Thanks to Jeff Hoel for prodiving the transcript for Episode 69 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast with Mark Creekmore on his takes on Windstream. Listen to this episode here.
Mark Creekmore: Don't back down. Don't give up. Stay professional, 'cause that helps both sides, as well.
Lisa Gonzalez: Hi there. This is Lisa Gonzalez from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Welcome again to the Community Broadband Bits Podcast.
We often talk to experts in telecommunications, but seldom do we get the opportunity to talk to someone like Mark Creekmore. Mark is a technical consultant for a major IT company, but he's also a concerned citizen from the state of Georgia. Like many others, Mark had problems with his Internet service provided by Windstream. When he took steps to solve his own issues, little did he know that he would eventually be testifying at the Georgia State Legislature as a consumer advocate. Mark's strategy, documenting his experiences and sharing his findings, is one of the best ways to create positive change. Mark details his methods and describes how shared experiences, tenacity, and a little noise can go a long way to make things better for all of us. Here are Mark and Chris.
Chris Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell. And today we're changing it up a little bit. We have on this show Mark Creekmore, a tech consultant for a major IT company, a concerned citizen, and someone I became aware of because of a tremendous amount of work he's done in Georgia to bring light to a bad broadband situation. Welcome, Mark.
Mark Creekmore: Good morning, Chris.
Chris: I'm very excited to have you on the show. We've been trying to do this for six months, and I never was able to connect with you, unfortunately. But we -- I became aware of you around the situation of Windstream pushing a bill in Georgia to try and limit local authority to build the network. And that -- in researching that and seeing what's going on, I became aware of your efforts to pressure Windsteam into improving your connection. So why don't we start -- can you just tell me a little bit about your history as a Windstream customer?
Mark: Sure. Sure. I moved into the community here -- Dawsonville, Georgia -- over four years ago. And, at the time, I was negotiating with my fiancée where we were going to live, and told her that if I was going to move to Dawsonville, I needed to know that we had a good Internet connection there, because I often work from home, and often remote in with customers, and do remote consulting. So it's important for me to have a connection that's stable. About six months into my time here in Dawsonville, I noticed that my speed started dropping consistently in the evenings, usually around 4:00 pm. And this was a continued thing. It was not sporadic. It started happening every night.
Chris: And so, for those who aren't familiar, Windstream is a -- it's a large company. It serves a lot of predominately non-metropolitan areas. A lot of customers in Georgia, Arkansas, there's some in Minnesota. But it's a fairly large company that does DSL in an area which is hard to do DSL. So, as a technical person, I'm sure you weren't all that surprised. But what I really wanted to talk -- what I really wanted to bring you on this show for is that, in most of our work, we're focused on how communities can work together collectively to build the network. And I often hear from people who are individuals who don't know what they can do -- you know, whether they don't have support in their community for doing something more substantial, or they just -- they think that that's many years down the road. They need a sense of what they can do in the short term. And so I want to go through exactly what you did to try and document your problems and improve it. So, with these slower speeds, what did you do?
Mark: Well, Chris, at first, I did, I think, what a lot of people do. I called Windstream's tech support and asked what was going on, and when my speeds would be improving. And this led to a few interchanges with them over the phones. And, long story short, it seemed like every time I called, I got a different answer, and a different ETA as to when they thought they would have me fixed. At first, I wanted to believe that what they were saying was true. So I waited for the first ETA that they gave me. And I never got fixed. At that point, as you just mentioned, I decided it's time to do more. So the first thing I decided to do was document every single bit of communication I had with them, whether it was with a tech support agent, or online. I wanted to have the person's name, the amount of time that we spoke, everything that we said between each other. All of that documented, as well as my speeds consistently dropping over time. So I set out to log every single time I was on the computer and noticed that my speeds had dropped. I set out to log all of that over a long period of time, so that I could have all my ducks in a row, in case I needed to go further with the problem.
Chris: And what kind of speed decreases were you seeing?
Mark: Well, I was paying for 12-megabit connectivity, and getting, oftentimes, below one -- connectivity.
