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CenturyLink faces $173K in fines for November outage

Left; state Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, joins David Danner and Phillip Jones of the state Utilities and Transportation Commission, at a Dec. 8 investigation in the November telecomm outage, in Friday Harbor. - Journal file photo
Left; state Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, joins David Danner and Phillip Jones of the state Utilities and Transportation Commission, at a Dec. 8 investigation in the November telecomm outage, in Friday Harbor.
— image credit: Journal file photo

State regulators are calling for $173,000 in fines and a formal complaint to be leveled against CenturyLink for its handling of the 10-day telecommunications outage that left the majority of the San Juan Islands without telephone, internet and cell-phone service in early November.

On the heels of an eight-month long investigation, staff of the Washington State Utilities and Transportation Commission cited 15,935 violations of UTC rules and laws governing "major outages" in a report released Tuesday, Aug. 19, and recommend that the commission issue a formal complaint and $173,210 in fines against the company, the single-largest provider of telecomm services in the San Juans.

"What the investigation found was the company failed to communicate with the commission, that it failed to communicate with the 911 operator and that it failed to communicate effectively with its customers," UTC staff spokeswoman Amanda Maxwell said.

The San Juans were struck with a near total collapse of communication services, voice and data, when an underwater fiber-optic cable in San Juan Channel, which separates Lopez and San Juan islands, was severed in the early morning hours of Nov. 5. The cable, 280 feet below the surface, was most likely severed by strong tidal exchange just prior to communications crash, according to the investigation.severed cable

The fiber-optic failure isolated CenturyLink's Friday Harbor "switch" from the rest of its network. Communications were fully restored by Nov. 15 after the broken cable was replaced by the company, reportedly at a cost of roughly $2 million.

"While CenturyLink did not cause the undersea fiber cable outage, our crews worked around the clock and dedicated more than 1,000 hours to repair San Juan Islands’ service," CenturyLink said in a prepared statement following release of the UTC staff report. "During the outage, we provided the (WSUTC) and other affected state agencies with daily reports, and we kept residents informed through town hall meetings, door-to-door visits as well as through social media updates. We also credited customers’ bills above and beyond the required guidelines."

If imposed, the fines would be in addition to the $271,000 in credits that CenturyLink credited in February to the accounts of customers affected by the outage. The company has committed more than $500,000 for system improvements to ensure back-up service in the event of a future outage, according to UTC staff.

Maxwell said the staff report will next be crafted by the state attorney general's office into a formal complaint and then weighed by an administrative law judge. At that time, if its findings or fines are contested by the company and a settlement is not reached, the complaint would then be considered by the commission itself.

Commissioners of the UTC, a governor-appointed three-person panel, initiated an outage investigation at a Dec. 8 hearing in Friday Harbor. As many as 50 local businesses suffered combined losses of roughly $175,000 as a result of the 10-day outage, Brendon Cowan, director of emergency management for San Juan County and Town of Friday Harbor said at the time. State Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orca Island, was in attendance.

“Not only were the islands cut off from the rest of the world, first responders reported two significant medical incidents during the outage in which two elderly residents tried unsuccessfully to call for help," Ranker said in a press release. "UTC staff found serious deficiencies both in CenturyLink’s response and their communication with the public. Hopefully today’s ruling will help ensure that stronger protections are created to prevent this from happening again."

Ranker gave credit to CenturyLink for "stepping up" to reimburse customers affected by the outage.

Results of the UTC staff investigation come two weeks after CenturyLink was fined $30,000 by the commission for tax and surcharge-related billing errors.

In addition to rates and services of telecomm companies, the UTC regulates natural gas and water companies, investor-owned electric utilities, garbage-collection haulers, commercial ferries, pipeline companies, and more. It does not oversee broadband or internet services.

UTC staff also recommend that CenturyLink be required to make improvements to its San Juans' infrastructure, and report annually to the commission on the status and results of maintenance and inspections of the system. The company has reportedly vowed to make such improvements by early 2015.

 

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