PUCO tells Pickaway County phone provider to improve its service

PUCO tells Pickaway County phone provider to improve its service

by Craig Lovelace

CIRCLEVILLE — A woman driving herself to OhioHealth Berger Hospital about a year ago shook the Pickaway County Sheriff’s Office.

The hospital called the office to let them know that the emergency-911 call the woman placed never got through and led her to take the wheel in her own hands. 

What might have happened is that the woman called from a landline phone during the service disruption. If so, her emergency-911 call would have never got processed.

By the time of that August 2019 incident, Sheriff Robert Radcliff’s office, county commissioners and the emergency management agency were quite familiar with Frontier’s service or lack thereof. So much so that the hospital incident prompted the Sheriff’s Office to file a complaint with the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio against Frontier that provides most of the phone service in Pickaway County. The commission then opened an investigation into what it termed numerous customer complaints.

The disconcerting information the hospital relayed was another instance when service outages involving Frontier Communications blocked, in this instance, an emergency-911 call from reaching the dispatching center at the office’s Island Road headquarters. In other words, Sheriff Radcliff and his staff had no way of knowing the woman called.

On Aug.12, the PUCO and Frontier North Inc., which serves about 50,000 customers in Ohio, reached a settlement that will hold the latter to strict measures intended to improve its systemwide landline service and reduce emergency-911 outages. Some of the measures include Frontier:

• Spending $25 million annually for the next three years on capital improvements.

• Evaluating processes and ensuring landline phone outages are prioritized.

• Meeting specific repair and restoration metrics each quarter for the next five years.

The settlement comes after Frontier filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the winter and got its plan approved Aug. 21 in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York.

A message left Tuesday with Frontier’s regional office that includes Ohio was not returned as of Wednesday.

Radcliff said the issues with Frontier are plentiful and ongoing. For instance, he said service was out the day a reporter called to talk about service interruptions. Later that evening, another outage occurred and lasted two hours.

“It’s aggravating for us,” he said. “You saw we had to file with the PUCO, and it has been one thing after another.”

The office often heard the complaints when people could not get through to it, Radcliff said, adding, “It’s never been with our facility, but with Frontier.”

Lt. Jon Rhoads is the administrator for the Sheriff’s Office and point person who deals with Frontier. He said there always seems to be a lack of immediacy when the phones go out. Frontier, he said, would say a line was cut or they were still looking for the source of a problem.

The problem isn’t relegated to the Sheriff’s Office.

County Administrator April Dengler said phone service has always been spotty in the eight years she has worked for the county. However, it took a turn.

“The last year has been extremely bad. We had several days where phone calls weren’t going through to any of our county offices, or you could only call into some of our offices. That’s the reason why we switched our phone system to Spectrum,” she said.

What does this all mean to Frontier customers in Pickaway County trying to reach the Sheriff’s Office? It depends.

If you use a landline, service interruptions are more likely than if you don’t. That is because the office began employing VOIP – voice over Internet Protocol in late June. VOIP processes voice calls using a broadband Internet connection versus an analog phone line, or landline, and less likely to suffer service interruptions.

Trevor Swackhamer handles IT issues for the Sheriff’s Office and said they switched to Wildix as its VOIP provider, which applies to calls made with cell phones only and only to the administrative offices in the department. 

However, for landline users, the status quo ensues. That means service interruptions will affect calls made to the office’s administrative numbers and emergency-911 calls won’t get through. 

Rhoads said his prerogative is to “get Frontier out of the picture,” but Ohio law demands that phone companies provide a landline option for consumers. 

The lieutenant said since July 2019, the Sheriff’s Office has experienced 14 outages totaling a minimum of 110 hours.

Commissioner Brian Stewart said the county has held Frontier’s “feet to the fire,” adding commissioners and the sheriff have tried to find another option.

“We’ve been especially upset when [disruptions] affect our 911 service,” he said.

Asked if his office is aware of other 911 calls comparable to the woman who drove herself to the hospital, Radcliff responded, “I just don’t know.”

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