Minnesota utility regulators Thursday unanimously rejected CenturyLink's petition to abandon or modify key landline service rules, saying it would hurt consumers who depend on hard-wired telephones.
CenturyLink, Minnesota's largest landline phone provider, petitioned the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission to jettison two long-standing regulations covering customer service response times.
The Minnesota Attorney General's Office and Department of Commerce both recommended against the change and in a different report said the phone company was violating the regulations.
CenturyLink argued the rules force "legacy" phone service providers like CenturyLink to prioritize their landline voice customers — a dying breed — over broadband consumers.
But PUC commissioners questioned the premise that implementing broadband was at odds with CenturyLink's service obligations to landline customers.
"The record has been mostly about the current rules getting in the way of broadband," said PUC Commissioner Joe Sullivan at Thursday's PUC meeting. "I am not comfortable with that."
Commissioner Valerie Means said that landline service is still relevant, particularly to elderly, rural and lower-income customers. "There are customers whose sole service is landline, and those customers deserve quality of service [protections]."
Means said she agreed with the Commerce and Attorney General's offices that the request should be denied. Both agencies represent the public interest before the commission.
CenturyLink, part of Monroe, La.-based telecommunications giant Lumen Technologies, has 334,000 landlines in Minnesota, 52% of which are residential.
In June, CenturyLink asked the PUC to eliminate or modify the "interruptions of service" rule, which states that landline providers should take care of 95% of out-of-service phone complaints within 24 hours after they're reported.
The company also wanted the PUC to rescind or change its "answering time" rule, which says landline providers need to answer 90% of their customer service phone calls within 20 seconds.
"1983 was when these rules were passed, and many made sense at that time," Jason Topp, CenturyLink's assistant general counsel, told the PUC. "But there have been dramatic changes since."
The company says it has lost 85% of its wired phone business in Minnesota since 2001, and that only 4.4% of all state households rely solely on a landline for voice phone service.
Topping said that 20% of CenturyLink technicians' time is spent repairing and installing voice service, while the rest goes to broadband.
Due to PUC rules, CenturyLink must repair 95% of out-of-service phone complaints within 24 hours, Topp said. "You create a block of time where you can't schedule for broadband repair and installation."
Jeff Lachler, a staff representative for the union representing 700 CenturyLink workers, said the phone company's "problem is entirely self-made. … The company could decrease broadband repair times by hiring more technicians."
In a filing with the PUC, the Communications Workers of America (CWA) said that CenturyLink has reduced its Minnesota workforce by 52% over the last four years.
Ian Dobson, an assistant Minnesota attorney general, told the PUC that "CenturyLink has the money to dedicate to broadband services if it chooses to do so. … We shouldn't cut off or weaken the protections for those who remain [with landline]."
In a separate PUC proceeding, the Attorney General's Office and the Commerce Department recently blasted CenturyLink for repeatedly violating the landline rules it's trying to jettison, as well as several other state phone service regulations.
That proceeding was launched after the CWA union filed a complaint with the PUC in 2020, alleging landline rule violations. The PUC then started its own inquiry.
CenturyLink has said its service "remains strong," and that it "constantly" conducts maintenance and repair on its network.
Frontier Communications, Minnesota's second-largest landline phone provider with about 90,000 customers, has supported CenturyLink's petition to abandon or modify the two service quality rules. A Frontier representative spoke in favor of it at Thursday's meeting.
Norwalk, Conn.-based Frontier has had its own service quality issues with Minnesota consumers and regulators in recent years. Investigations by the Commerce Department and the attorney general found a broad array of alleged violations at Frontier, leading to legal settlements with both in 2019 and 2020, respectively.
PUC Commissioner John Tuma on Thursday noted the absence of other Minnesota telecom providers in support of CenturyLink's request — particularly the Minnesota Telecom Alliance, a trade group representing 70 companies.
"That is telling to me quite a bit that they are not here," Tuma said. "CenturyLink and Frontier is not a coalition."