Chris: Wow! And so you documented, in a log fashion. Did you feel it was necessary to record conversations? Or just to summarize it in your own text?
Mark: I summarized it in my own text, and I also used a website that has a forum for DSL reviews, and other people who have issues, called DSLReports.com. And I began posting, out there, every speed test that I ran, and every communication that I had summarized.
Chris: And so you knew that your connection was capable of more, out in the -- it wasn't just that you were too far away from the DSLAM, because you had previously experienced faster speeds.
Mark: That's correct. Almost every day, I was getting great speeds until about 4:00 pm. And then it would begin dropping. And, unfortunately for me, I have customers out on the west coast, so I'm still working, often, after 4:00 pm, and need a connection to stay reliable.
Chris: Right. And that's a phenomenon we usually associate with cable networks, which is explicitly a shared medium. And so, you know, as a tech person, I think you and I could guess that what's happening is that they're just way oversubscribed between the DSLAM and their central office, or somewhere along that route.
Mark: That's correct. Yup.
Chris: And so that's something they could fix if they to. And so, despite your repeated calls and logging this, you know, you weren't getting satisfaction. What was the timeframe in which this was happening?
Mark: I logged this over many months. It want on for -- off the top of my head -- I believe at least seven or eight months. And at that point, that's when I decided, OK, I need to be doing more than just logging. I've got plenty of documentation. Now it's time for me to turn things up a notch.
Chris: And so what did you do?
Mark: I went on the Internet to try and find out all of Windstrean's executives e-mail addresses.
Chris: [laughs] OK.
Mark: And their Board of Directors. So, I sent an e-mail to all of Windstream's executives and board of directors, in a nutshell, telling them that I had logged all my stuff on the Internet, for anyone to see, for many months, and that they still did not have me fixed, and that I would not stop until I do get fixed.
Chris: I'm sure it helps that you're a technical person. And so you could dispel any notions that it was a matter of your just having your computer taken over by bots or something. And I'm also sure that you had a very civil and friendly tone in addressing them, for sort of maximum responsibility.
Mark: Absolutely. Yeah. I looked at it from a standpoint of how would I like to be treated if I were on the other end, and had never encountered me personally. And I also worked from the standpoint of, if we're not going to be professional, then we're never going to get anywhere. So I stayed firm, and I always repeated back the same things. And let them know that, you know, even though I wasn't someone who was going crazy and shouting and what not over the phone, I was going to continue to put pressure on them until I got what I was paying for.
Chris: Right. So, you wrote to all the executives. Did you get any responses from them?
Mark: Yes, I did. I got assigned a -- I believe she was called a case manager, who contacted me and said, at that point, that I didn't need to continue e-mailing the executives, that she would handle everything with me from that point on. And we began to have some communication back and forth to see what they could do to get me resolved.
Chris: And how long did this go back and forth? Knowing the rest of the story, I'm pretty sure this has never solved your problem.
Mark: Actually, at that point, I did get a resolution. My local techs came out to my house at 8:00 pm in the evening, the day that she contacted me, and said that they had never done work in the evenings, because they were never permitted to do that. But apparently something had happened, and they were told to come to my house immediately. So, at that point, they did get me fixed. However, it was only temporary. It lasted about three months, and then the same issues started happening again.
Chris: OK. And how did you resolve it then?
Mark: I went right back to the lady and e-mailed her. And, at that point, did not get a response from her back. So I went back to e-mailing the executives again.
Chris: Um hum.
Mark: And said, hi, it's me again. And, you know, sorry that I'm contacting you again. But it is what it is, and I am not working again. And, once again, I'm not going to stop until I'm getting what I'm paying for.
Chris: For me, as I listen to this, I just think, these are great steps that anyone should be taking when they're in this situation. You know, fundamentally, I don't think companies like Windstream or Frontier -- you know, these are companies that simply don't have the resources to connect everyone. And so, everyone that's in your situation should take these sorts of steps and -- in the hopes that this record will be useful in terms of moving forward. It may not be just in terms of an immediate resolution of a faster DSL. But it will be useful, I think, in terms of a record for policy changes, to bring in more options, and that sort of thing.
