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CenturyLink and Lumen provide few answers to Albemarle board

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Trouble with CenturyLink phone and internet service is so prevalent in parts of Albemarle County that a couple of residents have turned to a decades-old method of communicating instead of the newer technology they pay for.

“This problem is so persistent and well known amongst the neighbors that we’ve had to go to the lengths of setting up an emergency system with an air horn for my 90-year-old neighbors to be able to contact us if something goes wrong,” Ryan Loomis told Albemarle County officials and representatives of CenturyLink’s parent company at a county work session Wednesday.

Loomis lives in the Sugar Hollow area of western Albemarle. He said the company has an “insufficient” eight-hour battery backup for integral parts of its equipment and it frequently runs out in poor weather.

“That is ridiculous that we have to result to an air horn to contact emergency services,” he said.

To try to get answers about the consistent phone and internet service issues, the county board held Wednesday’s work session.

“Customers in Albemarle County have been experiencing these problems now for years,” Supervisor Diantha McKeel said. “We’ve been hearing about these problems, many of the same problems, for years, without storms like we just recently had.”

Company representatives had few answers. They mainly spoke about storm-related outages during the last seven months and an ongoing broadband project in the county.

“What we received today, I believe, was mostly an advertisement, not answers,” Board Chair Donna Price said. “I found some of the material to be, candidly, not valid.”

Steven Brewer, the director of government affairs for CenturyLink/Lumen, said the representatives will work to get answers back to county staff and the board.

CenturyLink changed its name to Lumen Technologies in 2020. Company employees have previously said that CenturyLink is now a brand name for one of Lumen’s products.

In 2021, Lumen announced it was selling its local exchange carrier operations, its physical mostly-copper phone and DSL network and residential fiber broadband in Virginia and 19 other states to affiliates of Apollo Global Management, a private equity firm.

In November it was announced that Brightspeed will be the new brand name for the internet and phone services, if the sale is approved later this year.

“I will tell you, and in all honesty, I am very excited about the transaction related to Brightspeed,” he said. “The acquiring company has committed publicly … to making substantial investments across 20 states. I have heard the figure of $3 billion above and beyond the purchase price that they are paying for those assets. I am excited and very hopeful that the transaction will mean great things to not just Albemarle County, but to all of Virginia and to all states involved in the transaction.”

Residents didn’t care about the sale; they wanted to talk about the service. North Garden resident Robert Klein said “it seems like they just don’t care.”

“There seems to be a lack of management on trying to solve problems,” he said. “They always point to the user when this is an infrastructure problem.”

Since April, Albemarle’s broadband office has had more than 200 email complaints about CenturyLink services from 117 county addresses, staff said. About 60% of the emails were related to new installation complaints, but Jason Inofuentes, the county’s broadband program manager, said one in six of those complaints focused on outages or reliability issues in the wake of installation of fiber service.

Albemarle’s Broadband Accessibility and Affordability Office has made links available on its website for residents to file complaints with the Federal Communications Commission and the State Corporation Commission regarding internet and phone service issues with any area service providers.

Trish Stipanovich, the Virginia region operations supervisor for CenturyLink and Lumen, said the company’s restoration times were long in late July and most of August due to lightning storms and high wind events. Supply chain issues with needed copper cable and fiber cable made it worse.

“I do believe that is not a common situation that we encountered last year,” she said, of needing long cables replaced.

When it comes to recurring issues, Stipanovich said the company sometimes does not have repair tickets for repeat issues.

“We look at opportunities for our network maintenance based on the amount of tickets and recurring issues, and if we don’t see that we’re really at a disadvantage to be able to know what the impact is on the customer,” she said. “Our ticking process helps us to navigate our priorities.”

Supervisor Bea LaPisto-Kirtley said many times customers cannot file tickets because they don’t have phone or internet service to access the company’s site.

“Our residents, customers can’t get to you. They have no way of getting to you to tell you that they don’t have service because the lines drop — they don’t have connectivity, they don’t have telephone service, they don’t have internet,” she said. “There is no way to get a hold of you, or they get an automated service that hangs up on them.”

Supervisor Ned Gallaway said residents are turning to the board because they feel CenturyLink and Lumen “is not being responsible.”

“You have a massive integrity issue and I’d like to know how you’re going to solve it,” he said.

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