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Hedge Fund Successfully Pressures FairPoint Communications to Sell Itself

fairpoint greedAn activist group of shareholders led by a hedge fund has successfully pressured executives at FairPoint Communications to sell the company to maximize shareholder value.

The buyer, Illinois-based Consolidated Communications Holdings, Inc., said on Monday it would acquire FairPoint in an all-stock deal worth $1.5 billion, debt included.

The buyout will enrich certain shareholders and hedge funds, including Maglan Capital’s David Tawil and Steven Azarbad, who blasted FairPoint CEO Paul Sunu in a letter sent earlier this summer complaining “shareholders have been extremely patient with the company’s operational turnaround and have suffered because the board has not been vigilant in protecting shareholder value.”

Maglan will cash out its investment initially made after FairPoint went bankrupt, when the share price was below $4. As of 4pm this afternoon, FairPoint stock was trading at $18.85 a share, less than the $23 a share and 75% premium Tawil and Azarbad were hoping for back in August. But they will still walk away earners, selling at around $18 a share plus an additional 17.3% premium. Collectively, the two hedge fund managers control 7.6% of FairPoint’s shares.

consolidated-communications-logoConsolidated Communications will inherit residential FairPoint phone and broadband customers in 17 states, most notably those in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont. But press releases from Consolidated showed little interest in the residential telecommunications business. Instead, Consolidated executives are looking at FairPoint’s business and enterprise customers, and the benefits of owning FairPoint’s 17,000 fiber route mile network.

Critics suggest the deal effectively enriches shareholders while putting FairPoint’s existing debt and buyout on the new owner’s credit card. Consolidated will inherit $887 million of FairPoint’s current debt plus the $1.5 billion cost of the acquisition.

The combined company will keep the Consolidated Communications name and FairPoint Communications as a brand will eventually disappear if regulators approve the transaction sometime in 2017.

Consolidated Communications currently serves residential phone customers in:

  • Suburban/Exurban Sacramento, Calif.
  • Fargo, N.D.
  • Mankato, Minn.
  • West Des Moines, Ia.
  • Suburban Kansas City, Kan.
  • Mattoon, Ill.
  • Lufkin, Conroe, and Katy, Tex.
  • Suburban Pittsburgh, Pa.
FairPoint workers on strike in the fall of 2014. (Image: Labor Notes)

FairPoint workers on strike in the fall of 2014. (Image: Labor Notes)

FairPoint customers and state regulators in New England expressed concern about the transaction. After FairPoint acquired landlines formerly owned by Verizon Communications a decade ago, the transition was described as “disastrous” by regulators, who received scores of complaints about service and billing problems before FairPoint ultimately declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy, mired in debt.

After emerging from bankruptcy, FairPoint has endured union strikes and was assessed multiple fines for failing to meet service quality standards in Maine.

“The last time these assets were sold to FairPoint it was a disastrous outcome for Maine customers,” says Tim Schneider, Maine’s Public Advocate, who represents consumers on utility matters.

Schneider told Maine Public Radio he is planning to scrutinize the deal to prevent further problems, but customers in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont are already expressing concern regulators are just as likely to rubber stamp this sale just like the last one, further saddling them with problematic service.

The owners of Maglan Capital are pleased with themselves, tweeting out this is a “December to Remember.”

Trump’s Short List for FCC Chairman Contains Industry Insider Who Questions Need for FCC

robber-barons

Making America Great for Robber Barons Again

The president-elect’s choice for chairing the Federal Communications Commission may conclude there is little reason to even have a regulatory agency for telecommunications.

Donald Trump has gone farther to the right than any president-elect in modern history, at least in how he has chosen to staff his transition team. Having a place on that team is traditionally seen as a fast track to getting a plum cabinet position or leadership role in Washington’s bureaucracy, and Mr. Trump’s choices for overseeing tech and telecom policy have more in common with Ayn Rand than Ralph Nader.

Two of the top picks for his FCC transition team are true believers in the “laissez-faire/the free market always knows best” camp, but both have also been on the payroll of Big Telecom companies that believe special favors are perfectly acceptable.

The notorious D.C. revolving doorman Jeffrey Eisenach, now a leading contender for the next chairman of the FCC, is a man with so many hats that the New York Times published an exposé on him, noting it has become hard to tell whether Eisenach’s views are his own, those of his friends at the corporate-friendly American Enterprise Institute (AEI), or those of various telecom companies like Verizon that have had him on the payroll.

Eisenach has been heavily criticized for his especially close ties to telecom companies, fronting their positions at various Washington events often under the cover of his role as a “think tank scholar” at AEI. Eisenach despises Net Neutrality with a passion, and has used every opportunity to attack the open internet protection policies as overregulation. At the same time, Eisenach’s consulting firm was also doing work on behalf of the cellular telephone industry, including Verizon and other cell companies.