Mark: Sure. Sure.
Chris: So, how did the executives react this time? Did you get a limo and an air flight to meet with them personally?
Mark: [laughs] I wish I could say that. I think they all know my name pretty well at this point. But, at that point, I did not get a quick resolve. I was told, at that point, that, yes, all of the area in which I live -- and much of north Georgia -- was oversubscribed, and that Windstream simply didn't have the funding to add additional equipment and take care of everyone right away, and it was going to be several more months before I would be fixed again.
Chris: And this is at the same time that they're telling legislators in multiple states that they're going to solve everyone's problem, and that there's no need for any sort of change. They're also lobbying at the federal level for more tax dollars and that sort of thing.
Mark: Yes. And that was something that I found out. I did some research. And Vice President Biden had been to our area -- about Internet connectivity, of all things -- and, as I understood it, Windstream had taken federal dollars. And yet, I wasn't meeting anyone in north Georgia who could say that they had been fixed, or had more stable Internet.
Chris: Right. So, at what point did you approach the media? Did you take more actions? Or did you, at this point, start thinking, I need to get more people aware of the situation?
Mark: The next thing I did was contact state agencies, which -- at that point, I didn't even know what agencies would address this. So I began researching on the Internet, and trying to find out who I could speak with. And, at some point, I just decided, you know what, I'll contact all the ones that I think may be remotely involved with Internet. So I contacted the Better Business Bureau in my state. I contacted the Governor's Office of Consumer Affairs. And I also contacted what we call in Georgia the PSC, who is involved with a lot of the utilities in Georgia as well.
Chris: Right. The Public Service Commission. Or, in other states, the Public Utilities Commission, or something along those lines.
Chris: And so, did you just find e-mail addresses, and start asking questions of them?
Mark: Yes. I sent them all e-mails and gave them links on the Internet to my posts, showing how long this had been going on, and asked them to review all of it, and open an investigation, or tell me who can open an investigation and start looking into this, because I was one of hundreds of people that are affected.
Chris: And how did you -- did you get responses from all the agencies? Or get a sense about how to proceed?
Mark: Yes, I did. I got a response back from a couple agencies -- as well as the FCC; I forgot to mention that one -- saying that they would look into it. And the one that was the most responsive was the Governor's Office of Consumer Protection. They responded back and told me that they had opened a case and asked me to keep a lot of our communication between each other confidential, which I'm still doing to this day, as the case is still open.
Chris: And you also, at some point, found a Facebook group. When does this tie into here?
Mark: Yes. At that point, actually, when I had contacted all the agencies, I had found a Facebook group that was started by another guy here in Georgia, named Mark Wyatt, who was also upset and going through the very same issues I was going through. And he had created this Facebook group. Originally, you know, as he told me, he would be happy if he pulled in fifty people to talk with and discuss the issue with. And Mark and I, at that point, started working together jointly to pass on information to anyone who joined the group, and also ask our Facebook friends to share the group out, so that other people who were affected could join the group. And I believe, at this point, we're approaching 300 people, and have been able to get a lot of people to file complaints as well, and make a lot of noise with us.
Chris: The coup of all your efforts really came next -- as far as, at least, a person from Minnesota watching is concerned. Which was a terrific video on local news. Can you tell us how you became sort of acquainted with Jeff Chirico, the local investigative reporter, and how you worked with him?
Mark: At that point, I had e-mails that I had sent to the other state agencies. So, I had a lot of detail, and had it summarized pretty well, what I had been going through, along with all the links that I had added in to tell people where go to see all the speed tests I've been running over time, and so forth. So I then went out on the Internet and found all of my local news media websites. So, all the major TV stations in Atlanta. And searched for who all the investigative reporters were. And compiled all of their e-mail addresses into one e-mail. And then I sent out an e-mail to all of them at the same time, and essential said, I have a story about bad Internet. And I represent hundreds of people in Georgia who are affected. Please look at all the history here. And essentially told them, the first person to contact me back with interest in the story I will give exclusive rights to. And waited for one of them to contact me back. And, sure enough, Jeff Chirico was a guy who took me up on it. And we began working on it from there.
