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Wireless ISP Fends Off Frontier’s DSL Expansion in Indiana; Telco Denied Expansion Money

onlyinternetA wireless Internet Service Provider serving rural northeastern Indiana has successfully challenged Frontier Communications’ application for federal funds to introduce DSL service in the region.

Great American Broadband (GAB) challenged Frontier’s request for funds from the Connect America Fund to wire homes in the Wells County community of Uniondale. It turns out the Bluffton-based wireless ISP already provides service to the community, making Frontier’s request redundant.

uniondaleGAB’s OnlyInternet serves around 3,000 customers in Adams, Allen, Blackford, Delaware, Elkhart, Grant, Howard, Huntington, Jay, LaGrange, Madison, Randolph, Tipton, Wabash, Wells and Whitley counties. Founded in 1995, the wireless ISP uses a network of towers to offer a high-speed service comparable to Wi-Fi to residents who generally cannot get broadband from any cable or telephone company.

The FCC found Uniondale was already sufficiently served by OnlyInternet and denied funds earmarked for Frontier’s proposed expansion into the community of about 300. Wireless ISPs have had a hard time successfully defending their turf from phone companies that can subsidize expansion of their DSL service with federal tax money or funds provided by other telephone ratepayers. Many wireless ISPs are family owned and financed by private bank loans and small investors. They do not appreciate subsidized competition, particularly from the Connect America Fund, which is generally only available to telephone companies.

Frontier“We have to look out for the interests of our members,” Rick Harnish, executive director of the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association in Ossian, told the Journal Gazette. The group alerted OnlyInternet of Frontier’s FCC filing for rural dollars. “The Connect America Fund is a subsidy program set up for phone companies, which is why wireless providers are left out. We continue lobbying for equitable treatment, but we’re a small voice compared to the bigger companies.”

Rural ISPs have taken about a $10 million chunk out of Frontier’s application for $71.5 million in Connect America Funds by successfully challenging the phone company’s applications around the country. In general, Connect America Funding for broadband expansion is available only to unserved areas where customers cannot get broadband service.

In northern Indiana, Frontier can use the federal money to offer services in parts of Huntington, Jay and Wells counties.

Frontier is still free to use its own funds to wire Uniondale for DSL service, and customers might welcome the competition.

OnlyInternet currently provides wireless service at speeds ranging from 512/128kbps ($24.95) to 3Mbps/768kbps ($64.95). Until last year, Frontier generally provided most rural communities with up to 3Mbps broadband, but has upgraded service to speeds ranging from 6-40Mbps. Most of the higher speeds are available only in urban areas.

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Time Warner Cable Phone Customers May See Their Phone Numbers Go Unlisted

Phillip Dampier March 10, 2014 Competition, Consumer News, Frontier, Time Warner Cable No Comments

digital phoneTime Warner Cable telephone customers may find their phone numbers missing from directory assistance records and residential phone books.

This year, the cable company began charging directory publishers for its residential customer listings and some, including Frontier Communications, have refused to pay.

As a result, customers are likely to find their next copy of the White Pages thinner than it used to be.

The usefulness of telephone directories and directory assistance services have both been in decline for years as customers migrate to unlisted cell phones. But the loss of cable phone customers from phone books is a new trend. In the past, cable companies provided the listings for free to most directory publishers as a service to customers who wanted to keep their phone numbers in the directory. But now those listings are a money-maker, only available for sale.

Phil Yawman, Frontier Communications vice president and general manager for the Rochester, N.Y. area — Frontier’s largest urban market — told WXXI News the phone company opted not to buy the listings. 

Time Warner Cable spokesperson Joli Plucknette-Farmen said charging a fee for residential directory listings is accepted by the Federal Communications Commission.

Frontier, like many other phone companies, also no longer provides automatic delivery of residential White Pages listings, although the lucrative Yellow Pages will still appear on customer doorsteps. 