Eisenach is exceptionally casual about disclosing any paid financial ties, and has received criticism for it. His prominence as a member of the Trump transition team is therefore curious, considering incoming vice president Mike Pence has tried to clean the transition team of lobbyists.

Eisenach

Eisenach

Trump’s other leading contender is Mark Jamison, a former lobbyist for Sprint who now works for AEI. Jamison has received less attention and scrutiny from the telecommunications press, but in some cases his views, well-represented on his blog, are even more extreme than those of Mr. Eisenach.

In a 2013 report to the Florida Public Service Commission, Jamison looked down on consumer involvement in creating and enforcing telecom regulations:

Does customer involvement in regulation improve outcomes? Not always, according to PURC Director Mark Jamison. Speaking at the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission annual conference in Brisbane, Australia, Dr. Jamison explained that the key question is, “Who do we expect to change when regulators and customers engage?” Most discussion on customer engagement is about customers informing regulators about customer preferences and utility practices. Learning by regulators is important, but so are the building legitimacy, ensuring regulator integrity, and engaging in adaptive learning that are largely about changing customers. An over emphasis on changing regulators can result in pandering to current norms, which hinders institutional strengthening and adaptive work.

In that same report, Jamison echoed some of the same sentiments he has made on his blog, questioning the wisdom of regulating telecommunications policies, providing subsidies to ensure affordable telephone service (Lifeline), subsidizing rural broadband expansion, and maintaining the core concept of universal service, which means assuring every American that wants utility service can affordably get it.

Jamison even questioned the need for the FCC in its current form, particularly overseeing rate regulation, fair competition, and enforcing rules that overturn the telecom industry’s cartel-like agreement on mandated set-top boxes (and rental fees), Net Neutrality and interconnection agreements and fees, and consumer protection:

Most of the original motivations for having an FCC have gone away. Telecommunications network providers and ISPs are rarely, if ever, monopolies. If there are instances where there are monopolies, it would seem overkill to have an entire federal agency dedicated to ex ante regulation of their services. A well-functioning Federal Trade Commission (FTC), in conjunction with state authorities, can handle consumer protection and anticompetitive conduct issues.

Content on the web competes well with content provided by broadcasters, seeming to eliminate any need for FCC oversight of broadcasters. Perhaps there is need for rules for use of the airwaves during times of emergency, but that can be handled without regulating the content providers themselves.

The only FCC activity that would seem to warrant having an independent agency is the licensing of radio spectrum. Political interference in spectrum licenses would at least dampen investment and could lead to rampant corruption in the form of valuable spectrum space being effectively handed out to political cronies.

Jamison

Jamison

Jamison’s theories are interesting, but in the real world they are impractical and frankly untrue. Readers of Stop the Cap! have long witnessed the impact of the insufficiently competitive telecom marketplace — higher broadband fees, data caps, and relentlessly terrible customer service. The costs to provide service have declined, but prices continue to rise. For many consumers, there is barely a duopoly for telecom services with cable companies taking runaway victory laps for providing 21st century broadband speeds while an area’s phone company continues to try to compete with underinvested DSL. The FTC has been a no-show on every important telecom issues of our time, in part because the industry got itself deregulated, leaving oversight options very limited.

It wasn’t the FTC that halted AT&T’s attempted buyout of T-Mobile and Comcast didn’t lose its struggle to acquire Time Warner Cable because of the FTC either. Pushback from the FCC and Department of Justice proved to be the only brakes on an otherwise consolidation-crazed telecom sector.

Oversight of broadcasting remains important because unlike private networks, the airwaves are a publicly owned resource used for the good of the American people. Jamison would abandon what little is left of regulations that required broadcasters to serve the public interest, not just private profit motives. Programming content is not the only matter of importance. Who gets a license to run a television or radio station matters, and so does the careful coordination of spectrum. It is ironic Jamison theorizes that a lack of regulation (of spectrum) would lead to political interference, rampant corruption, and cronyism. Anyone who has followed our experiences dealing with many state regulatory bodies and elected officials over telecom mergers and data caps can already use those words to describe what has happened since near-total deregulation policies have been enacted.

Public and private broadband competitors like local communities and Google have been harassed, stymied, and delayed by organized interference coordinated by incumbent telecom companies. Allowing them off the leash, as Jamison advocates, would only further entrench these companies. We have a long history in the United States dealing with unfettered monopoly powers and trusts. Vital infrastructure and manufacturing sectors were once held captive by a handful of industrialists and robber barons, and consumers paid dearly while those at the top got fabulously rich. Their wealth and power grew so vast and enduring, we are still familiar with their names even today — Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Morgan, Schwab, Mellon, Duke, and Carnegie, just to name a few.

