VERMILION LAKE TWP— This past September, Jeff Carlson was enjoying the peak of the season at his Arctic Cat dealership located between Tower and Virginia on Hwy. 169. The hunting season was just …
VERMILION LAKE TWP— This past September, Jeff Carlson was enjoying the peak of the season at his Arctic Cat dealership located between Tower and Virginia on Hwy. 169. The hunting season was just ramping up and business was brisk as hunters were shopping for new four-wheelers or ordering parts or service to get their rigs set for the season.
On the Friday just ahead of the grouse opener, after a very strong sales day, he headed home for the weekend optimistic for an exceptionally good month.
Monday, his good month turned to disaster, thanks to his local phone provider, CenturyLink.
He arrived at work that day to find he had no working telephone or Internet, essentially cutting him off from his customers. He used his cellphone to report the outage, even telling the customer service representative that the trouble was likely to be found at a junction box about a quarter-mile away, which had been the cause of past outages.
On the other end of the line, he found mostly disinterest.
It was the beginning of an 11-day experience in epic frustration as CenturyLink customer representatives, often speaking in broken English, made up stories and promises time and again, simply to get Carlson off the line as quickly as possible. For some of that time, customers couldn’t call him, although he eventually had his calls rerouted to his cell phone. But even if customers managed to get through to him, he mostly couldn’t help them since all of the Arctic Cat parts information and diagnostic tools are accessible only online. The impact to his business was immediate as sales virtually vanished. Over the next 11 days his sales totaled just one percent of the business he had done on the Friday before CenturyLink’s service cut out.
“If it would have been in July, I probably would have shut things down and took a vacation,” said Carlson. “But for me, September is peak season.”
Carlson, at least, had company. Just up the road, Ryan Childs, who operates R/C Auto, a full-time car and small engine repair business, had lost his phone and Internet on the same day. He hasn’t added up the lost business and lost time, but he said there’s no doubt it was considerable. “For me, the main problem was productivity,” he said. “If I add up the hours that I spent on hold, it cut my productivity in half. I’m a sole proprietor. If I’m not here or able to work because I’m stuck on hold nothing gets done.”
Childs said his experience with CenturyLink has been trying for years, and outages are common, but rarely have lasted 11 days in the past. “They’ve been horrible,” he said. “I’m the last one on this line and I’ve been on a temporary connection for five years.”
Adding to his frustration during his most recent outage were the continual promises that he received from customer service representatives when he would call to plead for help. “Every day, I was told it would be fixed by that night, but when you hear that ten days in a row you get to feeling pretty hopeless.”
Carlson said his experience was exactly the same. He tried calling multiple times a day but had a hard time even getting connected to an actual person. And when he did manage to get through, they would listen for a moment, then offer to connect him with the person who they said could really help him. Invariably, that was the cue for them to disconnect the call.
“They just knew if they could get you off the phone, they wouldn’t have to deal with you again. It wouldn’t have been so bad if someone had given me an honest assessment.”
The situation was maddening, said Carlson, because as a business, he pays more than $200 a month for his phone and Internet, and the company justifies the higher cost by claiming that he’s at the top of the priority list when outages occur. “I can’t imagine how long it would have taken for a residence,” he said.
A week into the outage, Carlson said a CenturyLink technician did finally show up to assess the problem. And just as Carlson had tried to tell customer representatives several times before, it turned out it was a problem at the junction box up the road. Carlson thought his ordeal was finally at an end, until the technician came back and confirmed the problem and told him he’d have to order parts in order to make the repair. Four days later, with his business still virtually shut down, the technician finally completed the repair.
Childs, dealing with his own frustration, said he eventually reached out to a regional manager for CenturyLink to complain about his lack of service, and about the years of sub-par service he had experienced. He said the manager sympathized but told him that the company was unlikely to invest much more in upgrading service, or staffing sufficient technicians, in northern Minnesota given the limited number of potential customers.
Childs, like Carlson, had only recently obtained the lowest level of DSL service from Century Link. Up until two years ago, Carlson notes, he essentially had no Internet capability other than dial-up, which was all but useless for accessing the web. That’s the primary reason he held onto his microfiche reader, which he was able to use for some parts information during the outage. “People sometimes laugh that I still have this old thing, but I’m glad I do,” he said.
Childs said his closest neighbor to the north is in Frontier’s service territory and has much better Internet speeds than he can access from CenturyLink. Perhaps most frustrating to Childs was to watch the installation of fiber optic cable along Hwy. 169, which passed right through his property, and then to learn that he would not be able to access it. “I’ve got a fiber optic cable running though my yard and I’m sitting here with 2.5 meg top speed.”
Childs said he doesn’t blame the local technicians, who he’s gotten to know quite well over the years given his frequent outages. “They’re nice guys, but they’re so overworked,” he said.
CenturyLink woes continue in Orr
While Childs is justifiably frustrated over his slow Internet in Vermilion Lake Township, CenturyLink customers in Orr are still waiting for any kind of Internet and have been for years. “We’re considered an unserved area here,” said Orr City Clerk Cheri Carter during an interview with the Timberjay just over a year ago. “When new people come into town, they’re told they can’t get Internet.” As of late last year, CenturyLink was telling residents of Orr that they were upgrading capacity and would be able to offer at least basic DSL service by the following summer. Now, more than a year later, Orr residents and businesses still haven’t seen the promised upgrade. By rights, residents in Orr should have Internet like a rocket ship. It was actually one of the first communities in the region with a fiber optic connection, and the capacity of the fiber backbone has only grown over time. “We have Paul Bunyan, CenturyLink, and Frontier, all running fiber down the highway,” Carter noted last year.
The situation just confirms what Childs heard from the regional manager when he called about his outage in September. Lack of resources, overworked staff, and little interest on the part of the company in making the investments needed to bring reliable broadband connections to residents and businesses in the region. “We’re certainly communicating on a thread here,” he said.
CenturyLink has faced challenges to more than just service quality. The company, in late 2017, agreed to settle a lawsuit filed by the Minnesota Attorney General over misleading sales and billing practices.