After a construction crew on Aug. 9 cut a cable and knocked out Internet and cell service to Rim Country, Zach Fisher headed south on his motorcycle to find a signal.
On his way back, he struck an elk.
Motorists stopped, but couldn’t call for help due to the outage. One bystander drove back into town and phoned 911 from a landline. But it was too late for Fisher. Doctors pronounced him dead at Banner Payson Medical Center.
Neighbor Jim Muhr, said Fisher’s tragic death could have been prevented if Rim Country officials had found a way to provide redundant broadband service after any one of seven other outages since 2014. Each outage has lasted for five to 36 hours.
“I don’t want to see another life lost,” he said at Thursday’s council meeting.
From vandals intentionally cutting the CenturyLink-owned line to crews accidentally splitting it while working, a single cut in the line is enough to knock out all Internet and cell phone service to the Rim Country.
Payson sits at the end of a CenturyLink fiber optic line that Suddenlink, Verizon Wireless and other providers all lease.
Solving the issue is simple, but costly. CenturyLink or another service provider needs to run a line from the Valley or the Pinetop area to Payson to create a redundant, loop connection.
Payson says CenturyLink has so far refused to install a redundant connection and so town officials have sought help from government officials and agencies.
At the meeting, the council unanimously passed a resolution requesting assistance from state representatives, the Arizona Corporation Commission and Gila County to induce CenturyLink to install a line into Northern Gila County or connect with another provider.
A Payson Broadband Consortium, which includes the Gila County Industrial Development Authority (IDA), has met often but hit repeated roadblocks.
Other service providers have expressed interest, but cannot currently, legally provide service to all broadband customers in the area. CenturyLink has a government-granted monopoly, regulated by the Corporation Commission.
“The committee came to realize that without sufficient return on investment or tighter regulations placed on the monopoly Internet service provider CenturyLink, there is little we can do to motivate them to provide better service, except perhaps to bring in competition or to apply political pressure,” according to a press release from the IDA.
The IDA is currently working through several options including, putting a fiber optic line from Colcord Estates 8.8 miles to Forest Lakes to connect with Frontier Communications, which would create a service ring back to Phoenix. The committee is also working with Cable One, which is in the design and permit stage of extending a line from Heber to Phoenix through Payson.
“The committee is moving forward with the plan to partner with CenturyLink with Frontier Communications and we are looking forward to their report in the next few weeks,” IDA officials write. “We are continuing to explore other options like Cable One to find the most cost effective and most reliable service for Payson. The common denominators in our broadband dilemma is CenturyLink and funding.”
CenturyLink says it is collaborating with the Gila County consortium on potential options.
“Funding remains the biggest hurdle and, at this time, no grant or other contributing funds have been identified for this high-cost project,” said Mark Molzen, with corporate communications at CenturyLink. “Historically, federal and state regulators have helped solve these problems through Universal Service Fund (USF) programs. We will continue to explore funding solutions with the consortium as we have since 2015.”
Councilor Su Connell said this is a critical safety issue.
Mayor Craig Swartwood said while officials have tried to play nice with CenturyLink, it is time the company understands Rim Country means business.
“This is unacceptable,” he said of the outages.