Chris: How long did that take?
Mark: Jeff contacted me back pretty quickly. I would say within a week of my sending that e-mail out.
Chris: You actually helped him to craft an interesting story. What sort of advice did you give him?
Mark: I told him that it might be fruitful to pose as a person who has just come to Dawsonville looking to get Internet service at home, and see what he would run into by going and asking questions about establishing Internet as a new resident in our county.
Chris: And so, his -- whoever he had do it was miked up and had a little camera. And they were PROMISED by Windstream connection speeds of in excess of 6 megabits, I think. Or was it actually up to 12? At any rate, it was an amount that they've clearly not been able to deliver with reliability to many addresses.
Mark: Yes. Yeah. That's correct. They -- I didn't know exactly how they were going to go about it. But they did that as well as going around to some businesses in the community. And interviewed other residents of the community as well, to ask them what they thought of their Windstream service.
Chris: And all of this coverage came out at just the right time when Windstream was trying to basically lock out any sort of competition it might face by preventing any communities from being able to invest in their own networks. So, what's happened since then?
Mark: After Jeff interviewing one of Windstream's executives, we were given a map of the state and told by Windstream that they would have two-thirds of the state fixed by the end of 2013, and some customers would not be fixed possibly not even in 2014.
Chris: And by "fixed," you mean they would be getting what they had been advertised to them?
Mark: Exactly. Yeah. Getting the speeds that they're paying for. You know, of course, you know, we have problems with weather and small outages like that, but, you know, we were talking about, you know, just simply getting the speed that we're paying for on a fairly consistent basis.
Chris: Right. And so you've been fortunate enough that you've seen a return to what you expect to get, right?
Mark: Yes. Yes. I suspect that with all the noise that I was making that I was most likely put on the list to be fixed pretty quickly. In fact, when I went to the state capital to speak out against the bill that they were trying to propose, right after I spoke, and the hearing ended, one of Windstream's executives approached me there personally to tell me that ...
Chris: It was nice to see you in person?
Mark: Not exactly. She just said she would do everything she could to get me fixed right away. And so, yes, my speeds have improved. And they've been doing good for at least the last month. I haven't been testing it on a consistent basis like before because I've been travelling a lot with work. But I have told them that even though my speeds have improved, don't think for a second that I'm not documenting anything else that happens.
Chris: Um hum. Well, I think it's a perfectly instructive campaign of what a person can do. You know, you should document as much as you can. You know, you have to make some noise. You look after -- you look out to the government, which is supposed to be holding some of these companies' feet to the fire, in terms of not just lying to the market. And making sure that they don't just get away with any more sort of protectionist bills in the state.
Mark: Um hum.
Chris: Well, Thank you so much. Is there anything else that we should know about this story?
Mark: I would just like to encourage anyone who might be listening to this for the first time, and thinking that this is a lot to do, that if you look out over the period of time that I have here, it wasn't as much to do as it sounds. A lot of time occurred, or went by, while I've been taking all of these steps, and I would encourage them to just not give up. Don't back down. Don't give up. And, as you and I discussed, stay professional, 'cause that helps both sides, as well.
Chris: Right. Well, thank you so much for taking the time to come on the show. And, really, thank you for being an engaged citizen who's trying to make the world a better place.
Mark: Absolutely. Glad to help. And I also just want to thank the others in Georgia who have jumped on with us and helped us make more noise.
Lisa: To watch the video about Mark, and Windstream's false claims, go to muninetworks.org and follow the "HB 282 2013" tag. That tag will take you to more stories about the bill in the Georgia legislature. Thanks again for listening to the Broadband Bits Podcast. If there are issues related to telecommunications that pique your interest, we welcome your suggestions for future shows. E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org . You can follow us on Twitter, where our handle is @communitynets . This show was released on October 22nd, 2013. Thank you to the group Mudhoney for the song, "The Neutral," licensed using Creative Commons. And thank you for listening.