4 questions U.S. Rep. Doug Collins has for Windstream
I am concerned that your networks in Northeast Georgia are at over-capacity. Would you agree with this assessment? If not, please provide documentation demonstrating that Northeast Georgia networks specifically are not operating at over-capacity. If they are, please outline your plan to address this situation.
Please provide a detailed status update regarding Windstream’s progress upgrading your copper networks to modern fiber in Northeast Georgia. Specifically, what percentage of the copper network has been replaced and what is the timeline for full replacement with modern fiber?
Of the fees that you currently collect from Windstream subscribers in Northeast Georgia, what percentage are being used to upgrade infrastructure in the same area as those subscribers reside?
In 2014, Windstream was granted by the Internal Revenue Service Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT) status. Based on media reports at the time, Windstream’s tax savings from this change in status was estimated to cut your company debt by $3.2 billion and produce $115 million annually in free cash flow. What is your estimated tax savings to date from REIT status, and what percentage of that estimated savings have you invested in broadband upgrades, both nationally and specifically in Georgia?
Complaints about Windstream’s slow Internet service in homes and businesses throughout Georgia’s 9th District, which encompasses all of Northeast Georgia, have prompted new complaints and a stern letter from Republican U.S. Rep. Doug Collins.
“Since elected to Congress, I’ve tried to work closely with your staff, sharing with them the nature of the complaints and urging their swift resolution,” Collins wrote to Windstream executives last week. “But over the past three years, the voices of my constituents and the appalling reports of your company’s behavior have only increased in volume and quantity. It’s time for Windstream to take my concerns, and those of your Northeast Georgia customers, seriously.”
The complaints have become so numerous and frequent that the Jefferson City Council in Jackson County have established a Broadband Advisory Committee to address possible alternatives.
Poor Internet service presents a barrier to economic development in rural parts of Northeast Georgia, according to Jefferson officials.
“Quite a few of my constituents are having problems with (Windstream), and I want this committee to bring suggestions and ideas to the council to help us find a way to help,” Councilman Steve Quinn told The Times. “At this point in our process, we are open to any possibility. Without high-speed Internet, not only does it affect our current citizens, but our area will not be appealing to new businesses and especially to their employees who would end up living here.”
Complaints about Windstream, based in Little Rock, Ark., led the state Office of Consumer Protection in 2014 to settle with the company for $600,000 for false advertising about service speeds and allegedly misrepresenting how long it would take to fix problems.
Windstream officials did not admit guilt in the settlement.
The provider primarily serves rural areas and had an estimated 372,000 customers in 2014.
According to company officials, there are 620,000 households in the state that are serviceable by Windstream.
“Windstream continues to make substantial broadband investments in the state of Georgia to meet the growing usage demands of our customers,” David Avery, vice president of Windstream corporate affairs, told The Times in an email. “The company has invested more than $97 million in Georgia since 2013 to increase network capacity and offer faster speeds. Our vision is to provide a best-in-class customer experience through our network and our people. We are reviewing the letter from Rep. Collins and will reply accordingly.”
COMPLAINTS ROLL IN
After Collins released his letter to Windstream for public consumption, The Times asked 9th District constituents to share their own complaints about the Internet provider.
Brenda Twitty, in a letter to Windstream shared with The Times, wrote “I am terribly disappointed in the quality and consistency of phone, internet and cable service, and the lack of honest communication between service technicians and customer service personnel here in Dahlonega.”
Among the most common criticisms were accusations that fees were going up, non-responsive customer service and sporadic, inconsistent service.
“We live in Clarkesville and I have to say Windstream is the worst service we have ever had,” Gini Ruhlman said. “Two years ago when I was writing my book and needed the Internet connection the most it was down for three days in a row. My husband’s business depends on the Internet, and it was extremely bad for him. We need more options in Northeast Georgia.”
Eric Bowen shared several screenshots of Internet speed tests he ran at home, each showing dramatic fluctuations in the speed of DSL service from one moment to the next.
“I moved to Dahlonega from California about two years ago,” Suellen Heath said. “I was saddened to know there was only one Internet company. There is not a day that goes by that I have not had to turn it off and back on again as it goes out at least once a day, if not more.”
Joshua Christy, an information technology professional, said many customers would leave if another provider was available.
Some are already willing to give up service altogether until another provider emerges.
“Soon I will be taking Windstream out,” Speedy Harkins said.
Complaints have also centered on delays in service repair appointments.
“Windstream is the only option where I live,” Linda Hudson said. “They know this and do not care about those of us in a no-competition zone. This has been my experience with Windstream for years.”
Dan Morris of Cleveland said the service is at its worst during peak times.
“I’ve had to resort to purchasing a business DSL as a second DSL in my home because of peak-time slowdowns that prevent me from streaming pretty much anything during those times,” he said.
The complaints have become so charged that multiple Facebook pages have been established to allow customers to vent on social media.
“We have worked tirelessly over the last few years to try and hold Windstream accountable,” said Dana Phillips, who worked with three other individuals to set up the online forums.
There is also an online petition drive calling for a class-action lawsuit against Windstream, with claims that the company has oversold its bandwidth in rural communities.
“Congressional oversight of your company’s actions in Northeast Georgia is more than merited,” Collins wrote. “And, I believe, compelled. I have no doubt this letter will go unheeded, as the complaints of thousands of your customers have also gone unheeded.”