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California Legislature Wants to Give $300 Million of Your Money Away to AT&T, Frontier, and Big Cable

Delivering 21st century broadband speeds to rural Californians just doesn’t interest incumbent phone companies like AT&T and Frontier Communications, so the California legislature has been hard at work trying to entice upgrades on the taxpayer’s dime while reassuring ISPs they won’t have to break a sweat doing it.

Steve Blum from Telus Venture Associates reports the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF), California’s equivalent of the FCC’s Connect America Fund (CAF) – is about to get a makeover sure to delight the two phone companies while throwing some cash at cable operators like Comcast, Cox and Charter to keep them happy as well.

The changes are encompassed in Assembly Bill 1665, sponsored by Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia (D–Riverside County), who counts AT&T as his sixth biggest contributor. The phone company has cut checks to the former mayor of Coachella not less than a dozen times amounting to $16,700. Garcia has also received special attention from AT&T’s lobbyists, who invited him to appear side-by-side with AT&T officials at press-friendly events where the phone company donated $10,000 to an abused women’s shelter and $25,000 to the Court Appointed Special Advocates of Imperial County.

Blum reports that the bill has been largely a placeholder until now as negotiations and dealmaking happened behind the scenes. The result is a corporate welfare bonanza that will raise $330 million for the CASF by reinstating a telephone tax on consumers and businesses than ended last year. Of that, $300 million will end up in the pockets of phone and cable companies, $10 million will go to regional broadband efforts, and the remaining $20 million will be designated for schools, libraries, and non-profit groups to promote broadband use, but only where providers already offer service or will shortly. In effect, that $20 million will turn public institutions into sales agents for ISPs.

The corporate giveaway bill will also sell Californian consumers down the river:

  • The bill effectively replaces the FCC’s minimum definition of broadband (25/3Mbps) with California’s own minimum: 6/1Mbps — conveniently about the same speed telephone company DSL provides. As Blum writes, the language “makes 1990s legacy DSL technology the new 21st century standard.”
  • AT&T and Frontier Communications get monopoly protection with exclusive CASF rights in areas where they currently receive federal CAF funding. This means both companies will get to double-dip federal and state money to expand inferior DSL or fixed wireless service and never have to worry about taxpayer funding going to their competitors or communities that might choose to build their own superior broadband networks. It virtually guarantees rural California will be stuck with sub-standard internet access indefinitely, and at the taxpayer’s expense.
  • CASF funding has always been exclusively for infrastructure construction — building out the last mile to deliver internet access to consumers and businesses. But the new bill now allows the money to also be spent on “operating costs,” a rat hole where millions can quickly disappear with little improvement in broadband expansion or service.
  • The new bill suggests that provider contributions — where providers agree to kick in a percentage (usually 30-40%) of their own money on expansion projects in return for getting taxpayer subsidies, is just too hard on struggling phone companies like AT&T and Frontier. Under the new proposal, this requirement should be eliminated.
  • Individual homeowners would be able to apply for grants to get broadband connections, a direct nod to the state’s cable companies that routinely ask would-be customers just out of reach of the nearest cable line to pay tens of thousands of dollars to build a line extension. If approved, cable companies could set the installation price as high as the sky and get taxpayers to foot the bill, enriching themselves while avoiding any regulatory scrutiny.

Cable companies also get another wish granted — keeping subsidized broadband out the hands of many poor Californians that need connections for education, job-seeking, and training. The bill proposes to ban funding for broadband facilities in public housing. Cable companies have been irritated spending capital on broadband expansion to public housing only to find many of its customers would likely to qualify for their “internet for the poor” programs that cost as little as $10 a month.

Blum reports the language isn’t final and is likely to be amended as negotiations continue. A hearing of the Communications and Conveyance Committee at the State Capitol, Room 437 is scheduled for 1:30pm PDT today on the bill. You can listen to the hearing when in session here.

Frontier Bills Stoke Controversy Between Mille Lacs County Residents and Ojibwe Native Americans

Phillip Dampier April 19, 2017 Consumer News, Frontier, Public Policy & Gov't 1 Comment

A suspicious line item labeled “Mille Lacs Indian Res Tel Lcl Sales Tax” amounting to $0.21 that appeared on the Wahkon City Council’s latest Frontier phone bill was all it took to become a significant topic at the April 10 city council meeting.

City officials and some residents in and around the Mille Lacs County, Minn. were concerned Frontier appeared to be taxing their phone bills and giving the proceeds to a Native American tribe’s nearby reservation that surrounds the southern part of Mille Lacs Lake.

