Around 40 people showed up Monday night at the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame to hear Birmingham-based attorney Dustin Kittle explain the specifics of potential litigation being brought against the internet service provider Windstream Communications.
Kittle said that for the past year he and a team of attorneys have been working to help Windstream customers in Alabama file single case arbitrations to solicit refunds.
The refunds have been awarded based on an argument that customers have been paying for internet speeds that were falsely advertised.
Because there is no limit on the number of cases that can be filed this way, Kittle is proposing the suits as the only means at making a large enough dent in Windstream's pockets to make a difference in the service and infrastructure in rural America.
"Windstream at some point is going to get tired of giving people internet for free," Kittle said. "At some point it becomes cheaper for Windstream to fix the internet in Alabama and Georgia than it does to pay refunds for arbitration, and to pay attorney fees, and to pay our fees, and to pay arbitration costs."
Originally open only to Alabama residents, a month ago Kittle said the attorneys opened their services to Georgia customers.
Kittle would not disclose the number of claimants he has seen so far due to client confidentiality, but said the number is between 1 and 5,000. He said that so far all claims that have been brought and resolved have seen some amount of a refund.
Kittle said that the timeline for arbitration is remarkably shorter than a class action lawsuit, which is not allowed anyway under consumer contracts with Windstream.
At the end of the discussion, attendees flocked to sign up as claimants.
"If we don't do anything we'll be sitting right here a year from now," one attendee noted.
The attorney and his partners JoAnn Higginbotham and Whitney Seals held similar meetings in February in Habersham, Commerce and Dahlonega.
Upcoming meetings include one at the Banks County Recreation Center on March 6 at 7 p.m. and another at the Pickens County Recreation Department on March 14 at 7 p.m.
Windstream representative Scott Morris wrote in an email on Tuesday that the company "encourages any customer with an issue to contact our local Rapid Response Team at (706) 894-1330 so that we may work with them to resolve it.
"Windstream continually invests in its broadband network to provide faster, more reliable service. However, speeds are distance sensitive, and availability by address varies," Morris wrote. "We strive to provision the line up to the maximum speed required to support the qualified and subscribed service, but actual speed and performance may vary based on factors such as the condition of wiring inside a specific location; customer proximity to equipment supporting the service; computer configuration; network or internet congestion, particularly during peak hours very generally defined as 7 to 11p.m. weeknights (peak hours may vary depending on the customer location); and the server speed of the websites accessed. We cannot guarantee speeds or uninterrupted error-free service."
Consistent issues with internet speed in the region have seen local lawmakers and officials searching for solutions.
Dawson County District 2 Commissioner Chris Gaines, Sen. Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega, and Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville, have all said that internet service and connect-ability is the number one complaint they get from constituents.
In February, Gaines brought in a Royston-based wireless internet provider to speak to the board of commissioners in an effort to bring more choices to the area. Though his efforts have been stalled, Gaines continues to insist that a solution is necessary for residents and business owners in Dawson County right now.
In another effort, Gooch and Tanner worked with a subcommittee for six months last year researching the issues with internet connectivity in rural Georgia, and Gooch has drafted legislation to try to address the problem.
Senate Bill 232, also called the FIBRE Act, or "Facilitating Internet Broadband Rural Expansion Act," uses the findings and recommendations of the subcommittee to bring local internet service providers up to speed.
"We're trying to deal with it by passing legislation that incentivizes internet service providers to invest in rural areas," Gooch said. "We're also trying to make it so that EMCs can provide internet services, and EMCs have shown interest in doing that."
Gooch said Tuesday that he's not sure what a lawsuit could change at this point.
"People are having the same problems all over rural America. It's not just Windstream and it's not just Georgia," Gooch said. "Hopefully citizens will rally behind this bill and encourage their lawmakers across the state to support it."