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Finding The Truth About West Virginia’s Bad Broadband; Here’s How You Can Help

If advertised claims of lightning fast DSL internet don’t match reality, it never hurts to bring evidence to the table if you want to prove your state’s biggest telecom company is lying through its teeth.

West Virginia’s Broadband Council wants to understand just how awful broadband is in the state, despite glowing rhetoric from cable and phone companies that promise fast connections that rarely deliver to beleaguered broadband users. The Council has created its own Speed Test Portal for the state’s broadband users to test their internet speed. The results will also provide data about real world broadband performance to generate a new statewide broadband map that will clearly identify where broadband performs, where it doesn’t, and where it doesn’t exist.

“The speed test is really important,” Commerce Secretary Woody Thrasher said. “This is one of those things where before you know where you’re going to go, you have to know where you are. So we’re trying to identify what type of broadband service we have. That’s what the speed tests do for us. We want people to take the speed test, send it in and from there, we will create a map of where we are in the state of West Virginia and identify where our priorities should be. From that, we can identify where we are strong and where we are weak. We can identify where to prioritize areas to put funding and resources to generate broadband connectivity.”

The Council wants residents to test early, test often, and test on every computer they can find to make the data as meaningful as possible.

“With this information, the Broadband Council will work with local governments to help bring affordable broadband service to underserved and unserved areas of the state,” Council Chairman Robert Hinton said in a recent Department of Commerce news release.

One of the responsibilities of the Council is determining whether providers are delivering the speeds they advertise to state residents. West Virginia is ranked 48th worst out of the 50 states for the percentage of residents without access to broadband service. The state’s incumbent phone company, Frontier Communications, controls virtually all the state’s telephone lines. Its DSL service is not well regarded by customers and its poor performance led to a $150 million settlement with West Virginia’s Attorney General Patrick Morrisey in 2015 for deceptive claims about its DSL service.

Behind the scenes, the Broadband Council is also attempting to build an evidentiary record of “discrepancies between the service the incumbent has claimed to provide and the service the incumbent has actually provided.” If the Council can show Frontier is failing to meet its service requirements, it is hoping the FCC will open broadband funding to other providers in unserved and underserved areas in the state, some potentially offering fiber optic broadband. That would, they argue, be a better use of limited Connect America Fund resources than funding further expansion of Frontier’s DSL service.

In a filing with the FCC in response, Frontier said the Council’s solution is “misplaced and inappropriate.” It asked the FCC to reject the proposal and instead increase funding available to Frontier for rural broadband expansion in West Virginia. For Frontier, the metric that matters the most is that the company “well ahead of schedule” to meet the federal program’s requirements.

“Because Frontier is often alone in undertaking the challenge of providing any landline internet service to the most rural and remote areas in the state, Frontier is often the brunt of dissatisfaction, as expressed in the Council’s letter, with the available speeds and technologies in those areas,” Frontier said.

In October, Frontier waived away a demand to return $4.7 million in funds an inspector general claimed were the result of padded invoices with phony extra charges and improper reimbursements for “unreasonable and unallowable” fees.

In a letter to West Virginia Chief Technology Officer John Dunlap, Frontier made it clear that West Virginia taxpayers were effectively on the hook for the money, noting any funds the state might return to the federal government “are, of course, not recoverable from Frontier.”

Frontier: Nothing to See Here; 3rd Quarter Results Cause Share Price to Plummet to New Low

Phillip Dampier November 1, 2017 Broadband Speed, Competition, Consumer News, Frontier No Comments

Frontier’s stock has reached the lowest level of the year after another disappointing earnings report.

Frontier Communications turned in lackluster numbers for the third quarter of 2017, resulting in a wide selloff of Frontier’s stock, driving it to the lowest level it has seen in a year.

Investors are reacting to news the company missed earnings estimates once again, and many are losing confidence in Frontier’s CEO Daniel McCarthy, who has promised better results for more than a year. Frontier is rare among broadband providers, losing customers in virtually every segment of its business, including in its acquired FiOS service areas.

Frontier’s stock has lost more than 80% of its marketplace value so far this year — a stunning decline for a company selling broadband service in many areas where it maintains a monopoly.

