A delegation of AT&T Inc. executives held a public meeting at the White Pine County Aquatic Center on March 3, and along with several local technicians, shared the multinational telecommunication corporation’s viewpoint concerning recent local customer service issues.
AT&T Nevada President Stephanie Tyler also came to get information first hand.
“We’ll take that information back and come up with some answers,” Tyler said.
“AT&T brought the experts today,” State Senator Pete Goicoechea said.
Present were Goicoechea and Assemblyman John Ellison. Also present were staff members representing United States Senator Dean Heller and Representative Cresent Hardy.
One solution quickly became clear: more money.
Tyler opened her PowerPoint presentation to a full conference room with such a proposal.
“We need to access outside federal money,” she said.
Tyler described the “rural challenge” AT&T faces when providing phone and internet services to Ely and White Pine County. Mountainous topography, vast distances and inclement weather all limit infrastructure capability.
“The consistent thing I hear is how wonderful our people are,” she said.
Tyler explained AT&T’s $2.3 million investment in the area between 2012 and 2014.
“That’s $575,000 per 1,000 people,” she said, “whether you’re a customer or not.”
AT&T deployed its DSL service in 2003 and completed its rural Nevada fiber optic project by 2013, deploying IP-based internet service the next year.
“Our fiber optic is 4G and they sell 4G everywhere,” Tyler said. “It’s a very competitive market and trying to make it competitive is the challenge.”
Tyler also pointed to the corporation’s membership in the White Pine Chamber of Commerce.
Network engineer Ken Malm described the process of wireless communication in rural eastern Nevada, a combination of transmissions over the fiber line and between microwave towers.
“If I wanted to call Stephanie here in Ely the signal goes to Salt Lake City first,” Malm said. “Then Reno, then back to Salt Lake, then to Ely.”
Malm displayed a photo of a microwave tower covered entirely in wind-swept ice.
“You can’t just go over to the tower and knock the ice off it,” he said. “And it’s hard to run fiber up a mountain. It costs about half a million dollars to build a cell site, and another $60,000 to maintain it annually. The sites also need access to commercial power. The goal is to keep it affordable.”
In an effort to expand its satellite capability, AT&T acquired satellite television provider DirecTV last year for $48.5 billion. The Federal Communications Commission approved the merger on the condition AT&T expand and improve high-speed internet access across the country, including to rural areas.
A woman from the audience complained that her current AT&T satellite internet service was “terrible.”
“When I call, they don’t know what I’m talking about,” she said. “Not everyone can access the fiber.”
“Regulators have been fairly active,” Tyler said. “I have to be candid, our friends at the FCC have not made it easy.”
Tyler explained that infrastructure such as local governments and hospitals will first qualify for federal funding, and therefore better fiber access, but commercial access is not yet funded.
At the conclusion of the presentation, White Pine County Commissioner Mike Coster suggested another possible cause for the issues: poor management.
“We all sat here listening to your challenges for the last 30 minutes,” Coster said. “Now I want to talk about our challenges. We have one and a half grocery stores, a lumber yard, a big and a small hardware store, all having issues with your service. Everyone is bootstrapping around the 1965 Chevy model that we have, and all we hear from you is doom and gloom. Mt. Wheeler Power maintains in the mountains and so does the volunteer TV district. You’re a public utility with essentially a monopoly. I know it can be done better, and I’m not convinced that you’re doing the best you can. It’s not the techs, it’s the program management. We can all pray for future federal funding, but what can you do to show us real improvements?”
From that point, Tyler convened the formal public meeting and met individually with everyone that approached her. Groups of customers and technicians formed to discuss specific issues in detail, the AT&T employees handing out their cell phone numbers with instructions to contact them directly. The national customer service line is 1-800-288-2020, and any local wired line can dial 611 to reach the repair center and create a ticket.
In data submitted to The Ely Times, McGill resident Kathy Timko claims an increase in her monthly AT&T bill over the last six years. According to her documents, she paid $34.70 in April 2010 and $69.35 last month. Her monthly numbers describe a slow yet steady increase, and in 2012 alone her bill increased by 22 percent.
“This year, to date, shows a 100 percent increase in monthly charges from 2010 for the same telephone services and a decrease in the quality of internet services,” Timko wrote. “What is not reflected in the numbers is the frustration of having to pay for services that were not requested but annually added to my charges, the trouble of canceling services I had not asked for, and not seeing a decrease in charges on my bill nor a refund for services not used.”
“If we’re going to be successful, we need a long- and short-term plan moving forward,” Goicoechea said after the meeting. “It’s clear we’ll need some outside capital.”