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CenturyLink’s request to eliminate essential-service quality rules puts lower-income and rural customers at risk

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed how access to telecommunications services is critical to citizens’ well-being.

MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

CenturyLink, now Lumen Technologies, is trying to shed essential regulations that protect its customers in its recent filing with the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC). If approved, this change would allow CenturyLink to shirk its repair and service responsibilities to its lower-income customers and prioritize the big businesses and wealthier areas it services. That’s why my union, the Communications Workers of America (CWA), is demanding the PUC deny CenturyLink’s request.

CenturyLink’s petition to the PUC attempts to eliminate a current service quality rule requiring companies to address 95% of a customer’s landline phone service repair or outage issue within 24 hours of the complaint.

It should come as no surprise to many CenturyLink customers that the company already frequently fails to comply with that rule and repair phone service within 24 hours. The reason: CenturyLink has laid off, forced retirement, terminated, part-timed or otherwise eliminated 23% of its CWA-represented workforce in the past 18 months, with more reductions planned. (Customers should report service issues and delays to the PUC at 1-800-657-3782 and online.)

The decrease in well-trained, career employees maintaining the plant closely correlates with CenturyLink’s dwindling infrastructure in Minnesota. You don’t need to travel far in the state to understand what I’m talking about; it’s those small green pedestals mounted on lawns near the side of the road that are knocked over with wires hanging out or just covered with an orange plastic bag.

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CenturyLink has neglected its facilities. CWA has documented these deteriorating conditions that cause service outages and customer connection problems. The CenturyLink solution of Band-Aid repairs means damaged cables do not get replaced, resulting in frequent technician visits, outages, static, and more.

CenturyLink’s justification for eliminating the rules is that it “forces” companies to prioritize certain customers over others. But the rules only set minimum standards for all landline customers. The company is free to invest whatever it wants to improve its other services, such as broadband. Eliminating minimum standards, however, would allow CenturyLink to prioritize its most profitable residential and business customers and leave the rest of us with no assurance the company will get around to fixing our issues. This would overwhelmingly impact customers in remote or marginalized neighborhoods who rely on CenturyLink’s landline services and have no competitive choice for an alternate service provider.

Jeff Lacher
Jeff Lacher
Another regulation CenturyLink is pushing to eliminate deals with the timeliness of answering repair service calls. The current regulation states that 90% of repair service calls, including calls to the business office, be answered within 20 seconds. Once again, as CenturyLink slashes its workforce, it wants to slash customer service to match.

In public comments to the PUC, CWA urged the commission to reject CenturyLink’s request to eliminate call center answering time requirements. Many customers, particularly senior citizens, are not comfortable using the online forms and chats offered as an alternative, and need timely access to an experienced human representative to address their concerns.

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed how access to telecommunications services is critical to citizens’ well-being. If these regulations are eliminated, vulnerable communities will pay the price because CenturyLink has made it clear that service for wealthy communities is its priority.

When CWA investigated CenturyLink’s service area, plants and equipment, we found that the company has failed to deploy fiber to 46% of its coverage area in Minnesota. Our analysis of FCC data revealed that the company is prioritizing network upgrades to wealthier neighborhoods, leaving lower-income communities with outdated technologies. In CenturyLink’s service areas, the median income of households with access to fiber is $75,774, while the median income of households with only access to DSL is $56,538.

Elimination of service quality rules does not magically fix understaffing and poor investment in rural and lower-income areas in need of connectivity. Due to its limited obligations under the existing regulations on voice service, CenturyLink argues that it has insufficient technician resources available to carry out broadband expansion. But CenturyLink’s concern, even if accurate, is a self-made problem, as it continues to eliminate technician positions throughout the state.

CenturyLink is requesting permission from the PUC to delay repairs for less profitable customers in favor of those who can afford the latest, fastest fiber services available. This is wrong. That’s why CWA is calling on the PUC to reject both of CenturyLink’s requests. And CenturyLink, if you’re reading this, stop with the job cuts and invest equitably in our communities. Federal dollars will help close the gap, and CenturyLink should position itself to win those funds to deploy more fiber to Minnesota communities.

Jeff Lacher is a Communications Workers of America District 7 staff representative.

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