McCarthy once again made a commitment his efforts will “stabilize” customer losses, but spent most of his time trying to reassure investors on a Tuesday conference call that those stabilization efforts will primarily target areas where Frontier sells FiOS fiber to the home service. Customer churn continues to be a problem, with many customers leaving either because the company alienated them or dramatically raised their rates after a discounted promotion expires. Either way, many of those customers switch back to a cable provider. McCarthy claimed Frontier plans to adjust promotional pricing to soften the blow of a steep rate hike after a promotion expires.

McCarthy said almost nothing about Frontier’s legacy service areas, where Frontier still sells copper-based DSL service. Some of the company’s biggest losses have been in areas where it cannot compete effectively with cable broadband. McCarthy offered to enhance customer retention efforts and increase marketing to reduce losses, but there are no indications Frontier plans to spend significantly on major network upgrades in these areas anytime soon.

Frontier declared an unexpected dividend of $0.60 a share, which some analysts consider excessive and represents a “red flag atop this toxic value destroyer.”

One analyst remarked, “I’m not buying it; Frontier is a business in free fall.”

Frontier Overcharging Some Florida, Texas, and California Customers Hundreds of Dollars

Phillip Dampier October 17, 2017 Consumer News, Frontier, Video 2 Comments

Customers switched to Frontier Communications from Verizon in Florida, California and Texas continue to complain they are being overcharged for service, sometimes by hundreds of dollars a month, and they’re fed up.

Danielle Ferrari, owner of a clothing and consignment shop in Tampa, has been battling the phone company over its erroneous billing since the first day it took over service from Verizon Communications.

“The very first bill was wildly wrong,” Ferrari told WFTS Action News. “The next one wasn’t correct and the next one wasn’t correct.”

Ferrari had paid Verizon a little more than $100 a month, but Frontier sent a bill for more than $340. Calls to customer service brought broken promises the company will fix Ferrari’s bill, but the overcharges kept on coming. Subsequent calls to Frontier have accomplished nothing, and attempts to speak with a supervisor were denied.

Customers who decide to cancel their Frontier service and change providers are not out of the woods yet either. Canceling is what 79-year old Dennis Klocek from Palm Springs, Calif. tried to do, leaving him owed $127.62 for dropping his Frontier phone, TV, and internet service. Frontier claims it refunds customers not with a check, but a prepaid debit card, which the company promised to mail to his home address. It never arrived.

When Klocek called Frontier about the missing card, the company refused to reimburse him, claiming the card had been sent and was almost entirely depleted by someone who used it at several convenience stores and fast food restaurants in nearby Cathedral City. As far as Frontier was concerned, once the card was mailed, the matter was out of their hands and responsibility. Klocek is upset Frontier sent his refund in the form of a debit card, which he never authorized and obviously lacked the security features a refund check would have given him.

“These people can’t get away with this,” Klockek told KESQ-TV. “What’s going on? How many other people are getting screwed like this? I don’t like this and I am going to get to the bottom of it. I feel empty. I feel like I can’t trust anybody in big business, meaning ‘AKA’ Frontier.”

Frontier also refused Klockek’s request to speak to a supervisor, leaving him at a dead end. He took his complaint to the Palm Springs television station instead, which seems to potentially bring Frontier around.

“We empathize with our former customer and are actively helping him work with the card issuer to implement a fraud investigation, resolve the matter and receive the refund,” wrote Frontier representative Javier Mendoza.

WFTS-TV in Tampa reports multiple Florida customers are having billing problems with Frontier Communications. (1:38)

Back in Tampa, Frontier customer Christina Herrman said she’s been dealing with overcharges by Frontier Communications for years.

“Ever since Frontier took over, our bill has gotten exceedingly more each month, now up to $260,” she posted on a thread talking about the issue on Facebook. “Even charging us for a 2nd cable box/DVR for the past year that we never had.”

Requesting a supervisor can lead to punishing hold times.

“I wait on hold for 20 minutes to get one on the phone, to spend another hour and they can’t help me,” she posted. “Hours upon hours wasted trying to deal with them.”

She eventually surrendered and now just pays whatever amount Frontier bills her.

In Dallas, Tex., Beth Smith Powell also took to Frontier’s Facebook page to complain she spent almost 40 hours on the phone with Frontier representatives about their bait and switch promotions.

“I had a sales rep come to my home and give me a price on TV/internet/phone for two years,” Powell wrote. “I asked her several time was this price good for the full two years, she said yes.”

