By Ken Bustin
The Public Service Commission (PSC) wasted no time in scheduling the complaint of Pendleton County against telephone and Internet provider Frontier Communications. With the acquiescence of the parties, the matter will be heard by a mediator in a virtual session – in deference to COVID – before mediator Bridget D. Davis, in Charleston, on February 16, at 10 a.m.
Pendleton County filed a formal complaint against Frontier West Virginia, Inc., its official corporate name, after an earlier informal complaint failed to produce results which satisfied county officials. The formal complaint procedure is normally scheduled before an administrative law judge or the full Public Service Commission, unless the parties agree to have their disputes sent to mediation. Both Pendleton County and Frontier opted to first pursue the action before a mediator.
In the event that the mediator’s decision is unacceptable to either party, it can be appealed and later brought before the administrative law judge or the full Commission.
But Pendleton County Emergency Services Coordinator Rick Gillespie, who has acted as the point man for the county, expressed optimism that the mediation will produce good results. He told the Times that the only objective of county officials is to get the matters addressed as expeditiously as possible, and that their agreement to having the matter go to mediation was rooted in the belief that it would be a less adversarial process – it will involve only representatives of the county and Frontier, but not their respective lawyers — and could be addressed and resolved more quickly. He was pleased with the early date which had been assigned, he said.
He added that he felt the facts of the case were clear enough that a mediator would have no difficulty in reaching an equitable decision.
The Pendleton County complaint covers a number of issues which Gillespie has described as “of serious concern” to county officials, ranging from a large number of complaints they have received from Frontier subscribers over extended service outages, to improperly maintained pole lines in multiple locations, which have allowed communication cables to sag or fall, to trees and brush remaining fouling access to equipment cabinets for extended periods of time, to newer “hybrid” subscriber lines which will become inoperable in the event of a power failure, cutting off access to 911 and emergency services.
Frontier did address some of the issues raised in the informal complaint, replacing a broken pole which had been left hanging in mid-air for many months, and clearing fallen debris away from an equipment cabinet. While Gillespie said county officials were grateful and relieved that those issues had been corrected, he said many other similar instances remain uncorrected.
However, the most crucial issue addressed in their complaint, Gillespie said, was the lack of redundancy in Pendleton County’s 911 communications. A solitary communications cable which runs over Allegheny Mountain, adjacent to the roadway, carries Pendleton County’s only emergency access to the outside world, and Gillespie notes that it has been severed and put out of service on more than one occasion when runaway trucks on Allegheny Mountain have crashed into utility poles.
Several years ago, he said, Frontier had promised to construct and make operational a backup line, taking a different route through Sweedlin Valley to connect with other main trunks in Moorefield, and provide an alternate path for emergency communications to take in the event of a failure of the primary circuit. But Gillespie said Frontier has never demonstrated that this was ever completed or placed in service.
The Pendleton County complaint asks relief on all of these matters.
Gillespie will represent Pendleton County in the mediation proceedings, and Frontier has designated four of their staff – David Morris, John Tipton, James Ford and Angie McCall – to represent them. Gillespie said he is hopeful that not involving lawyers in the proceeding may allow the parties to work more cooperatively toward a good result.
Continuing requests to Frontier for comment have, at press time, not produced any official response.