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It would sound like a bad joke if the consequences weren’t so deadly serious: You dial 911 and get a busy signal.

Telephone lines that serve Elko Dispatch Center have failed for prolonged periods at least 10 times over the past 18 months, the latest being nearly four hours last Friday. Imagine facing a crisis such as a heart attack or serious injury but being unable to reach the only number you know to call for help.

Frontier Communications officials have been unable to explain the outages, which aren’t limited to 911 but frequently affect business and residential lines throughout the region.

A company representative indicated Frontier was not planning to upgrade the landline phone system’s infrastructure. Neither are many other phone companies across the United States, including the venerable AT&T. A recent Chicago Tribune article described how the company was seeking regulatory approval to disconnect landlines in Springfield, Ill., and switch customers to wireless or internet-based connections.

“We’re investing in a technology that consumers have said they don’t want anymore and wasting precious hundreds of millions of dollars that could be going to the new technologies that would do a better job of serving customers,” AT&T Illinois President Paul La Schiazza told the newspaper.

Frontier is considered a rural telephone company but joined the big leagues in 2010 with the purchase of Verizon’s landline businesses in 14 states. In July, the company completed a 15-1 reverse stock split, prompting Los Angeles Times columnist David Lazarus to ask, “What happens if Frontier can’t afford to keep its creaky phone network up and running?”

The article also quotes AT&T as saying the number of California homes with landlines has decreased 85 percent since 1999. With so many customers cutting the cord we won’t be surprised to see landline service decline even more. Before long, the cliché, “Can you hear me now?” will apply more to traditional phones than to wireless service.

Elko’s issues with phone service outages recently came to the attention of the Elko County Enhanced 911 Board. The group is preparing to upgrade our 911 service to give emergency responders automatic access to a caller’s address.

Businesses and individuals have donated more than $200,000 to get the system off the ground, but it will only work when the phones do.

“This board is really concerned about the reliability of our 911 service, and it ties hand in hand with what we’re trying to do to enhance it,” said Police Chief Ben Reed. “We could have all the greatest technology at some point, but if we don’t have our landlines hooked up reliably, then we’re dead in the water.”

Reed told the Free Press that a “workaround” might solve the problem at Elko Dispatch in the near future. We hope so. No one should have to wait for emergency responders simply because the phone company isn’t maintaining its equipment.

In the meantime, missed calls could have dire consequences. Everyone should post this phone number on their landline phone to be ready as backup: 777-6877. It will connect you with dispatch when 911 service is unavailable.

Members of the Elko Daily Free Press editorial board are Travis Quast, Jeffry Mullins and Suzanne Featherston.


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