When the first bill arrived, it was nearly $500, leaving Powell aghast. After two hours with Frontier’s customer service, she was promised the bill would be adjusted. It wasn’t adjusted much because when the next bill arrived, it was over $400, forcing her to spend another two hours working with Frontier to straighten that bill out. In the meantime, she was threatened with service interruption and a collection agency if her original bill was not paid in full.

Just a few months later, Powell’s bill suddenly increased $40 a month and nobody could initially explain why.

“Come to find out my two-year CONTRACT was BS — it was only a six-month discount,” Powell wrote. “I have the paperwork but […] Frontier will not honor this contract.”

It appeared Frontier walked away from the commitments their third-party door-to-door sales agents made promising 24 months of savings by only delivering six, after the billing errors were corrected.

“Shame on Frontier for being dishonest and not honoring your written sales rep contract,” Powell complains. “I’ve spent about 40 hours on the phone and chat trying to get help and no one will honor your advertised rate!”

Alan Borden, a Tampa consumer protection attorney with Debt Relief Legal Group, told WFTS Frontier’s bills are very long and hard to understand.

“They make it as convoluted as possible but theoretically, they can sneak in these overcharges where you won’t notice, or you’ll just give up,” Borden said.

Which is exactly what many customers do. Frontier has earned an “F” rating from the Better Business Bureau and has collected more than 9,400 customer complaints in the last few years.

Despite Net Neutrality, Providers Launch Fiber Spending Spree

Despite claims from some industry-backed researchers and former members of Congress that Net Neutrality has reduced investment in telecommunications, a new research note from Deutsche Bank shows America’s top telephone and cable companies are spending billions on fiber upgrades to power wireless, business, and consumer broadband.

“Telecoms have become much more public signaling their intent to increase fiber investment, with AT&T and Verizon leading the spending ramp,” reports Deutsche Bank Markets Research.

Verizon has been on a fiber spending spree in the northeastern United States, signing contracts with Corning and Prysmian worth $1.3 billion to guarantee a steady supply of 2.5 million miles of fiber optic cable Verizon plans to buy over the next three years. Much of that spending allows Verizon to lay a foundation for its future 5G wireless services, which will require fiber to the neighborhood networks. But in cities like Boston, Verizon is also once again expanding its FiOS fiber to the home service to consumers.

AT&T is committed to connecting 12.5 million homes to gigabit-ready fiber broadband by 2019 — part of a deal it made with the FCC to win approval of its acquisition of DirecTV. AT&T claims it has already connected 5.5 million homes to its gigabit AT&T Fiber network, expected to reach 7 million by the end of this year.

Deutsche Bank thinks providers’ future drive towards 5G service will also simultaneously benefit fiber to the home expansion, because the same fiber network can power both services.

“To support the upcoming innovations such as autonomous driving, IoT, smart cities, the US needs to densify its fiber network,” Deutsche Bank said. “The U.S. fiber penetration rate is 20% vs. 75% for leading OECD countries, which suggests a large gap needs to be closed.”

Altice founder Patrick Drahi (second from left) and Altice USA CEO Dexter Goei (center) visit a Cablevision fiber deployment on Long Island, N.Y.

The bank predicts companies will spend around $175 billion over the next 10 years building out their fiber networks, with most of the spending coming from the phone companies, who may see fiber buildouts as their best attempt to level the playing field with cable operators’ hybrid fiber-coaxial cable networks. As cable operators expand their networks to reach more business parks, they have been gradually stealing market share for phone and data services from phone companies. Consumer broadband is also increasingly dominated by cable operators in areas where phone companies still rely on selling DSL services.

FierceCable notes Comcast and Altice have stepped up aggressive spending on fiber networks for their consumer and business customers. Altice is planning to decommission Cablevision’s existing coaxial cable network and move customers to fiber-to-the-home service. Comcast is deploying fiber services while still selling traditional cable broadband upgraded to DOCSIS 3.1, which supports substantially faster broadband speeds. The two networks co-exist side-by-side. Customer need dictates which network Comcast will use to supply service.

Customers benefit differently in each state, depending on what type of service is available. Comcast’s large footprint in Pennsylvania, outside of Philadelphia, is usually served by traditional coaxial cable. Verizon still sells DSL in much of the state. In Massachusetts, Verizon is building out its FiOS network to serve metro Boston while Comcast will depend on DOCSIS 3.1 upgrades to speed up its internet service. In New Jersey, long a battleground for Verizon’s FiOS service the company stopped aggressively expanding several years ago, Comcast has announced DOCSIS 3.1 upgrades for the entire state.