Jamison wrote a blog entry mapping out how to ultimately destroy the effectiveness of the FCC:

  • Take direction from politicians,
  • Promote partisan divides,
  • Change the language in orders after the FCC votes,
  • Ignore the facts, or at least manipulate them.

Jamison intended to argue that represented the current state of the Obama Administration’s FCC, but it is just as easy to ponder what comes after the Trump-lit bonfire of burned regulations and oversight, leaving only Big Telecom companies and their paid mouthpieces to manipulate the facts.

Jamison also undercuts his own argument in two other ways: first by declaring Michael Powell one of the great FCC chairmen of the modern era (after leaving the FCC he became president of the country’s biggest cable industry lobbying group) and second by relying extensively on quoting people with direct and undisclosed financial ties to the telecom companies that will directly benefit from implementing Jamison’s world views.

New York Times: In a 2014 email, Mr. Eisenach encouraged Michael O’Rielly, a Republican F.C.C. commissioner, to use an American Enterprise Institute event to “lay out the case against” internet regulations.

New York Times: In a 2014 email, Mr. Eisenach encouraged Michael O’Rielly, a Republican FCC commissioner, to use an American Enterprise Institute event to “lay out the case against” internet regulations.

Who doesn’t ultimately matter much in this debate, according to Jamison, are customers and consumers, whose input in these discussions is dismissed as either trendy or misinformed. No similar conclusions are forthcoming from Mr. Jamison about the influence and misinformation emanating from huge telecommunications companies that keep more than a few of his self-interested sources in comfortable suburban Virginia homes, driving their nice cars to and from the offices of shadowy think tanks that receive direct corporate funding or go out of their way to hide their benefactors.

Appointing either Mr. Eisenach or Mr. Jamison to the Federal Communications Commission would be the ultimate rubber stamping of business as usual in Washington, exactly what Donald Trump ran against. That may make Verizon or Comcast “great again,” but it certainly won’t help the rest of the country.

Alaska’s Telecom Companies Will Waste $365 Million in Taxpayer Funds Building Duplicate 4G Networks

A new fiber provider is expected to vastly expand Alaska's internet backbone, but there are not enough middle mile networks to allow all Alaskans to benefit.

Quintillion, a new underseas fiber provider, is expected to vastly expand Alaska’s internet backbone, but there are not enough terrestrial middle mile networks to allow all Alaskans to benefit.

A federal taxpayer-funded effort to improve broadband access in rural Alaska will instead improve the bottom lines of Alaska’s telecommunications companies who helped collectively “consult” on a plan that will pay $365 million in taxpayer subsidies to companies building profitable and often redundant 4G wireless networks.

The Alaska Plan, which took effect Nov. 7, is a decade-long effort to subsidize telecom companies up to $55 million annually to encourage them to expand broadband service to 134,000 Alaskan households that get either no or very little internet service today. The Alaska Telephone Association (ATA) — an industry trade association and lobbying group, claims if the plan is successful, only 758 Alaskans will still be waiting for broadband by the year 2026.

But critics of the plan claim taxpayers will give millions to help subsidize private telecom companies that have plans to spend much of the money on redundant, highly profitable 4G wireless data networks that will cost most Alaskans large sums of money to access.

One company — AT&T, which refused to participate in the plan, is still taken care of by the plan, receiving $15.8 million dollars from taxpayers for doing absolutely nothing to improve broadband service in Alaska. The plan directs the money to AT&T to provide phase-down, high-cost support, which drew a sharp rebuke from Republican FCC commissioner Ajit Pai, who questioned why taxpayers had to subsidize AT&T for anything.

“The order claims this a ‘reasonable’ accommodation but cannot explain why the nation’s second largest wireless carrier needs ‘additional transition time to reduce any disruptions,’” Pai wrote.

quintillionThe biggest weakness of the plan, according to its critics, is its lack of support for middle-mile networks — wired infrastructure that connects providers to a statewide broadband backbone that can manage traffic needs without having to turn to slow-speed satellite connectivity. One of Alaska’s biggest challenges is finding low-cost connectivity with Canada and the lower-48 states. Much of the state relies heavily on GCI’s still-expanding TERRA network, which provides fiber as well as microwave connectivity to 72 towns and villages in rural Alaska. Quintillion, a new player, is working on stretching fiber connectivity through the Northwest Passage. Its forthcoming 30 terabit capacity fiber network offers the possibility of dramatically lower broadband rates and no more data caps, assuming providers have the network capacity to connect their service areas and the nearest fiber access point.

