Complaints pile up over CenturyLink outage, but not much can be done in Montana, state says

The Montana Public Service Commission said it doesn’t know of an outage that has generated more complaints than last week’s outage by national telecommunications giant CenturyLink.

The outage affected phone and internet traffic across the state beginning Dec. 27 and wasn’t fully resolved until two days later. 

Despite the record number of complaints, Montana’s PSC said it can do little for most of the unhappy residents because the complaints center on internet outages, something the commission does not regulate.

There has been a steady stream of complaints about the outage, but of the nine official complaints logged, only one had to do with telephone service — a utility the public service commission does regulate, commission communications director Bowen Greenwood said.

The commission does not yet fully understand what happened last week during the outage and hasn’t decided whether to open an investigation, Greenwood said. Most of what the five-member PSC understands about the outage has come from news media reports, he said. 

If Montana were to open an investigation into CenturyLink’s outages, it would join a number of states demanding answers. Washington state and Wyoming officials have announced they will look into the outages. Problems in Montana, Idaho, Massachusetts, Colorado and Missouri were also reported by The Associated Press. In addition, the Federal Communications Commission is also investigating the outage.

CenturyLink, a Louisiana-based company, has customers in several dozen states and reported that customers in virtually every area of the country were affected.

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CenturyLink told The Gazette on Wednesday the cause of the problem was a “faulty network management card” that was part of software from a third-party vendor. The company said that it had already taken action to make sure the outage couldn’t happen again. 

“CenturyLink experienced a network event beginning Dec. 27 that impacted voice, IP, and transport services for some of our customers,” said Linda Johnson, spokeswoman for CenturyLink, said in an email response. “The event also impacted CenturyLink’s visibility into our network management system, impairing our ability to troubleshoot and prolonging the duration of the outage. Affected services began to restore as of Dec. 28, and the network traffic had normalized as of Dec. 29. Steps are being taken to help prevent the issue from reoccurring.”

CenturyLink officials said the company is complying with any state and federal investigation into the incident. 

“We are in contact with policymakers and will cooperate fully with any investigation,” Johnson told The Billings Gazette.

Greenwood said one of Montana’s PSC commissioners could ask at a work session for an investigation. He also said the commission helps consumers resolve issues and complaints with utility providers like CenturyLink. If those are not resolved satisfactorily, a customer may take the complaint to the commission, which may act on it. 

Greenwood said reports of phone outages were a particular concern because it could become a public safety issue if residents were unable to dial for help during an emergency.

“That’s one of the big reasons they’re a regulated utility,” Greenwood said.