Independent phone companies are also seeing a bleak future without fiber upgrades. Both CenturyLink and Windstream are planning moderately aggressive fiber expansion, particularly in urban service areas and where they face fierce cable competition. Frontier continues its more modest approach to fiber expansion, usually placing fiber in new housing developments and in places where its copper facilities have been severely damaged or have to be relocated because of infrastructure projects.

None of the companies have cited Net Neutrality as a factor in their future broadband expansion plans. In fact, fiber networks have opened the door to new business opportunities to the companies installing them, and the high-capacity networks are likely to further reduce traffic/transit costs, while boosting speeds. That undercuts the business model of selling digital slow and fast lanes.

Frontier Starts Retiring Copper in Spencerport, N.Y. and League City, Tex.

Phillip Dampier September 25, 2017 Broadband Speed, Consumer News, Frontier, Public Policy & Gov't 1 Comment

Frontier Communications has started notifying the Federal Communications Commission of small-scale retirements of its existing copper wire facilities in favor of all-fiber optic replacements.

The company has begun copper wire retirement with certain customers in the hamlet of Adams Basin in Spencerport, N.Y. and League City, Tex. near Houston, in both cases due to roadwork.

“Frontier Communications announces that it is retiring copper feeder plant as part of a Highway Improvement plan impacting its Spencerport, New York Central Office,” Frontier wrote in its notification to the FCC. “The copper loops will be replaced with fiber to the home and impact a portion of the Spencerport Central Office service area. After the planned copper retirement, there will no longer be copper loop feeder facilities providing connectivity between Frontier’s Spencerport, NY Central Office and the customer premises locations listed below. Frontier is planning to replace the existing copper loops with fiber drops as part of this project. After the planned network changes are implemented, Frontier will (1) no longer offer services over copper facilities; and (2) cease maintaining the copper facilities. Following the transition to fiber, customers can anticipate receiving services from Frontier that are equivalent to or better than those they received over copper facilities, and at that same prices.”

The retirement will not impact the entire community of Spencerport, but rather customers near the hamlet of Adams Basin, named for the Adams-Ryan House, an inn opened in 1825 that provided rest and refreshments for those journeying the original Erie Canal.

Affected Customers:

  • 3486-5206 Brockport-Spencerport Rd.
  • 439-550 Washington St.
  • 2-31 Dresser Rd.
  • 40-100 Hubbell Rd.
  • 545-848 Gallup Rd.
  • 5-211 Campbell Rd.
  • 4436-4452 Canal Rd.

In League City, Tex. Frontier will retire its copper network in areas around a road expansion project widening Calder and Butler Roads and Turner St. Affected customers will receive FiOS fiber to the home service instead. The handful of impacted customers are located at:

  • 2502-3000 Butler Rd.
  • 1313-1325 Turner St.
  • 1201-1217 Weyer St.

Frontier’s very conservative fiber expansion effort was discussed by Perley McBride, chief financial officer at the phone company, during the recent Goldman Sachs Communacopia 2017 conference.

McBride predicted Frontier would expand fiber to the home service to 50,000-100,000 customers over the next two years, mostly in new housing developments.

“Anywhere there are ‘greenfield’ or subdivision builds, that’s always fiber-to-the home,” McBride said. “We will do about 50,000 of those this year and another 50,000 to 100,000 next year. We do see instances where overlaying fiber on top of fiber-to-the-home and fiber-to-the-node has made some sense. I think the beauty of the fiber-to-the-home network is that it is low-cost. If you need to then move into the next generation of speed, it’s not a very capital-intensive change you have to make.”

It also seems likely Frontier will replace copper wiring infrastructure in areas where infrastructure projects are underway, particularly those that will require utilities to relocate their current infrastructure, such as in road construction or expansion projects. In the past, Frontier would have moved poles and either reused existing copper wiring or replaced it with new copper wiring. As seen in New York and Texas, fiber will likely now be used instead.

But such upgrades are incremental at best, and upgrading 100,000 customers to fiber optics is a small percentage of the nearly five million residential customers Frontier serves across the country.

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