Complaints about recurring phone outages and dropped calls in southeastern Utah have caught the attention of state consumer watchdogs who are pushing for an investigation into the area’s telecommunications provider.
Frontier Communications of Utah is the subject of two recent complaints, one filed by an exasperated Castle Valley resident and another by a Moab resort that asserts it has lost business because of the unreliable phone service. The Utah Office of Consumer Services says it wants to determine whether the problems extend beyond these individual customers.
"We're hearing a lot of anecdotal evidence that the issues are quite widespread and that everyone just considers it the cost of living there," said Michele Beck, director of the consumer services office. "We want to turn that anecdotal evidence into hard evidence."
Beck’s office has asked the Utah Public Service Commission to open an inquiry into Frontier’s performance as the monopoly landline provider in much of southeastern Utah, including San Juan County and parts of Grand, Wayne, Garfield and Kane counties. The commission should consider enforcement actions against Frontier and examine “confusing and self-contradicting” provisions in the company’s terms-of-service contract, Beck’s office wrote in a May filing.
Elizabeth Rad, owner of Sorrel River Ranch Resort and Spa in Moab, says landline reliability is all-important in an area where people have to “stand on a rock with one arm up” to catch cell reception. Outages can stop people from booking a stay, annoy guests and even pose safety risks, according to resort representatives, who say their neighbors have experienced the same types of frustrations.
Frontier is trying to block an investigation into its service reliability, arguing the consumer service office’s request “lacks any foundation” and amounts to “naked speculation.” The only recent complaints the commission has received are from Castle Valley resident Jayne May and Sorrel River Ranch, stated a filling submitted by the company.
The telecom provider further contends that specific service issues can be dealt with while resolving the complaints lodged by May and the resort. Communications in that area are unique because they rely on wireless microwave radios, and recent equipment upgrades have “assured adequacy of service there,” Frontier wrote in its filing last week.
"To initiate a separate docket to undertake a parallel investigation of Frontier is a duplicative waste of effort and resources for the Commission and all participants," the company concluded.
But Sorrel River Ranch said the phone outages have persisted despite any equipment improvements by Frontier. And the resort’s bottom line is suffering, with transient reservations down by $214,000 compared to last year, according to a manager.
“Beyond the lost revenue, the magnitude of guest experiences has hurt us tremendously,” Dave Ciani, the resort’s manager, said during a May hearing before the Public Service Commission. “If you’re a guest and you’re staying in a guest room and you can’t call to the front desk, if you have an emergency and you can’t get out, if you can’t call your loved ones ... there is no excuse and there is no response that we can provide.”
Beck said it’s rare for her office to ask the Public Service Commission to investigate a company — she estimates it’s been about 10 years since it last happened — so there’s no standard process for handling the requests. She suspects, however, that if the commission gives the order, the Utah Division of Public Utilities would lead the investigation.
“We’re not necessarily envisioning something onerous," she said. “We just want to take a look at what are your outage numbers and a few things like that and let’s see how widespread it is.”
In a prepared statement, the utilities division said it would conduct a formal investigation if directed by the Public Service Commission.
“Under its own independent statutory authority, the Division of Public Utilities has separately requested information from Frontier concerning its Utah service territories. Frontier has cooperated in these requests,” the statement said.
For decades, Frontier has held a state certificate that grants it a monopoly for landline service in this part of southeastern Utah. 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, public utilities officials say.
Frontier has defended itself against service complaints by describing the challenges of building and maintaining a telecom network in rugged and isolated terrain. A company spokesman has 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, company spokesman Javier Mendoza has said.
Rad says there’s no way of knowing if Frontier is fully reimbursing her company for the service interruptions.
“They’re only giving us credits for a short period of time," she said, “and they aren’t giving us the backup information to what these credits are for.”