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AT&T Sells Landlines in Conn. to Frontier; U-verse TV Available to Frontier Customers Nationwide?

frontierAT&T today announced it was selling off its residential wireline network in Connecticut to Stamford-based Frontier Communications for $2 billion in a deal that includes an expanded license for U-verse TV that could eventually be available to Frontier customers nationwide.

Frontier will assume control of the Southern New England Telephone Co. (SNET), a wholly owned subsidiary of AT&T, and its 2,700 employees and 900,000 telephone lines. Included in the deal is AT&T’s U-verse network in the state and the right to expand U-verse TV into all 27 states where Frontier provides service. The deal comes three years after Frontier paid $8.6 billion in stock and cash to buy landline operations in 14 states from Verizon Communications.

In a Stop the Cap! exclusive story published last year, we reported Frontier was interested in acquiring licensing rights to the U-verse brand to potentially offer its customers a unified product suite of television, broadband, and phone service over a fiber to the neighborhood network. Maggie Wilderotter, CEO of Frontier Communications, told the Wall Street Journal the deal between AT&T and Frontier had been on the table for years waiting to be finalized. With today’s announcement, AT&T New England president Patricia Jacobs acknowledged Frontier will use the U-verse name at a secondary brand for video service. Frontier now relies on satellite reseller agreements to bundle video service into its packages for consumers.

frontier u-verseFrontier’s acquisition will give the company hands-on experience with AT&T’s U-verse network in Connecticut and offer a path to bring improved service to Frontier customers elsewhere. Company officials also acknowledged a key reason for the transaction was boosting Frontier’s lagging dividend, a critical part of its share price. By taking on nearly 1,000,000 new customers, Frontier will boost its cash flow, returning some of that new revenue in a higher dividend payout to shareholders. But the company will take on an extra $2 billion in debt to manage higher dividend payouts.

JPMorgan Chase & Co. arranged the financing for the acquisition and Frontier will likely raise about $1.9 billion from debt markets by selling bonds. Frontier already has $8.13 billion in debt on the books, much of it acquiring landlines originally owned by Verizon.

AT&T’s departure from Connecticut was no surprise to analysts. AT&T operates most of its landline network in the midwest, south, and in the state of California. The company has focused primarily on serving business customers and its wireless network in the northeast, not residential landlines. Frontier described the deal as a perfect fit for Connecticut residents, because Frontier specializes in residential phone and broadband service.

“AT&T has been trying to sell its rural wireline businesses for some time,” Gerard Hallaren, an analyst with Janco Partners Inc., told Bloomberg News. “It looks to me like Frontier cherry-picked a nice asset at a nice price from AT&T.”

att_logoSNET began operations in 1878 as the District Telephone Company of New Haven and pre-dated the Bell System. The company founded the first exchange and printed the world’s first telephone directory. It remained independent of Bell System ownership until 1998, when SBC Communications (formerly Southwestern Bell) acquired the company. In late 2005, SBC purchased AT&T and AT&T Connecticut was born.

Over the past seven years, AT&T has watched customers decline from more than two million customers to fewer than one million. AT&T introduced U-verse to improve its position in the market to mixed results. The company’s investments in fiber upgrades have not been as profitable as its wireless network, likely leading to today’s sale.

AT&T says it is not leaving Connecticut altogether. The company plans to keep business and wireless customers in the state.

Much of the proceeds from the deal will be invested by AT&T in its wireless network, mostly to help pay for 4G LTE upgrades. The rest will be spent bringing U-verse to more customers in the midwest and southern U.S.

The acquisition faces regulator approval from both the Federal Communications Commission and Department of Justice, likely to be forthcoming in the first half of 2014.

Frontier executives promised shareholders the deal will result in $125 million in cost savings over the next three years — code language for layoffs. Some of them are likely to be among the 2,400 workers represented by the Communications Workers of America, which has had a contentious relationship with AT&T Connecticut over job cuts in the past.

