Montana Settles with CenturyLink on Maintenance, Broadband

The Public Service Commission voted 4-0 to approve the agreement

By ALISON NOON, Associated Press

HELENA — Montana reached a settlement with CenturyLink on Tuesday that requires the telecommunications company to improve maintenance response times and accept a federal grant to expand broadband in the state.

The Public Service Commission voted 4-0 to approve the agreement, which demands that CenturyLink take the six-year, $90 million grant from the Connect America Fund.

“The cornerstone of the settlement hinges on CenturyLink accepting the statewide CAF offer,” CenturyLink attorney Mark Reynolds said. “It’s really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to bring broadband to rural parts of the state.”

The grant comes with tight deadlines and strict geographic requirements to make broadband more accessible to the 1 million people dispersed across the nation’s fourth largest state.

“The CAF was a big effort to target the money more toward broadband and make carriers more accountable,” Federal Communications Commission spokesman Mark Wigfield said.

CenturyLink will have to certify with the FCC and Montana’s utility regulator that it’s building the infrastructure to roughly 33,000 unserved or underserved census blocks, Montana District 1 Commissioner Travis Kavulla said.

“They can decide whether to spend the money on farmer Joe or rancher Bill, but they can’t send the money to Denver or spend it in Missoula,” Kavulla said after the Tuesday hearing.

Montana consistently ranks among the bottom three states in terms of broadband access and speeds but will receive less than 0.01 percent of the massive federal grant.

Between CenturyLink Inc. and Frontier Communications Corp., Montana will see no more than $17 million in each of the next six years from the fund that totals nearly $2 billion annually.

Small businesses providing some voice and broadband services in eastern Montana were not eligible for the program. According to the FCC, another program that’s comparable in size to the Connect America Fund targets those small, rural telecommunications companies.

If CenturyLink accepts the Connect America offer before a Thursday deadline, Kavulla estimated Montana will receive between $80 million and $90 million annually in rural landline and broadband subsidies.

CenturyLink spokeswoman Julia Joy said she did not have final details on the grant but the company will share information on its plans after officially accepting or denying the offer.

The settlement was negotiated after the Public Service Commission threatened to sue CenturyLink last month for failing to promptly restore out-of-service landlines. Customers from the Missouri River canyon southwest of Great Falls had argued that the company’s outages undermined public safety.

“When our phones are out the fire department can’t be reached, our EMTs can’t be contacted,” canyon resident Virginia Jamruszka-Misner said at the hearing. The canyon customers also signed onto the settlement.