Instead of subsidizing the development of middle mile networks for this purpose, the authors of The Alaska Plan have instead favored wireless connectivity, including the very lucrative 4G wireless networks cellular providers want to expand. By definition, the broadband plan accommodates the limitations of wireless by easing broadband speed requirements for providers. To earn a subsidy, providers need not offer the FCC’s minimum speed to qualify as broadband — 25Mbps.

gciInstead, the ATA managed to convince regulators that 10/1Mbps service was good enough — speed that can be achieved by the DSL service phone companies favor. This is well below Alaska’s Broadband Task Force goal of 100Mbps for every state resident by 2020. Another free pass built into the plan is allowing providers to collect subsidies even when they do not offer 10Mbps because of network limitations, including lack of suitable middle mile networks. In those cases, the only speed requirement is 1Mbps download speeds and 256kbps uploads, the same as satellite broadband providers.

Commissioner Pai complained those are broadband speeds reminiscent of the internet a decade ago and hardly represents a vision for a faster future.

In a rare moment of bipartisanship at a divided FCC, Commissioner Mignon Clyburn joined Commissioner Pai dissenting from Alaska’s plan.

“It is clear that Alaska’s ‘majestic geography’ makes deployment difficult, but without affordable middle-mile connectivity, high-cost program support spent on the last mile does little to improve communications service to Alaskans,” Clyburn wrote. “Commissioner Pai and I supported an approach that would have taken the $35 million a year in duplicative universal service money and use[d] it to support a middle-mile mechanism that would enable many Alaskans in the Bush to receive broadband for the very first time. The status quo is simply not good enough, and the cost of doing nothing is far too high.”

Pai

Pai

Both Clyburn and Pai also complained federal tax dollars will be used to build duplicative 4G wireless networks that will primarily benefit providers. From Commissioner Clyburn’s statement:

We do not subsidize competition. We do not provide duplicative high-cost support to carriers in the same area and we do not subsidize carriers where other unsubsidized carriers are providing service. That underlying principle should be applied here as well. With Alaska’s “sublime scale,” we should instead be directing support to areas that are unserved, not subsidizing competition in areas that already receive mobile service. And just what is the cost to the American consumer of continuing to support overlap in these areas? About $35 million a year!

The companies benefiting from federal tax subsidies include: ASTAC, Copper Valley Wireless, Cordova Wireless, GCI, OTZ Wireless, which covers Northwest Alaska, TelAlaska Cellular, covering Interior and Northwest Alaska, and Windy City Cellular, covering Adak.

Clyburn

Clyburn

Pai called many of the spending priorities a waste of money that will still leave 21,000 Alaskans without 4G LTE broadband and another 46,000 without 25Mbps fixed broadband:

All together these wasted payments total $365 million, or about one quarter of the total Alaska Plan pot. That’s $365 million that could be used to link off-road communities to urban Alaska as requested by the Alaska Federation of Natives, the Bering Straits Native Corporation, the Chugachmiut rural healthcare organization, and many others. That $365 million is more than eight times the $44 million grant from the Broadband Initiatives Program that launched the TERRA Southwest middle-mile network that connected 65 off-road communities in 2011.

With the federal government now pouring federal tax dollars into Alaskan broadband, the state government has been using that as an opportunity to slash state investments in internet access.

A bill from Rep. Neal Foster (D-Nome) to upgrade all rural school districts to 10Mbps broadband for $6.2 million died in committee without any hearings, according to the Alaska Commons. State Rep. Lynn Gattis (R-Wasilla) proposed killing a $5 million broadband grant to schools, and the House Education subcommittee also recommended eliminating the Online with Libraries (OWL) program. Both programs ultimately survived, but not before the state legislature significantly cut the budgets of both programs.

Guttenberg

Guttenberg

State Rep. David Guttenberg (D-Fairbanks) hopes the results from last week’s election in Alaska will allow him to position stronger broadband-related legislation in the state legislature.

Guttenberg wants to reinstate a long-cut Broadband Task Force and Working Group while also creating a public Broadband Development Corporation that would build and own middle mile broadband infrastructure and sell it to telecommunications companies that have refused to build those types of networks on their own.

A lot of members of the ATA are lining up in opposition, the newspaper notes, because they won’t directly own the infrastructure. Guttenberg’s view is that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of deep-pocketed telecom companies.

“If you want to build a strong state, if you want to build a strong community, we need to start putting those pieces together,” Guttenberg said of broadband infrastructure last year. “If you give a kid a laptop or a pad in a school district, it’s pointless if he can’t get online.”

Frontier’s Follies: Company Blames Marketing, On-Shoring Call Centers for Customer Flight

Road to nowhere?