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HissyFitWatch: Frontier Executive Angrily Departs W.V. Broadband Meeting Under Questioning

A Frontier executive in West Virginia had a bad day at Wednesday's Broadband Council meeting in Charleston.

HissyFitWatch

A senior executive at Frontier Communications stormed out of a public meeting in Charleston Wednesday after being questioned about Frontier’s DSL broadband speeds that critics claim are below state standards.

Dana Waldo, senior vice president and general manager of Frontier’s West Virginia operations, got up and left the meeting after Citynet CEO Jim Martin began questioning Waldo about Frontier meeting the minimum broadband speed requirements mandated by the state legislature. It was not the first time the two have sparred.

Martin has been a frequent critic of the way the state has spent broadband stimulus funding. Much of it, Martin alleges, paid for the construction of a Frontier-owned and controlled statewide fiber network that will benefit the company more than the state and its residents.

frontier wvFrontier and the State of West Virginia received more than $126 million of taxpayer money to subsidize the fiber network and the expansion of broadband service into rural areas of the state. Frontier agreed to offer a minimum of 4/1Mbps service to each home connected through the subsidy program.

Martin alleges Frontier has failed to offer consistent access to at least 1Mbps upstream speed, a charge Waldo vehemently denied.

“That is not correct, Jim,” Waldo said. “I wasn’t going to bring this up, but I am absolutely beside myself. I feel so sorry for you, that you are so desperate to make you and Citynet relevant and, apparently, keep it afloat. You make all these characterizations about us and everybody else.”

Waldo also accused Martin of making “misleading and defaming” comments about “my company and myself.”

Waldo

Waldo

“My God,” Waldo added, “every allegation you make and everything you said, [federal officials] dispute, and you still bring up these allegations. I’m tired talking to you about this stuff. I’m tired of the misrepresentations you make. Jim, it’s over. I’m done talking to you. I’m done wasting my time responding to your mischaracterizations. I’m not going to sit here and waste my time and hear more of his nonsense. I’ll excuse myself.”

Martin said nothing in response as Waldo picked up his papers and left the Broadband Deployment Council meeting room.

Martin later told The Charleston Gazette he was just asking a question and repeated his assertion Frontier’s rural DSL service does not offer rural West Virginians at least 1Mbps upload speeds across the state. Martin added Waldo’s defense relied on news articles and documents now three years out of date.

“Both an independent consultant hired by the Governor’s Office, and the legislative auditor have confirmed what I said was true,” Martin said.

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Frontier Has Capacity to Spare for Broadband Users; Grabbing Customers from Cable Operators

frontierFrontier Communications’ new simplified pricing with no equipment fees or surprise contracts was well-timed for the phone company as it picked up a growing number of disgruntled Comcast and Time Warner Cable customers fed up with increasing modem rental fees.

Frontier depends a great deal on its residential broadband service to win back revenue the company has lost from years of landline cord-cutting. The company reported slowing revenue losses, now down to less than one percent for the quarter ending Sept. 30. Frontier’s profits reached $35.4 million this quarter, reduced by increased investment in broadband upgrades and pension fund-related expenses.

The independent phone company is still losing residential and business phone customers, but those losses have begun to stabilize. Frontier has 2.82 million residential customers and 275,000 business customers. While Time Warner Cable lost customers during the recent quarter, Frontier picked up 27,000 new ones. For all of 2013, Frontier added 84,500 new broadband customers. Nearly 84 percent of them added broadband as part of a bundle, which leads analysts to suspect most of Frontier’s new broadband customers are located in rural areas that never had access to broadband speeds before.

Frontier’s greatest opportunity is in the rural residential broadband business, and the company’s investment in improved broadband speeds has made a major difference in growing market share especially where it has a cable competitor. Currently, Frontier has 20-25 percent market share in most of its service areas. It wants 40%, but is unlikely to achieve it selling broadband speeds that often top out at around 10Mbps. Winning customers back to a landline provider has also proved difficult without an attractive bundled offer. In all but a few cities, Frontier bundles landline service with DSL broadband and a satellite television package.

