Residents of a Franklin County town couldn’t call 911 this past weekend — or anyone outside their local phone code — because of a Consolidated Communications outage, the latest in a string of service disruptions involving the company.
The telecommunications provider told state officials just before 4 a.m. Sunday about the outage in Montgomery, a town of about 1,200 residents, according Barbara Neal, executive director of the state E911 Board.
A storm took down a tree, falling onto a power line and coming in contact with Consolidated’s fiber on the pole, said company spokesperson Shannon Sullivan.
Workers had repaired the issue by about 7 p.m. Sunday. But people in Montgomery were left frustrated by what some called as a continuing problem in the rural town.
Resident Sharon Perry said her family lost landline and internet service over the weekend. It had happened before over the years, she said, so she and her husband had developed a routine.
She said she tried calling numbers outside her local exchange code but couldn’t get through. When she tried 911, the same recorded message about the unavailability of long-distance calls played, she said.
“We were isolated,” Perry said.
Luckily, she said, she can get a cell signal at her home. When she called Consolidated to report the outage, she said the service representative said the company hadn’t received enough reports to “open a ticket” and investigate the complaints.
That made sense to Perry; she said most people in town don’t have cell service. And the Catch-22 concerned her.
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“There was no way for us to report the outage,” she said. “People didn’t have their landlines working. We couldn’t call anywhere. And even more problematic … is that when this happens, we have no access to 911.”
Perry and her husband Scott, a former town selectboard member, didn’t need to call 911 over the weekend. But what if an emergency had happened, she wonders, and what if they didn’t have cell service?
“When 1,200 people can’t call 911, that’s totally unacceptable,” she said.
“Consolidated takes access to 911 and providing service to our customers very seriously,” Sullivan, the spokesperson, said in a statement. “Our outside plant facilities are exposed to the elements and can be affected by things like storms and falling trees.”
But situations like these are rare, Sullivan said.
Genevieve Lodal, the town’s assistant clerk, said she went to the town office Sunday to use its public WiFi, which uses a different service provider than Consolidated. She found several other residents there for the same purpose.
In past years, town officials have acknowledged the danger of phone outages impacting 911 services.
Both the 2011 and 2012 annual town reports dedicate a page each to “911 Procedures During Phone Isolation Outages,” directing residents to use cell phones, call emergency personnel in town directly or call other locals who may have cell reception.
Complaints about Consolidated’s services — and how long the company takes to address problems — have cropped up for years, sometimes spurring conflict between the company and state officials.
After an outage in July, a state telecoms official challenged claims by Consolidated over how many customers had lost internet service.
In January 2020, the Commission ruled that the company either had to pay a $120,000 penalty or make a $150,000 investment in Vermont infrastructure because of service failures, the result of an investigation launched in 2018 after complaints mounted.
In 2018, the state legislature passed a measure that forced companies like Consolidated to alert the state to telephone outages. And the Better Business Bureau has issued an advisory to customers on its website, warning potential customers of Consolidated of a pattern of complaints against the company.
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