for Sandy (not her real name), an elderly woman in the town of Hamburg.

Sandy, who has medical issues and is on oxygen, said her Frontier telephone service doesn’t work at least one day a month and, following a storm in July 2019, for five days.

Sandy said she can’t get good cell phone reception in the town of Hamburg and, unable to get to her car without a major effort, fears not being able to contact 911 to call an ambulance for medical help.

“I worry about not having a phone,” she said. ”I can’t get around very good. I have no cell phone service. Of course, even if I did have service, I can’t afford it.”

Sandy said she has heard just about every excuse from Frontier why her telephone system is unreliable.

“One time, it was mice chewing in the telephone box,” she said. “And then it was water in the box. And then it was trees knocking down lines.”

Sandy said she does have internet service and can make Wi-Fi calls when her telephone line is under repair.

“Thank God for the internet,” she said. “But it doesn’t work all the time, either.”

Another person frustrated with Frontier landline telephone service is Jodi Hinderliter, Medford.

Her elderly parents in the town of Cassel routinely lose Frontier telephone service from a landline that lays on the ground and, after it gets wet, frequently doesn’t work.

Hinderliter said the phone service failed to work in mid-December, 2019, and on Thursday her mother suffered a medical emergency, requiring her to take an ambulance to a hospital.

She said she was at her parents’ home at the time of the emergency and was able to take care of the situation, but worries about what would have happened had she not been there.

She fears that her parents, who live in a low lying area that has spotty cell phone and internet reception, would not have been able to dial 911 without a working telephone.

“This is a huge safety issue with us kids worrying about our parents,” she said. “I seriously don’t know what might have happened if I wasn’t there. It’s a real safety concern.”

Hinderliter said Frontier has told her that the stretch of telephone line in front of her parents’ house is too expensive to fix and that the company could not afford to pay overtime wages to workers who would repair the line over the holidays.

“They said they were short staffed,” she said, bitterly. “My parents’ life or death mean nothing to them.”

Hinderliter said the company is now promising a telephone line fix on Monday, Jan. 13, but that she is frustrated with the company.

“I am so fed up,” she fumed. “I will not pay a bill for service that I don’t get. This is ridiculous.”

Jody Hinderliter’s parents and Sandy are not alone in lacking reliable landline telephone service.

Marathon County Sheriff’s Department Communications Captain Bill Millhausen said he has fielded several recent complaints from people who rely on landline service for 911 emergency service, but don’t have good telephone service from Frontier.

He said this poor telephone service is a significant safety problem in the county.

“Absolutely,” he said. “You have people with no means to summon help. I wish we had a way to get this corrected.”

Millhausen said he has worked with Gerry Klein, director of the City County Data Center, to deal with people who lack landline access to 911. The pair have contacted the Frontier Communications government relations office and talked about the county’s situation, but without any resolution.

“I really do wish we had more pull to do something about this,” Millhausen said. “We aren’t getting any traction.”

Who is responsible?

The reason for unreliable landline telephone service in Marathon County reaches back to 2011.

This was the year Gov. Scott Walker signed a bipartisan bill to deregulate telephone service in Wisconsin. The bill repealed state statutes requiring telecommunications companies to provide reasonable and adequate service at fair prices. It also stripped the Wisconsin Public Service Commission of authority to investigate consumer complaints and, after 2013, to require companies to serve customers in every place in the state.

“Since the deregulation of the retail telecommunications industry in Wisconsin, the PSC does not have the authority to require reconnection within a certain timeframe, or to ensure that specific service levels are met,” said Matthew Swee-

ney, PSC spokesperson.

During debate on the bill, the Citizen Utility Board of Wisconsin said the legislation would, among other things, be a “takeaway of grandma’s phone.”

That’s basically what has happened in some areas.

Without regulatory authority, state legislators don’t have much to say to people who now don’t have reliable access to 911 emergency service.

Spokespeople for both Rep. John Spiros (R-Marshfield) and Sen. Jerry Petrowski (R-Marathon) said on Friday they receive complaints about unreliable telephone service and only refer people to either the PSC or Department of Agriculture, Trade or Consumer Protection.

Otherwise, the spokesmen declined comment for this story.

The federal government, as well, has little authority when it comes to landline telephone service. It enforces regulations that require all landlines have 911 access, but they don’t demand that all telephone customers get the dial tone needed to access 911.

It may be left for county government to try and deal with the issue.

Supervisor John Robinson, chairman of the county’s infrastructure committee, said his committee discussed the matter briefly on Thursday and, based on that discussion, now plans to invite Frontier representatives, state legislators and others to a March meeting for further conversation. He said the county can use a “bully pulpit” to try and persuade both the company and officials to deal with the emergency communication problems that people face.

The chairman said he expects the county’s executive committee to determine whether the landline telephone problem warrants interim Lance Leonhard to add it to his official work list of projects.

Robinson said he was unsure what the county could do to ensure all citizens have emergency telephone access. He did agree, however, the county needs to investigate the problem.

“I am not sure where we are going on this issue,” he said. “We do, however, have a problem we have to address. We need to talk about it and discuss our options.”

Frontier Communications Corp. was contacted on Friday for comment on this story. The company did not respond to this newspaper’s request for a statement prior to press time.