Road to nowhere?

Frontier Communications has lost more than 150,000 customers in the last six months as company executives blamed bad marketing and the on-shoring of call centers that formerly supported Verizon customers in Texas, California, and Florida.

Some 99,000 customers dropped Frontier service in the last three months, and another 77,000 departed during the three months before that. In addition to losing customers, Frontier saw a net loss of $80 million in its third quarter, up from a the $14 million the company lost during the same quarter a year ago.

A clearly distraught Dan McCarthy, Frontier’s CEO, knew he was in for a pummeling from Wall Street analysts on a conference call with investors on Tuesday.

“I wanted to assure you, that I’m focused on addressing and resolving the issues hindering our performance,” McCarthy said. “I’m fully aware that the third quarter results underscore the urgent need for our expanded business to perform at the higher level, where I know it can and should. And you have my personal commitment that we will do so.”

Frontier lost $52 million in revenue in the last three months in part because of its disastrous transition of former Verizon customers in California, Texas, and Florida and because a growing number of broadband users have realized Frontier’s endless promises of better service have rarely come to fruition and those customers chose other providers.

“This decline is unacceptable and reflects a level of performance, [and] I’m committed to change it,” McCarthy promised.

Unfortunately for customers and investors, that “change” is primarily rearranging the deck chairs with a haphazard, and likely soon-to-be-an-afterthought “reorganization,” and the usual treatment prescribed when executives fail to deliver Wall Street the results they expect: big layoffs of employees that had nothing to do with Frontier’s problems and have in fact been warning the company about some of their more boneheaded moves. The idea for quick layoffs may have come from Frontier’s newest chief financial officer R. Perley McBride, a pick McCarthy said will be “laser focused” on cost management. That’s code for cost-cutting, not exactly the best idea for a company that has shown a near-constant aversion to investing adequately in its network and on necessary broadband upgrades.

Analysts didn’t seem to be terribly interested in Mr. McCarthy’s grand reorganization plan either, detailed in this veritable word salad:

Let me also highlight that today, we announced a new customer-focused organizational structure, and the creation of commercial and consumer business units. This change is designed to improve our execution and operational effectiveness, increases spans of control in the organization and makes us more nimble, while at the same time eliminating duplicative costs associated with our former structure. In the first month of operating our new properties, it became apparent that this change was necessary.

McCarthy

McCarthy

Some investors pondered if these operational problems were all so readily identifiable and apparent, why didn’t Mr. McCarthy carry out changes after assuming leadership of the company more than a year ago.

McCarthy’s realization that big changes were needed is not what he was telling investors in May, when he was downplaying the impact of the Verizon customer cutover as affecting less than 1% of customers and wasn’t material. That level of happy talk puts McCarthy dangerously close to Wells Fargo territory, where a few million fake bank accounts weren’t material either.

McCarthy loves to use catchphrases to minimize the problems experienced at Frontier, as well as countering any negative developments with aspirational talk about the future.

For example, Frontier’s decision not to carefully scrutinize customer data provided by Verizon before cutting over customers to Frontier’s systems, leaving many without service for days to weeks was the result of “imperfect data extracts and network complexities” according to McCarthy. That cost Frontier plenty as the company issued bill credits to potentially tens of thousands of customers left without service because of ‘imperfections.’ Many just decided to leave and never looked back.

In May, McCarthy told investors “After a month of operating these properties, we are very pleased with the progress we have made, and we want to thank customers for their patience during the transition period. The entire Frontier team remains focused on cultivating growth by retaining and attracting new customers. We will continue to drive Frontier’s performance to maintain free cash flow that provides an attractive and sustainable dividend payout ratio.”

Not so much anymore. This week, McCarthy hit the red alert button and suddenly declared an urgent need for a major reorganization, oddly pegging Frontier’s problems partly on organizational inefficiencies:

“Historically, Frontier was organized around a regional structure, each one of the regions had its own resources that included marketing, finance, engineering, human resources. And in doing that, we – when we were a much smaller entity, it really did serve us well at that point in time. The more we looked at it today, the less differences there are in a lot of the markets and the way we’re going to market whether it’s around a Vantage product or it’s around FiOS or it’s around next-generation broadband products. So, when we looked at it, we did a really a trade-off on it, so we’ve essentially eliminated all of that redundancy in the organization.”

The unemployment line is in the future for 1,000 Frontier employees.

The unemployment line is in the future for 1,000 Frontier employees.

