CenturyLink told to stay on track for recovery


December 3, 2020

PUC keeps December date for service restoration

A group of “Good Samaritans” is credited with a creative solution for returning telephone service to CenturyLink’s upper McKenzie Valley customers. At Monday’s special meeting of the Public Utility Commission of Oregon, commissioners were told the new system will buid upon a microwave feed from Bend connected to five T-1 lines with 24 channels apiece.

Lisa Gorsuch, the PUC’s emergency preparedness manager, told the board the system had been devised by the Oregon Internet Response team, a group of volunteers who worked weekends. “They’re not even an official non-profit,” she added, calling them just a collection of “Good Samaritans.”

The microwave based system is intended to replace five COW (cell of wheels) trucks that have been deployed to the area, by several providers. “They’re meant to be temporary,” Gorsuch noted, adding that besides the estimated cost of $1,000 per hour the COWs, “Do not do well for long term service,” like 24 hours a day for the several months since Labor Day.Gorsuch said the companies had set up the COWs  for life safety communications, saying that “There is no regulatory requirement for cellular providers” to do so.

Tre Hendricks, Century-Link’s director of govern-ment affairs, said that once the system was up and running it wouldn’t require much more support from the ORI members. “It should function in the same manner as traditional landlines,” he said. “The only thing you get with microwave is a wobble, distortion or sometimes a dropped call that you can reinitiate.”

Doing the math, PUC commissioner Letha Tawn-ey questioned why the system would handle only 120 customers when she’d heard 400 had lost service in the Blue River area.

Hendricks said the Blue River switch, which burned, had served 405 customers. The microwave system will restore service to POT (plain old telephone) accounts, he said but could not handle Internet connectivity.

CenturyLink is currently in discussions with Hughes Net to provide temporary satellite links for customers who previously had Internet service.

On one side of the conversation, HughesNet is reluctant to offer a temporary service. On the other side, CenturyLink isn’t enthusiastic about hooking people up to something they might prefer, particularly when they realize it could be less vulnerable to large fire incidents, Hendricks said.

Meeting the December 1st deadline the PUC had set for restoration of service didn’t appear likely. But Hendricks said he expected the Blue River area’s landline service would be operational by the end of this week.

Other customers, in the downriver area connected to the Leaburg switch, would likely have to wait longer. They will not be connected to the microwave link as five miles sections of poles and lines are being replaced. “As we rebuild we’re tying in those customers,” Hendricks said.

Without any firm dates for when CenturyLink’s service would again be operational, PUC  attorney  Johanna Riemenschneider recommended not granting the company’s request for an extension of the deadline. The proposed microwave network, she said, was untested and it wasn’t clear what its actual carrying capacity would actually be. She also felt that the twelve satellite phones CenturyLink said they could provide would fall short of what was needed to cover the other fire impacted areas in Oregon as well.

Gorsuch agreed saying she’s been receiving many daily calls from emergency managers on what progress has been made. “Communities are aware of the existing orders and are waiting,” she said. She predicted, “A potential outcry because they’re expecting a bigger rollout.”

Saying he felt CenturyLink was providing better information than they had at the last meeting was commissioner Mark Thompson. Pointing to the PUC’s role as regulators, Thompson said the board should keep in mind its role of protecting customers. “I’d like to keep open our options for enforcement, “ he said. “Let’s keep the pressure on the company to solve this ASAP.”

Commission chair Megan Decker said she hoped the microwave technology solution works and agreed to keeping the staff’s recommendations. Decker also said she wanted to see CenturyLink develop protocols for satellite service solutions that wouldn’t require customers to, “Take on the hardware investment and not have to connect long term.”

Hendricks said he will send an outline of negotiations with HughesNet by next Tuesday and would provide the PUC with periodic updates before its next meeting on December 17th.



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