HARRISBURG – A group of state House lawmakers representing primarily rural areas of the Commonwealth has introduced a package of six bills aimed at holding telecommunications companies accountable to their customers. Some of the measures come in response to a series of public input hearings hosted by the Public Utility Commission (PUC) in Tioga, Bradford and Wyoming counties.
The lawmakers include Reps. Clint Owlett (R-Tioga/Bradford), Tina Pickett (R-Bradford/Wyoming), Marty Causer (R-Cameron/McKean/Potter), Joe Hamm (R-Lycoming/Sullivan), Jonathan Fritz (R-Susquehanna/Wayne) and Alec Ryncavage (R-Luzerne).
“Many people in our rural communities cannot even rely on their basic landline telephone service, let alone internet. It’s a public safety issue and an economic issue, as well as a basic customer service issue,” said Owlett. “It’s time to hold these utility companies accountable to the people who are paying for service month after month, never knowing for sure if it’s going to work from one day to the next.”
Owlett noted many issues lawmakers hope to address came to light during public input hearings held by the PUC in early June in response to a formal complaint filed against Frontier Communications by the state Office of Consumer Advocate and Office of Small Business Advocate.
The measures are as follows:
House Bill 1619 (Ryncavage): Would direct the PUC to develop rules to address the need for utility companies to relocate their facilities onto new poles and to help ensure the removal of unused or “ghost” poles, which are often both unsafe and unsightly.
“Telephone or electric poles are a common sight in our districts and necessary to provide services that are integral to our constituents’ lives, but they also have a lifespan and need to be replaced due to their age or an accident that renders them to be unstable,” Ryncavage said. “Having old, unused and unstable utility poles lingering is unsafe and unsightly, so I’m introducing this bill to create a meaningful timeline for the PUC to use its authority to establish reasonable timelines for companies to relocate services to new poles and quickly dispose of poles no longer in service.”
House Bill 1620 (Owlett): Would require telecommunication companies to respond within 90 minutes of being notified of downed lines resulting from a motor vehicle accident. If the company does not have someone actively on the scene within 90 minutes, they would be required to reimburse a volunteer fire company securing the scene $1,000 per hour they have to wait for the telephone company to show up.
“At one of the PUC hearings, we heard about volunteer firefighters spending over 12 HOURS directing traffic while waiting for Frontier Communications to come remove their lines from traffic,” Owlett said. “While our emergency responders are committed to doing whatever they need to do to protect public safety, this is unconscionable. Utility companies must do better.”
House Bill 1621 (Pickett): Would require a telecommunications company to notify a customer if their service person will not be showing up for a scheduled appointment. If they fail to show up for the scheduled appointment and fail to notify the customer, they will be required to reimburse the customer $25 per hour for the window of time they had the customer stay at home waiting for them.
“Time and again, we heard from customers about the many times Frontier would book a repair appointment and tell the customer they had to be present when the Frontier employee arrived. This often means missing time at work or canceling other appointments, only to have Frontier be a ‘no show’ with no advance notice,” Pickett said. “It is quite common for Frontier to do this several times to the same customer. The goal of my legislation is to have a company meet its scheduled repair appointment or give reasonable advance notice and reschedule.”
House Bill 1622 (Causer): Would hold telecommunication utilities financially accountable when they fail to maintain backup infrastructure to keep 911 operating even when there is a telephone service outage. When 911 services fail, firefighters must man their fire stations in case members of the community drive there to seek emergency services. The bill would require telecommunications companies to compensate the volunteer fire departments at a rate of $1,000 per hour.
“Our volunteer firefighters are already spread too thin and should not bear responsibility for the failures of utility companies,” Causer said. “The people of rural Pennsylvania deserve a reliable 911 system that protects public health and safety.”
House Bill 1623 (Fritz): Would require a telecommunications company that has a formal complaint brought against it via the PUC to provide both the PUC and the General Assembly with a formal report of all the broken poles, compromised lines or line junction infrastructure that is not currently up to industry and PUC standards. This report would be due six weeks after the formal complaint is made with the PUC, and the information would help the General Assembly in drafting legislation to keep communities safe.
“I have heard from hundreds of residents regarding their ongoing frustrations with Frontier Communications and the less than acceptable service they provide to their customers,” said Fritz. “I am pleased to be a part of the effort to hold them accountable and work to bring these residents reliable service through legislation that would require broken poles, compromised lines or line junction infrastructure that is not currently up to industry and PUC standards to be reported to the General Assembly.”
House Bill 1624 (Hamm): Would require county Emergency Management Coordinators (EMCs) to report to the PUC any power outage that takes down a 911 landline system. Generally, landline systems still work during a power outage if the telecommunications company has properly maintained its generators or batteries that keep those phones working. In rural Pennsylvania, landlines remain prominent and relevant due to limited cellular coverage. The lack of 911 service is a serious public safety issue and the utility must be held accountable for its failure to take the steps necessary to keep the system up and running.