So what is the “redundancy” Frontier claims it has essentially eliminated? The forthcoming layoffs of 1,000 employees nationwide which Frontier management believes will make things much better for customers, at least according to McCarthy:

The impact is approximately 1,000 individuals that will be leaving the organization, and that translates directly into cost savings. And the nice part about it too is that the enhanced focus on commercial as well as consumer and Frontier has historically been a very consumer-focused organization. We’ve done well on the commercial side, but I really believe we can do much better with more focus, more attention and really putting the resources on those opportunities and making it, that’s what they do every day when they get up and they come to work, all they’re trying to do is grow the commercial revenue base.

So that’s really what we’ve done. It does change the focus on the field operations to really be engaged with the community as well as providing excellent service to customers and being that bridge, but really sales for both consumer and commercial are more centralized in a way that we can apply better resources and do it in a more efficient manner.

analysisSo Frontier plans to become more engaged with the community and deliver better service locally by… getting rid of 1,000 local employees and centralizing its resources somewhere else, probably in another state. The cherry on top? Frontier also implemented a rate hike for customers to enjoy.

McCarthy claimed Frontier has been a “very consumer-focused organization,” which seems hard to believe considering how many customers are saying goodbye to Frontier for good. He also implied customer sales are down because Frontier hasn’t effectively used their call center employees to sell service and Frontier alienated customers by moving those call centers from overseas back to the United States. Really?

The executive team at Frontier shrugs off further evidence of deepening customer dissatisfaction by ignoring customer losses in their “legacy” service areas — Frontier territories served by copper yesterday, today, and probably tomorrow. But ignoring problems is nothing new at Frontier:

  • It’s not a problem that customers cannot order Frontier products and services on its website because of managerial ineptitude.
  • It’s not a problem that customers are still stuck with 1-6Mbps copper-based DSL from Frontier while their cable competitor offers 200Mbps or more.
  • It’s not a problem that several years after assuming control over almost all landlines in West Virginia, Frontier has only accomplished broadband speed upgrades for 23% of customers stuck in Frontier’s broadband molasses, and only after the company settled with the West Virginia Attorney’s General office in December 2015. For the record, that amounts to 6,320 customers. Don’t break a sweat there. Frontier’s performance in West Virginia has been so abysmal, the settlement between the state and the company represents the largest, independently negotiated consumer protection settlement in West Virginia history, which extends back to June 20, 1863.
  • It’s not a problem that customers in Connecticut are still plagued by aftershocks from the tumultuous transfer from AT&T to Frontier in October 2014. On Oct. 19, 2016 countless DSL customers were reminded of that transition when they suffered another multi-hour outage and to add insult to injury, Frontier decided the time was also right to raise rates $4 a month for its Vantage TV service, which caused another round of customer cancellations.

McCarthy called the operational reorganization a “bridge” between field operations and providing excellent service to customers. We call it just another bridge to nowhere.

We’ve written for years that Frontier’s real problem isn’t cost management, organizational structure, or where it places employees and call centers. The real elephant in the room is that Frontier’s broadband service is terrible, especially where Frontier built the network all by itself or acquired it from another phone company decades earlier.

We are convinced Frontier’s management understands this, and so do many investors, but they just don’t care. One summed up the Frontier story this way:

So Frontier buys the whole wireline shooting match in one geographic area after another (labor force, wires, customers, DSL, even FIOS) paid for with billions in junk bond proceeds. Looking at an asset base that is disappearing before their eyes, the game is to squeeze as much out of it as possible before it crumbles completely. Minimum possible maintenance, minimum possible [investment], minimum possible headcount, and less every year.

From an investor’s standpoint, the key question is to figure out when the final collapse is going to take place.

Frontier's "High Speed" Fantasies extend back to 2010 when former CEO Maggie Wilderotter was telling customers Frontier was loaded with fiber.

Frontier’s “High Speed” fantasies extend back to 2010 when former CEO Maggie Wilderotter was telling customers Frontier was loaded with fiber.

When Rochester Telephone rebranded itself Frontier Communications in the 1990s, it did so looking forward to the future. The Frontier Communications experience of today is like immersing oneself in the History Channel. Nearly everything about Frontier these days is about the past and a promised future that never seems to arrive. Everything surrounds a legacy network still almost entirely dependent on last-century DSL for residential customers and various acquired networks from Verizon and AT&T mismanaged at conversion, forcing customers to clean up after Frontier’s repeated mistakes.

In legacy service areas where little has changed over the last decade, the four words that come to mind are “too little, too late” as customers make one last call to permanently drop service despite promises faster speeds are coming soon.

Too little investment in suitable broadband: Frontier dwells on its dividend payout to shareholders while customers languish with internet speeds that do not come close to the FCC’s definition of broadband. Instead of spending billions acquiring Verizon’s throwaway service areas, invest that money in your network and offer truly competitive 21st century broadband service.

