Windstream's promises to improve communication, establish a new team to handle customer complaints and invest millions of dollars in the coming years to upgrade Internet service in Northeast Georgia were dismissed as "more of the same" on Monday.
Just hours after the Little Rock, Ark.-based company issued a response to a public call from U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, to answer concerns about slow and inconsistent Internet service in homes and businesses throughout Georgia's Ninth District, the congressman reiterated his warning.
"This isn't simply an issue of poor customer service," Collins said. "Windstream can establish all the hotline phone numbers they want, but until they take their responsibility to rural communities seriously, I will continue to hold them accountable for how they spend federal funding."
Windstream's tax status, changed in 2014, has reportedly helped cut the company's debt by more than $3 billion.
Tony Thomas, president and CEO, said Windstream invested more than $60 million in 2015 to upgrade neighborhood network nodes, regional network facilities and "the cables that connect it all together."
"The impact in the Ninth District has been that 97 percent of the customers ... are now served by a fiber-fed node for their broadband, which will eliminate back-haul congestion," he wrote in response to Collins.
According to company officials, there are 620,000 households in the state that are serviceable by Windstream, many in rural areas, which are more expensive to service but cost customers the same.
Thomas said 40 percent of locations in the Ninth District can receive Internet speeds of at least 20 megabits per second, while 95 percent of the households can receive at least 3 megabits per second.
"The remaining households are located at such a distance from our network that it would be cost prohibitive to upgrade their service," he added. "As these efforts continue, we will end 2016 with fewer than two percent of our customers served by middle mile copper facilities and 86 percent of households in your district capable of receiving 10 Mbps or faster high-speed Internet service."
But complaints about inconsistent Internet speeds and poor customer service recently prompted the Jefferson City Council in Jackson County to establish a Broadband Advisory Committee to address possible alternatives.
Slow Internet presents a barrier to economic development in rural parts of Northeast Georgia, according to Jefferson officials.
And complaints about Windstream 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.
Thomas said his company has done an about-face since his tenure began in December 2014.
"Since that time, we have worked tirelessly on a comprehensive overhaul of the entire company's network and processes," he said. "Windstream is on a different strategic path today and we have already made significant progress in Georgia and the Ninth Congressional District.
This progress comes despite the rural nature of the area, which makes it physically and economically challenging to deliver high-speed Internet and voice services."
Thomas said he plans to appoint a president of operations for Georgia to improve accountability.
"I commit to you and your constituents that I am personally engaged and fully committed to connecting your constituents' homes and offices with high-speed Internet," he added.