“I can appreciate that some citizens are concerned about what they’re paying. We don’t know anything, it might be a mistake,” said county administrator Pat Oman. “The county is certainly taking this seriously and wants an answer.”

Reviewing prior bills, city clerk Karrie Roeschlein told the council the “new tax” replaced one previously labeled as “Wahkon Telecom Local Sales Tax.” That tax presumably covered the county’s new 0.5% “transit sales and use tax” which took effect Jan. 1, 2017, but nobody, including Frontier Communications, appears to know for sure.

The Minnesota Department of Revenue has no idea what Frontier is doing either, telling the Mille Lacs Messenger, “the wording provided from the billing statement (Mille Lacs Indian Res Tel Lcl Sales Tax) does not correspond to any state or local tax administered by the department.”

County officials and residents are opposed to any part of their Frontier bill being paid to the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, which maintain the Mille Lacs Indian Reservation. The county paid the $0.21, under protest.

The conflict may lie with Frontier’s billing department, not the Band, however. In a written statement to the newspaper, Band officials made it clear they are not imposing any tax or collecting any revenue received from it. The money stops at Frontier’s bank account:

“The Band is not imposing additional sales tax, or any tax for that matter, on Frontier Communications’ customer accounts, nor is the Band receiving sales tax revenue related to those activities. The recent reporting of an assessment by the Band is the result of an internal bill coding issue by Frontier Communications. We understand the company is taking the appropriate steps to rectify the situation. The Band is not aware of any changes to the rules regarding sales taxes on fee or trust lands.”

Unfortunately for both sides, Frontier could not quickly determine exactly what was behind the “new tax” appearing on Frontier customers’ phone bills, but the county’s attorney, Joe Walsh, received an informal answer from Frontier claiming it was probably a mistake.

“Frontier believes this is a mis-coding caused by a third-party service provider called Core Logic,” Walsh told the newspaper. “At this time, it appears that this may have been a simple mistake of nomenclature – a misnamed tax. If that changes and there is any indication that your tax dollars are being distributed to the Mille Lacs Band, that will be taken very seriously and an appropriate joint response will be formulated.”

Frontier CEO Blames Employees for Company’s Poor Performance; Bonuses Cut, Investigations Begin

The second half of 2016 shows losses in broadband and television customers.

Frontier Communications CEO is blaming employees for the company’s deteriorating financial condition and operating performance and has allegedly dropped bonuses and merit pay increases for lower-level employees.

Sources inside Frontier Communications tell Stop the Cap! Frontier CEO Dan McCarthy notified employees in email on March 2 — one week before employees were expecting to receive their annual bonus — the company would no longer be providing bonus compensation for “lower banded management employees.”

“He implied that he too was affected but I highly doubt that is the case,” one source tells us. “We weren’t notified via a ‘Town Hall’, no conference call, no face to face with our managers, only a cowardly e-mail sent from behind a desk thousands of miles away. Keep in mind that people use that to pay house taxes, medical bills, pay off other bills, pay college tuition, etc, and a week before we were slated to get it we’re told that it isn’t coming.”

McCarthy has been on the hot seat with Wall Street for weeks after reporting yet another quarter where many of Frontier’s most profitable customers are fleeing faster than the company can replace them with new ones. McCarthy also told investors that many of Frontier’s losses in the last quarter were due to the company finally disconnecting service and writing off customers who haven’t paid their Frontier phone bills for as long as a year in acquired former Verizon territories in Florida, Texas, and California.

McCarthy

“There was certainly no suggestion that the big acquisition would pay off in the company’s Q4 earning report when subscriber counts, average revenue per residential user, and quarter-over-quarter revenue all fell,” wrote Daniel B. Kline of TMFDankline. “That has been the pattern in all three quarters since the Verizon deal closed, and while McCarthy has done an excellent job controlling expenses, his excuses for the drop in subscribers have started to sound a bit hollow.”

That effort to “control expenses” may be coming at the expense of customers that Frontier is depending on to stay in business.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman last month announced the state was reviewing Frontier’s performance in western New York. A Rochester television station has aired more than a half-dozen stories about deteriorating service quality at Frontier since last summer. After airing the first few stories, the station was inundated with hundreds of complaints about Frontier’s spotty broadband and phone service.

News10NBC (WHEC-TV) reported it can take weeks for a Frontier technician to show up on a service call. Customer service is no help and customers are not getting the services they paid to receive.

Frontier was also implicated last month in knocking a Rochester area radio station off the air. After the company first blamed the radio station’s equipment for the problem, Frontier eventually admitted its own “old infrastructure” was responsible for outages that interrupted broadcasts for hours at a time.

Frontier’s stock continues its descent.