Too late to matter: Frontier’s commitments to broadband upgrades happen too slowly and for too few customers. Much of Frontier’s state-of-the-art networks were built by other companies and simply acquired by Frontier, which now provides sleepy caretaker service. When people think Frontier Communications, they sure don’t think of words like “modern” and “innovative” and “excellence.” They think “yesterday,” “out of service,” and “slow.” There is a good reason why cable operators eat Frontier’s market share. People don’t love the cable company more than Frontier, but at least they are no longer stuck with broadband speeds that were common during the latter half of the Clinton Administration.

You’re a communications company, not the Geek Squad: While Frontier fritters away their customer base, those remaining are literally assaulted with promotions for dubious value services like tech support, virus protection, and cloud storage backup. There is a reason other phone and cable companies have not followed Frontier’s lead on emphasizing these services. They don’t matter to most customers and many of those who do have them are surprised when they find them on their phone bill because they don’t remember signing up. Sell reliable and fast phone, broadband, and video service, not gimmicks.

It is unfortunate another 1,000 Frontier employees are about to pay for the mistakes made at the top. Until that changes, customers would do well to consider their options and act accordingly. If reporting by The Hour is any indication, customers shouldn’t hold their breath. Frontier is still looking out for their most important asset: their shareholders.

If Frontier’s customer relations remain a work in progress, so does McCarthy’s job convincing investors to see the promise of his plan and that of his CEO predecessor Maggie Wilderotter to create a national broadband company from territories AT&T and Verizon have been willing to cast aside. Since closing at $6.54 on Oct. 31, 2014, on the eve of the switch [in Connecticut], two years later Frontier shares have hovered for the most part just above the $4 threshold.

With a new chief financial officer in place in former Frontier executive Perley McBride, McCarthy promised to get Frontier on track from an investor perspective, even as the company works to get its customer relations on an even keel.

Google Fiber’s CEO Out of a Job; Fiber Expansion on Hold Indefinitely in Many Cities

Down the rabbit hole

Down the rabbit hole

Google has quietly announced an indefinite suspension of further fiber expansion as it prepares to downsize fiber division employees and re-evaluate its fiber business model.

In a blog post tonight from Craig Barratt, senior vice president of Alphabet and CEO of Google’s Access division, it becomes clear Google is rethinking its entire fiber strategy and is likely moving towards fixed wireless technology going forward:

Now, just as any competitive business must, we have to continue not only to grow, but also stay ahead of the curve — pushing the boundaries of technology, business, and policy — to remain a leader in delivering superfast Internet. We have refined our plan going forward to achieve these objectives. It entails us making changes to focus our business and product strategy. Importantly, the plan enhances our focus on new technology and deployment methods to make superfast Internet more abundant than it is today.

Barratt outlines the immediate implications of Google’s dramatic shift:

  • In the cities where we’ve launched or are under construction, our work will continue;
  • For most of our “potential Fiber cities” — those where we’ve been in exploratory discussions — we’re going to pause our operations and offices while we refine our approaches. In this handful of cities that are still in an exploratory stage, and in certain related areas of our supporting operations, we’ll be reducing our employee base.
Barratt

Barratt

Barratt himself is jumping ship (or was pushed). He announced in his blog entry he is “stepping away” from his CEO role, but will remain as an “adviser.”

Observing Google’s recent fiber efforts and acquisitions, it seems clear Google no longer thinks fiber-to-the-home service is an economically viable solution in light of competitors like AT&T rolling out increasing amounts of fiber and the cable industry is on the cusp of launching DOCSIS 3.1, which will dramatically boost internet speeds without a substantial capital investment.

Google’s investors have been lukewarm about the company’s economic commitments relating to its fiber broadband networks. Often built from the ground up, Google’s fiber construction complexities also include trying to navigate costly roadblocks established by their competitors (notably Comcast and AT&T), dealing with bureaucracies and red tape even in states where near-total-deregulation was supposed to make competition easy. Google Fiber has also not proved to be a runaway economic success, and now faces more challenges in light of upgrades from their competitors. Cable companies have slashed prices for customers threatening to cancel and have added free services or upgrades to persuade customers to stay, and Google’s proposition of selling consumers $70 gigabit access has proved tougher than expected.

It is highly likely the future of Google’s Access business will be deploying wireless broadband solutions powered by Webpass, a company Google acquired earlier this year. Webpass uses a high-speed point to point wireless transmission system the company claims can deliver gigabit broadband access to customers in multi-dwelling buildings and other urban areas. Webpass sells access for $60 a month (discounted to $550/yr if paid in advance) for 100Mbps-1,000Mbps speed depending on network density and capacity in the customer’s building. So far, Webpass has not been able to guarantee speed levels, and some customers report significant variability depending on their location and network demand.

