Montana utilities regulator settles with CenturyLink on slow response times, broadband access

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.

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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 for making phone and Internet services more accessible to the 1 million people dispersed across the nation's fourth largest state.

"CenturyLink has to certify to the FCC and the (Montana) service commission that they've built out 33,000-something unserved or underserved census blocks," Commissioner Travis Kavulla said.

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.

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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.

Kavulla said there are some small businesses that provide voice and broadband services in eastern Montana that were not eligible for the funding.

"This is the FCC's big program for the biggest landline companies in the nation," Kavulla said.

Commission spokesman Eric Sell said a group of Montana residents also signed on to the agreement. The customers who live along the Missouri River canyon southwest of Great Falls argued that CenturyLink'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.

The settlement was negotiated after the Public Service Commission threatened to sue CenturyLink last month for failing to promptly restore out-of-service landlines.

CenturyLink spokeswoman Julia Joy said she did not have final details on the grant Tuesday.

"We know the broadband availability enabled by the CAF program will provide new opportunities for rural Americans and look forward to sharing more information about our CAF II plans with the FCC and other stakeholders on or by Aug. 27," Joy wrote in an email.