Schneiderman has been focused on keeping New York’s ISPs honest about their speed claims and performance, but service reliability is also increasingly an issue, especially after high winds in a recent storm in western New York left nearly half of the Rochester metro area without essential utilities for several days. Infrastructure upkeep, particularly aging utility poles, is now under investigation by the state’s Public Service Commission. Early evidence revealed local utilities may have underinvested in pole maintenance for years due to cost cutting. Some utility poles in western New York are well over 50 years old, originally placed in the 1950s and 1960s. Hundreds failed in the high winds.

Frontier’s track record of blaming others for their own problems has not been well-received by employees.

“Maggie Wilderotter [former CEO of Frontier Communications] was bad but McCarthy’s leadership is erratic and catastrophic,” shares another Frontier middle management employee wishing to stay anonymous. “McCarthy was defending the regional management autonomy approach as a unique strength for Frontier last summer, now he’s declared that is inefficient and is centralizing management decisions at corporate headquarters. He was selling Wall Street on Frontier’s IPTV project in 2016 by promoting expanded service territories. Now that project is on hold and there are signs Frontier is pulling back on meaningful and long overdue broadband speed upgrades. He recently announced he was reorganizing residential and commercial sales units, something our competitors did long ago and will only disrupt things at Frontier even more. Poor customer service was the result of “on-shoring” our call centers? Not exactly. Poor training and inadequate support have left our call center employees unable to properly handle customer concerns. He also consistently downplayed how nightmarish the Verizon conversion was for our new customers in Florida, Texas, and California. It was bad planning, bad vision, and poor execution and the buck stops with our CEO.”

Another source tells us:

“We worked 60-80 weeks, late nights, weekends, countless hours away from our families to push forward with projects that were horrible for our customers and senior leadership was told to get the job done regardless any way they could. We worked through the AT&T and Verizon conversions. We performed as employees of Frontier. Who did not perform? Those making these horrible financial and planning decisions that caused major outages to former Verizon customers when they finally cut over. Some problems were so severe that many customers decided to leave.”

Frontier insiders tell us the company is on a mission to slash expenses across the board to turn in better financial results that can protect the company’s dividend payout to shareholders and, in turn, executive pay and bonuses. The company is reportedly considering allowing more employees to work from home to cut facilities costs, utilities, and maintenance expenses.

“There have been numerous resignations over this and morale is at an all-time low within the company,” a source tells us.

One of the employees sharing the latest developments reports he has turned in his resignation this month and accepted a position in middle management at the area’s cable competitor Charter Communications.

“I figure I should follow so many of our customers to a company that isn’t great, but at least makes an effort delivering what it promises.”

Frontier’s Problems Afflict Hundreds of Customers in Western N.Y.

WHEC-TV Rochester has been following problems with Frontier Communications since last summer. Until the acquisition of former Verizon customers in Texas, Florida, and California, the Rochester, N.Y. metropolitan area was considered Frontier’s largest legacy city service area. But just like in smaller rural communities, service problems have plagued Frontier, with complaints rolling in about slow or non-existent broadband, landline outages, poor billing and customer service practices, and service calls that take weeks before anyone shows up.

WHEC-TV Rochester began covering problems with Frontier on Aug. 22, 2016 with an investigation into internet woes at a Geneseo insurance agency. (2:21)

One day later (Aug. 23, 2016) complaints from other Frontier customers poured into WHEC-TV’s newsroom because of outages and bad service. (2:54)

In September, 2016 WHEC-TV was back with another story from frustrated and angry customers who can’t get suitable service from Frontier Communications, but found a $200 early termination fee on their bills when they tried to cancel. Now the Attorney General is getting involved. (3:18)

In late December, WHEC reported it had asked the N.Y. Public Service Commission to start an investigation into Frontier Communications over its broadband service. (2:20)

In February, when N.Y. Attorney General Eric Schneiderman came to town to discuss the honesty of ISP speed claims, WHEC reporter Jennifer Lewke instead questioned him about the hundreds of complaints the station had received about Frontier Communications. (3:03)

About one week after the Attorney General visited Rochester, WHEC reported Frontier Communications’ “old and outdated” equipment was directly responsible for taking a local radio station off the air for hours at a time. (1:10)

Several days after a windstorm in the Rochester area took away power to nearly half the metropolitan area, WHEC reports residents are frustrated waiting for cable and phone service to be restored. An investigation into utility infrastructure is now underway. (3:17)

Frontier Gives TV Blackout Customers in Pacific Northwest Free HBO, Showtime, and Starz

Phillip Dampier January 31, 2017 Consumer News, Frontier No Comments

Frontier Communications FiOS customers in Oregon and Washington are getting free premium movie channels to make up for the loss of two local TV stations that pulled their signals off the lineup after failing to reach a contract extension agreement.

