GCI mobile customers in Bethel demand answers after weeks of call issues

a wireless tower
GCI’s wireless tower at Watson’s Corner in Bethel is seen on June 27, 2023. (Evan Erickson/KYUK)

Following a weeks-long interruption that affected incoming calls for an unknown number of GCI mobile customers across Alaska, the telecommunications company says the issue has been resolved.

Customers say the issue seemed to involve incoming calls to GCI mobile numbers. The incoming caller would hear ringing, get a generic voicemail box message and be able to leave a message, but the call never showed up on the call log of the GCI phone, and the voicemails were never delivered. It left incoming callers thinking they were being ignored, and the GCI customers in the dark they’d even missed a call at all.

Customers are demanding answers.

GCI puts the blame on cellular provider AT&T.

In an email statement on Friday, GCI wrote that customers had experienced an issue impacting their ability to receive calls from AT&T phones, and that the problem had been “resolved by AT&T Thursday afternoon.”

The same day, an AT&T spokesperson also confirmed by email that the issue had been resolved, but said the problem had been caused by an unnamed third party.

Dozens of GCI customers in Bethel recently took to social media to call out the company for what they say has been a total lack of transparency over recent weeks.

Pilot Nate DeHaan runs a small charter air service with his wife in Bethel that relies on GCI mobile phones for day-to-day operations. He said his inability to receive calls from non-GCI phones significantly impacted his business.

“The first time we experienced an issue with a customer trying to get a hold of us was the first week of April,” DeHaan said. “At the time, I assumed it was an issue on the caller’s end, because they claimed to have called and have left a voicemail, and we had no missed call, no voicemail. So I had no idea what the issue was. I didn’t think much of it at the time.”

When DeHaan saw Facebook posts from other Bethel residents describing the issues he was experiencing, he began to put the pieces together. He said additional emails came from customers wondering about their unreturned calls.

“They think they’ve left you three voicemails, and you’re not getting back to them. And from a business perspective that makes you look very unprofessional,” DeHaan said.

DeHaan disputes GCI’s claims that only AT&T phones were affected, and on Friday he still wasn’t fully convinced the issue had been resolved.

“It’s hard to hear or see just basically like finger-pointing, when at the end of the day, I need my phone to work to run my business,” DeHaan said. “What I do know is that based on my experience, AT&T users, T-Mobile users, VoIP users all are having problems reaching GCI cellphones.”

Former Bethel resident Brian Berube still uses a GCI number with a Bethel prefix, but lives in Anchorage. He said he had also been unable to receive non-GCI calls for weeks.

“I got angry emails at work this week from people that have been leaving me messages on my cellphone for weeks that I haven’t been getting,” Berube said.

Berube said that after multiple requests, GCI refunded him for what they said was a three-week period when he was unable to receive the calls.

“I’ve been a fairly dissatisfied customer for 15 years, but this really takes the cake,” he said. “This has been going on for weeks. People have been complaining about it for weeks. They haven’t told us anything. To me, that’s just wrong.”

Berube said he still wants to see the company held accountable.

“I actually issued a complaint to the FCC. Super, super easy. I put a link for people to do it on that Facebook page,” he said. “And they’re required by law to follow up with me about that within 30 days.”

While the issue with receiving calls has been a hot topic of online debate for Bethel mobile users in recent weeks, it’s unclear to what extent it might be a broader phenomenon in the state. In an April 30 email, GCI confirmed it appeared to be a statewide issue, and local reports of almost identical issues have come from as far as Petersburg.

Devren Bennett owns Homeport Electronics, an IT company in Petersburg.

“Incoming calls from AT&T or from other networks that were going through AT&T were not hitting the GCI phone network,” Bennett said. “If a customer wanted to call me from their AT&T phone they would dial my number and they would either get a response on their phone saying that the number didn’t exist, or the phone would just continuously ring with no answer, or an odd voicemail would answer the phone. Nobody knows what that voicemail service was.”

Although GCI and AT&T say call issues are resolved, Bennett said he believes there are still problems with call forwarding in Petersburg, which may be a separate issue. With little information to go on, affected GCI customers are left wondering exactly how many calls they might have missed, and whether something similar might happen again.

KFSK reporter Hannah Flor contributed reporting to this story.

Editor’s Note: Brian Berube’s spouse works for KYUK, but is not involved in the newsroom or news production.

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