A Moab resort owner says she ‘cannot calculate’ the damage phone outages have caused to her business

(Ryan Galbraith | Tribune file photo) Castle Valley Drive, the main road through the scenic community of Castle Valley, in Grand County. To the left is Parriott Mesa.

At Red Cliffs Lodge, a resort set against Moab’s ancient geology, guests are good-humored about most of the minor inconveniences that come along with staying in a remote destination.

They’ll deal with fuzzy television reception, said the lodge’s owner, Colin Fryer. They’ll even put up with the occasional mouse.

What they will not tolerate, though, is bad internet.

“They don’t find it charming,” Fryer said flatly in a phone interview.

Communications in Moab and the surrounding area have long been a challenge — webpages often load at a snail’s pace, cellphone service is spotty and even landlines go out from time to time. But the situation hit a boiling point in December, when telecommunications provider Frontier Communications of Utah installed some faulty radio equipment that doomed residents and business owners to weeks of intermittent outages.

“We have never had reliable phone service. In the past few months it has deteriorated to a level that we cannot operate effectively,” Elizabeth Rad, owner of the Sorrel River Ranch Resort and Spa in Moab, wrote in a complaint filed last month with the Utah Public Service Commission.

Rad, whose complaint is one of two lodged against Frontier since December, told state regulators that she “cannot calculate” the damage to her business because of phone outages — at one point, her managers counted seven dropped calls in a one-hour span.

She told The Salt Lake Tribune that her ideal outcome is for the state to decertify Frontier as a public utility for her region, opening the way for another provider to fill the gap.

For decades, Frontier has held a state certificate that grants it a monopoly for landline service in much of southeastern Utah, including San Juan County and parts of Grand, Wayne, Garfield and Kane counties. Carriers that hold these “certificates of public convenience and necessity” must generally agree to furnish safe, adequate and reliable service to all customers with a hookup, said Chris Parker, director of the Utah Division of Public Utilities.

Rad says Frontier isn’t holding up its end of the bargain. Each month, Frontier bills her $4,000 for the resort’s glitchy internet and phone line, yet she doesn’t see this money being reinvested in upgrades that might improve service, she says.

Frontier has defended itself by describing the challenges of building and maintaining a telecom network in rugged and isolated terrain.

The company evaluates potential capital upgrades “on a project-by-project basis to ensure that those limited dollars are being spent where [there is] the greatest opportunity for a return on the investment,” Javier Mendoza, a Frontier spokesperson, wrote in an email.

He acknowledged that about 200 customers experienced “intermittent service interruptions” in the weeks after the company installed a new radio network in December to enhance reliability and access in the Castle Valley area.

Frontier’s ability to troubleshoot the new system was inhibited by winter weather, the company explained, saying crews at one point had to turn back from the Bald Mesa radio site because their snowcat vehicle got stuck in a snowdrift.

In a gesture of goodwill for the inconvenience, Frontier “voluntarily credited” customers an amount equal to their monthly service charges from December through March, according to Mendoza. Although the system now appears to be operating normally, customers who dealt with disruptions into April and beyond might also receive credit if Frontier’s network caused the problems.

But Frontier’s explanations fell flat for Rad.

“The testing and troubleshooting that they did took over three months,” she wrote in late March. “That is an unreasonable amount of time to leave us without reliable phone service in a rural area where we have no other means of communication.”

Dissatisfied, Rad pressed forward with the complaint, which is now on track for a hearing before the Public Service Commission.

In March, a Castle Valley customer lodged a separate complaint that accused Frontier of negligence for failing to restore “safe, reliable service to a community of over 350 residents.” The area is a cellphone dead zone, so the landline outages left community members without a way of calling authorities for emergency help, city officials say.

Chief Ron Drake of the Castle Valley Fire Department said the town’s phones have for years gone down on occasion after power outages. Typically, he will set up a “command post” at the town offices that people can visit if they need to call for an ambulance or sheriff’s officer from Moab, which is more than 20 miles away.

The outages earlier this year were occurring so frequently and sporadically that he didn’t have enough personnel to keep the command post staffed, he said.

In the event of an emergency, residents were told “if they knew a fireman, go to his house or her house, or if the town hall was open, go there,” Drake said, adding that he didn’t know of any problems that arose from lack of access to emergency responders.

The town’s mayor, Jazmine Duncan, said Castle Valley entered a complaint against Frontier with the Federal Communications Commission during the service outages. Castle Valley residents are generally understanding that living in a remote area means slower internet, she said, but they do rely on basic phone connections.

“Especially 911 service. That was the biggest deal for me, public safety," Duncan said. “If you don’t have Netflix, you’re going to live.”

Now that service has been restored, the town isn’t pressing forward with its FCC action but does want to make sure Frontier issues the customer credits it promised, she said.

Parker said his division has received an unusual number of complaints about Frontier in recent months and is tracking the cases that are coming before the commission. Parties in Rad’s complaint were set to meet Thursday to discuss a formal hearing date.

If the public utility panel finds a company is in the wrong, it has a number of options under the law, Parker said, such as enforcing penalties or seeking a court injunction to stop a practice.