After Rural Eastern Montana County Denied Internet Access, PSC Steps In to Help

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Public Service Commissioner, Randy Pinocci, is fighting for Eastern Montana Internet Access in the rural county of Wibaux. Hopefully, others will listen.

[Wibaux County] For decades, many Wibaux County CenturyLink customers have experienced growing problems with the utility monopoly. Thanks to Public Service Commissioner Randy Pinocci (R-Dist. 1), the CenturyLink victims have seen their first glimmer of hope when the Public Service Commission unanimously passed a motion by Pinocci to serve CenturyLink with a formal complaint.

What were once a series of ongoing and frustrating complaints of many in Wibaux County, quickly blew up to a crisis of epic proportions. With the 9-1-1 service not working, phone outages that could last more than a month, and broadband that functions at a speed which would have even driven dial-up users mad in the 1990s – what were once luxuries became necessities overnight at the start of the coronavirus pandemic spread to the United States from China.  Commissioner Pinocci said he began receiving complaints from constituents more than a year ago and has made it a top priority to see a favorable resolution for Wibaux County ratepayers. In an interview with Montana Daily Gazette, Pinocci said, “I will not stop fighting until we see justice for Wibaux County. This has become a life-or-death matter and I will not have blood on my hands. I believe the financial assistance to an entity that qualifies to fix this critical infrastructure and ensure Wibaux County has the latest technology available to help them provide basic services as well as allow businesses to function and compete.”

At a hearing on Tuesday, residents and elected officials called to give PSC commissioners an account of how they have been left paralyzed by a company which continues to demand full payment for services they have not received.

Wibaux County Commissioner Darin Miske described the horrors he and his constituents have faced and asked the Commission to take immediate action. He called the situation a “full blown safety issue,” and went on to talk about persistent problems which include 9-1-1 calls being rerouted and not getting to their destination, regular phone calls going to 9-1-1, reports of CenturyLink robbing parts from one service to fix another. Miske added, “Wibaux County is the armpit of Montana for communications.” Resident Kim Miske testified that she had two college students who are trying to complete their coursework, but cannot do so at the same due to the utility’s nearly lifeless broadband speed.

When Montanans were forced to close their business and send students home by former Governor Steve Bullock, the demand was overwhelming for broadband and telephone services – but many Wibaux County residents were all-but paralyzed long before the worldwide stress on broadband. Patti Goroski added her personal testimony that she and her husband struggled to both work from home at the same time, saying they had to work in what amounted to shifts. She would do her work part of the day, while her husband worked another part. According to Goroski, the download and upload of photos for work could take upwards of 90 minutes.

Montana Daily Gazette reached out to CenturyLink for comment about being served with a formal complaint from the Public Service Commission. Corporate spokeswoman Danielle Spears delivered a simple response which is sure to enrage Wibaux County residents – saying, “We strive to provide quality service to all our customers. We are aware of the Public Service Commission’s recent action and are reviewing the complaint.”

During the recent 2021 legislative session in Helena, Commissioner Pinocci, Senator Steve Hinebauch (R-Wibaux) and Representative Bob Phalen (R-Lindsay) faced an uphill battle to resolve these issues. Senator Hinebauch’s wife, Beth, also called into the PSC’s Tuesday business meeting to testify about her family’s troubles with CenturyLink. Sadly, but not surprisingly, liberal Republicans joined with Democrats to pass House Bill 50 which made the problem even worse. “Republican” Representative Frank Garner from Kalispell sponsored the bill which many conservatives called a raid of 9-1-1 funds. House Energy Committee Chairman Derek Skees (R-Kalispell) and other conservatives had put up a good fight to defeat the bill which was signed into law by Governor Greg Gianforte on April 16th of this year.

Chairman Skees gave a passionate speech on the House Floor against HB 50 and refuted the lies and misinformation given to members by the bill’s sponsor. When speaking with Montana Daily Gazette, Chairman Skees called Garner’s bill a skim. Now a candidate for PSC District 5, which runs from the Flathead Valley down to Helena, Skees recounted that in the 2019 legislative session legislators had made a compromise to address funding of the State Library’s GIS mapping system. “HB 50 bypassed the 2019 compromise by creating a skimming mechanism and took money off the top.” Pinocci agreed with the chairman’s characterization and has already offered a strong endorsement of Skees in the 2022 election.

Following his constituents’ comments at the PSC’s business meeting, Commissioner Pinocci made a motion to move consideration of a formal complaint against CenturyLink to the top of the agenda. After unanimous passage, commissioners began deliberation on the formal motion to serve the utility with a complaint. Pinocci led most of the debate and expressed his surprise that the executive director of the Montana Telecommunications Association was in full support of the Garner skim. In talking about the gravity of the blatant neglect by CenturyLink – especially in regard to the failing 9-1-1 system – Pinocci referenced the collapse of the power grid in Texas which forced the resignation of the entire Texas Public Service Commission. The Texas grid collapse led to multiple deaths at the same time Pinocci’s sprawling district faced rolling blackouts due to dark money environmental groups forcing the closure of coal plants across the nation. 

In his more than yearlong quest to help his constituents receive a favorable resolution to CenturyLink’s abandonment of its customers, Pinocci mentioned his effort to elevate the crisis to the governor’s office. What he described as a more than a monthlong effort to engage Governor Gianforte’s office, and encouraging others to reach out as well, a staffer for the governor finally returned a call to Pinocci. Adding to his frustration, the commissioner was told by the staffer that the governor’s office simply did not know how to proceed. Having made his fortune as the founder of a tech company, it was Pinocci and his constituents’ expectation that they would have been met with enthusiastic support from the highest office in the state – but they are continuing the fight regardless. 

The Montana Daily Gazette reached out to Governor Gianforte’s press secretary, Brooke Stroyke, but did not receive a response to our request for comment.

Before voting unanimously to serve CenturyLink with a formal complaint on behalf of its customers in Wibaux County, Commissioner Jennifer Fielder (R-Dist. 4) took a deeper dive into the complaint which had already been drafted. Known for being a fierce defender of the Constitution and fearless in her pursuit of the truth, Commissioner Fielder referenced a portion of the complaint in which Wibaux County alleged that CenturyLink has received grant money in the past for improvements in Wibaux County but that the money had been used elsewhere. “It does not seem to be a matter of just offering money to these companies to upgrade – there potentially may be some misappropriation of monies. “These are fairly serious allegations,” Fielder added. 

Following her remarks, Commissioner Tony O’Donnell took direct aim at Fielder’s remarks – saying the company “should not be accused of any misdeeds.” Following O’Donnell’s comment, Fielder fired back and defended her remarks – directly quoting the complaint which addresses the possible abuse of funds by the utility. “That would seem to be some type of a misdeed if it was received for that purpose and it was used elsewhere. I think we have an allegation that is serious,” Fielder said.

In a follow-up interview, Wibaux County Commissioner Darin Miske thanked Pinocci for taking up this issue and being so aggressive in pursuing a resolution. Rep. Bob Phalen also added, “Alongside my constituents and Commissioner Pinocci, we are going to see this through to the end. There needs to be accountability and we will not accept anything less than resolving these issues to the full satisfaction of ratepayers. There are serious allegations facing CenturyLink and they all have merit. Wibaux County customers are simply asking for the service they pay for.”




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