In a rare case of provider magnanimity, Frontier is giving customers three free months of HBO, Showtime, and Starz as part of its apology for the loss of two local ABC stations: KATU-Portland and KOMO-Seattle in a retransmission consent dispute:

Frontier knows how important local programming is to you. We would like to show our appreciation for your patience during our negotiations with Sinclair Broadcasting. Existing FiOS TV customers in the Portland and Seattle markets will receive complimentary access to select premium channels (HBO, Showtime or Starz) for the next 3 months. Enjoy this gift starting today! Don’t want the channels? Call 1.800.921.8101 to have them removed.

Cable operators rarely offer customers discounts on their bill or free channels as a consolation for the channel losses, but Frontier apparently wants to set a different standard with its FiOS fiber to the home customers in the Pacific Northwest.

KATU and KOMO, both owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group, have been off the lineup since New Year’s Day. That caused subscribers in both cities to lose their local ABC stations. If customers already subscribe to one of the premium channels, they will receive a $20 credit usable for video-on-demand or pay-per-view events.

Getting KATU and KOMO over the air can be challenging for some Frontier customers in outer suburbs, so the loss of the stations could cause some customers to cancel service and switch providers.

“Frontier knows local programming is important to our customers and we are continuing to negotiate with Sinclair Broadcasting for a reasonable rate,” Frontier spokesman Javier Mendoza said in a written statement.

Frontier Refuses Refunds When Its TV Package Gets Slimmed Down By Contract Dispute

Phillip Dampier January 16, 2017 Competition, Consumer News, Editorial & Site News, Frontier 2 Comments

Frontier FiOS TV customers in the Seattle area are still paying the same price for a cable television package missing one of its most popular channels and the phone company won’t lower the bill.

Since the New Year began, a retransmission consent dispute between Frontier Communications and Sinclair Broadcast Group — the nation’s largest station group owner, has meant customers can no longer watch KOMO-TV (ABC) in Seattle on their Frontier FiOS lineup.

Daily Herald columnist Julie Muhlstein pondered if that should inspire more Washington residents to retaliate with some cord cutting of their own, especially after Frontier Communications delivered an unsympathetic response to the questions many cable customers ask when channels suddenly vanish from the lineup – why isn’t the bill going down?:

Not only is FiOS my source of TV at home, The Daily Herald has a Frontier hookup. For now, there will be no watching KOMO News or ABC on our newsroom TV.

I don’t watch “The Bachelor,” but that’s not the point. Shouldn’t all local affiliates of major commercial broadcast networks — particularly the traditional big three, ABC, CBS and NBC — be the minimum of what cable providers offer? I think so.

And if Frontier Communications offers less, shouldn’t monthly bills be reduced? I think so.

That’s not the way the business works, said Javier Mendoza, director of communications for Frontier Communications. Mendoza confirmed Tuesday that Frontier’s agreement with Sinclair Broadcast Group, Inc. has expired. Sinclair owns Seattle-based KOMO TV, the local ABC affiliate.

“FiOS occasionally changes its channel offerings. That’s covered in our customer service agreement,” Mendoza said. “Such programming package changes are part of normal business and no discounts are available.”

In other words, tough luck and no refunds. Watch something else.

Phillip Dampier: TV retransmission consent disputes will eventually cost both sides money and customers.

Frontier may be its own worst enemy deleting major network affiliates from the lineup, because for many subscribers, those are the channels that keep them subscribed to a bloated, overpriced cable television package that includes dozens of channels they will never watch. Once off the lineup, customers begin searching for alternatives, and something as simple as a good over-the-air antenna can restore free television channels that now cost many cable subscribers several dollars a month only because they travel across a wire or through a satellite dish.

Sinclair, for its part, isn’t terribly sympathetic to the consumer either, demanding an ever-increasing amount of compensation from cable and satellite providers to carry their local stations on the lineup.

Barry Faber, Sinclair’s executive vice president for distribution and network relations, says their asking price was perfectly reasonable for other providers (even though many promptly pass those fees on to consumers in the form of a ‘Broadcast TV Surcharge’). Faber implied Sinclair offered a ‘take it or leave it’ price and Frontier left it.

“They just decided they don’t want to pay that amount. That’s their decision,” Faber said. “It’s up to subscribers to decide what they want to do. If I were a subscriber, I’d think about leaving them.”

Unfortunately for Sinclair, if subscribers go back to using an antenna for television, they will effectively no longer be filling Sinclair’s bank account either, because watching over the air television is still free, at least until someone tries to charge viewers for that as well.

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