Webpass’ wireless infrastructure costs a fraction of what Google has coped with building fiber to the home networks, and the installation of point-to-point wireless antennas on participating buildings has been less of a regulatory nightmare than digging up streets and yards to lay optical fiber.

webpassBut despite Webpass’ claim its performance is comparable to fiber, its inability to guarantee customers a certain speed level and its tremendous performance variability from 100 to 1,000Mbps exposes one of the weaknesses of fixed wireless networks. At a time when capacity is king, only fiber optic networks have shown a consistent ability to deliver synchronous broadband speeds that do not suffer the variability of shared networks, poor antenna placement/signal levels, or harmful interference.

There is room for wireless technology to grow and develop, as evidenced by the wireless industry’s excitement surrounding future 5G networks and their ability to offer a home broadband replacement. The emergence of 5G competition is almost certainly also a factor in Google’s decision. But even AT&T and Verizon acknowledge a robust 5G network will require a robust fiber backhaul network to support both speed and user demand. The more users sharing a network, the slower the speed for all users. No doubt Webpass has made the same assumption that cable operators did in the early days of DOCSIS 1 — current internet applications won’t tax a network enough to create a traffic logjam that would be noticed by most customers. The phone companies also learned a similar lesson trying to serve too many DSL customers from inadequate middle mile networks or traffic concentration points. (Some phone companies are still learning.)

Whether it was yesterday’s peer-to-peer file sharing or today’s online video, capacity matters. That is why fiber broadband remains the gold standard of broadband technology. Fiber is infinitely upgradable, reliable, and robust. Wireless is not, at least not yet. But technology arguments rarely matter at publicly-traded corporations that answer to Wall Street and investors, and it appears Google’s backers have had enough of Google Fiber.

Stop the Cap!’s View

tollAt Stop the Cap!, we believe these developments further the argument broadband is an essential utility best administered for the public good and not solely as a profit-motivated venture. The path to fiber to the home service in rural, suburban, and urban communities has and will continue to come from a mix of private and public utilities, just as local public and private gas and electric companies have served this country for the last century. Where there is a business model for fiber to the home service that investors support, there is a for-profit fiber provider. Where there isn’t, now there is often no service at all. So far, the FCC in conjunction with Congress has seen fit to solve broadband availability problems by bribing private providers into offering service (usually low-speed DSL that does not even meet the FCC’s definition of broadband) with cash subsidies, tax write-offs, or occasional tax abatement schemes. Imagine if we followed that model with the nation’s public roads and highways. We would today be paying tolls or a subscription to travel down roads built and owned by a private company often financed by tax dollars.

Not every product or service needs to earn Wall Street-sized profits. Nobody needs to get rich selling water, gas, and electricity… or broadband. Public broadband networks can and should be established wherever they are needed, and they should be priced to recover their costs as well as expenses that come from support, billing, and ongoing upgrades. Naysayers like to claim municipal broadband is socialism run wild or an instant economic failure, yet the same model has provided Americans with reliable and affordable gas, electricity, and clean water for over 100 years.

Maine was made for municipal broadband.

Maine was made for municipal broadband.

In New York, publicly owned/municipal utilities often charge a fraction of the price charged by investor-owned utilities. In Rochester, where Stop the Cap! is headquartered, one need only ask a utility customer if they would prefer to pay the prices charged by for-profit Rochester Gas & Electric or live in a suburb where a municipal provider like Fairport Electric or Spencerport Electric offers service. RG&E has charged customers well over 10¢ a kilowatt-hour when demand peaks (along with a minimum connection charge of over $21/mo and a “bill issuance charge” of 72¢/mo). Spencerport Electric charges 2.9¢ a kilowatt-hour and a connection charge of $2.66 a month, and they issue their bills for free. There is a reason real estate listings entice potential buyers by promoting the availability of municipal utility service. The same has proven true with fiber-to-the-home broadband service.

The economic arguments predicting doom and gloom are far more wrong than right. Municipal utilities are often best positioned to offer broadband because they already have experience providing reliable service and billing and answer to the needs of their local communities. Incompetence is not an option when providing reliable clean water or electricity to millions of homes and customers have rated their public utilities far superior to private phone or cable companies.

Google’s wireless future may prove a success, but probably only in densely populated urban areas where a point-to-point wireless network can run efficiently and profitably. It offers no solution to suburban, exurban, or rural Americans still waiting for passable internet access. Clearly, Google is not the “free market” solution to America’s pervasive rural broadband problem. It’s time to redouble our efforts for public broadband solutions that don’t need a seal of approval from J.P. Morgan or Goldman Sachs.

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