BROOKSVILLE — On a rainy Thursday evening, residents of Brooksville turned out to make sure that they were heard by Consolidated Communications and the Maine Public Utilities Commission.
As it happens, being heard has been a bit of a problem in the town.
The hearing was the result of a 10-person complaint filed by residents alleging poor landline service, including outages of weeks to a month, as well as generally poor broadband internet service.
“Many of our residents are elderly, do not have cell phones, and do not have the mobility to go to a neighbor’s house if there is an emergency. A landline outage here is literally a life and death matter. We cannot call 911. We cannot report a forest fire,” wrote lead complainant Abbie McMillan in the initial complaint, filed in July 2018.
At the Thursday hearing, representatives from Consolidated Communications assigned most of the blame for poor service on upgrades to the company’s infrastructure, which had occurred throughout the summer and fall.
“We’ve done a lot of work to upgrade our remote terminals serving Brooksville by replacing copper wiring with fiber optic cable,” said Sarah Davis, who was representing Consolidated Communications at the hearing. “Specific to the complaint, which was around voice service, there were two remote terminals using copper that were converted in the last few months of the year, and since then we’ve seen the troubles drop substantially.”
According to data provided in the Brooksville complaint, between January and October of 2018 there were 641 service issues attributed to the Consolidated Communications exchange serving the towns of Brooksville, Castine, and Penobscot. Of those, 338 — more than 50 percent — were attributed to Brooksville.
Following an explanation from Consolidated and assurances that there would be ongoing maintenance efforts to improve overall service, close to a dozen townspeople commented on the difficulties and impacts of limited broadband and landline service.
“I live on Cape Rosier, where we and many of our neighbors are not served by broadband,” said Mike McMillan. “Several brokers and appraisers have told me that the lack of broadband or phone service will severely affect prices in an already thin real estate market.”
McMillan continued, noting that lack of broadband access is a recurring issue across rural areas of Maine, and that the costs would continue to be borne by owners seeing their property devalued due to lack of access to what he called “an essential service.”
Consolidated Communications, which recently came under investigation by the state of Vermont for a pattern of customer complaints alleging poor percentages in customer issues resolved and installation appointments met, again emphasized that infrastructure improvements would allow for some increase in broadband capacity.
Davis, however, said that with respect to many homes farther from the broadband terminals, “Consolidated does not have plans to upgrade facilities to extend service to them. Unfortunately it’s not a capital investment due to the low numbers.”
Brooksville resident Jim Picariello expressed frustration with having recurring issues remain unaddressed by Consolidated Communications’ technicians and customer service representatives.
“Intermittently, when we pick up the phone right now, we hear echoes of our own voice. As of two months ago, every time it rained it was noise on the line, our internet would go up and down,” Picariello said. “But it’s not resolved. I’ve talked to many people, and we’ve just stopped calling to complain. We’ve given up.”
The fact that gathering up at least 10 people to make a formal complaint was needed in the first place for service problems was also a concern to those in attendance.
“If it takes a 10-person complaint just to get a response from the company, that’s not acceptable,” said Brooksville resident Ralph Chapman. “If the company knows there’s a problem in the system, I don’t think it’s useful to use this 10-person complaint as a mechanism to get the reasonable service that you’re required to provide.”
While the initial complaint from the town had concerned poor landline service, a majority of the discussion concerned lack of broadband internet access.
That these two are linked wasn’t surprising, given that the two services are often provided by the same company. It did, however, reveal that despite the ubiquity of the internet, it is not treated as a public utility in the same way phone service is. Lack of rural access to broadband is often the result of providers simply not willing to likely lose capital on such an investment.
Broadband access has also been touted as a potential way to lure small businesses and freelance workers to rural areas like Maine, a fact that came up during the discussion.
“I know there are people who work from home and they have to go to the library to get service,” said Mike McMillan. “And I know there are people who grew up in Brooksville, younger people who have small businesses that could run from their homes. They want to move back here but they just can’t, because of this issue.”
As the meeting concluded, representatives from the Maine Office of the Public Advocate encouraged residents to continue registering complaints. PUC staff attorney Jody McColman called the hearing “literally the least we could do” to help improve service to the residents of Brooksville.
In the meantime, Consolidated Communications will continue to replace copper wires with fiber optic cable in order to improve basic service.