Wilderotter

Wilderotter

In rural markets, Frontier has had better success, particularly in areas formerly served by Verizon.

With help from the federal government’s Connect America Fund (CAF), Frontier invested over $21 million to expand rural broadband service in 2013. In the third quarter, the company expanded service to another 37,000 possible homes and businesses, with 30,000 more on the way in the fourth quarter. The company applied for $71.5 million in CAF funding for 2014.

Broadband speeds have also gradually increased in an expanding number of communities. As of today, 45 percent of homes can receive 20Mbps or better, 58 percent are capable of 12Mbps. A year-end commitment to offer at least 3Mbps speeds to 85% of customers in the most rural areas also appears within reach. Customers can upgrade to the next speed level in $10 increments.

But not every customer has gotten speed upgrades. In their largest legacy market — Rochester, N.Y., DSL speeds have remained unchanged in many areas. At the headquarters of Stop the Cap!, Frontier pre-qualified us this afternoon for the same 3.1Mbps DSL speed they offered in 2009, despite being blocks away from the city line.

Those increasing speeds have led to more traffic on Frontier’s broadband network, but the company says it has enough capacity to handle it.

“The average usage of all our customers across both fiber and the copper has grown to about 24GB per month at this point, and we see that increasing and people are comfortable with [our] facilities as well as our backhaul to support that growth,” said chief operating officer Dan McCarthy. “We’ve seen that grow virtually every month as we move forward.”

Frontier analyzes what customers do with their broadband connection and found 30 percent of customer usage is online video. That number is growing. Customers upgrading to the fastest speeds are often telecommuters or have a home full of avid broadband users.

“On the residential side [these high-end customers] are usually working at home, they are VPNing, they are gamers, and they are very active on video services and social media as well,” said CEO Maggie Wilderotter.

The average Frontier DSL customer still subscribes to 6Mbps service, which Wilderotter said was adequate for Netflix, web surfing, and e-mail. But the company is preparing to market speed upgrades to these customers to earn extra revenue.

So far, Frontier’s broadband growth has gone relatively unnoticed by their cable competitors.

“We really haven’t seen any sustainable programs that cable has put against us in the market and we do know that several cable operators have said they’re going to do more in those areas,” said Wilderotter. “We are very well prepared for that. We are giving everyday low pricing to the customer that’s simple and predictable and there are no add-on fees or modem rental costs.”

Most Frontier customers are offered $19.99 or $29.99 broadband pricing that can be bundled with other products for discounts. There is no term contract.

“Time Warner Cable has increased their modem fees [to] between $6 and $9 a month,” said Wilderotter. “That’s a huge price increase for a lot of customers. You compare that with Frontier which has no modem cost and customers understand where price value lies.”

Wilderotter noted Comcast has raised rates as well. Frontier intends to remind cable customers they have a choice, and will tailor offers to continue to increase market share.

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If Verizon or AT&T Wants to Sell Off Their Rural Landlines, Frontier Is Willing to Buy

frontier frankFrontier Communications is interested in buying landlines bigger phone companies like AT&T and Verizon might want to sell.

CEO Maggie Wilderotter sat down with The Wall Street Journal to answer questions about her leadership of the independent telephone company.

Despite ongoing landline disconnects and a challenging business environment that led to a second quarter loss of $38.5 million, Wilderotter says Frontier is “well positioned for success” and is willing to acquire new customers castaway by larger phone companies like AT&T and Verizon.

I would do acquisitions only if they’re smart,” Wilderotter said. “We would buy assets that drive more scale. We would look at another carve out like the Verizon acquisition or acquiring stand-alone rural telephone companies.”

Frontier’s last acquisition in 2010 nearly tripled its size after picking up landlines sold off by Verizon Communications.

Independent telephone companies like Frontier are not just buyers, however. Wilderotter hinted Frontier has received offers encouraging a sale of the company, perhaps even one from a satellite provider like Dish Network or DirecTV.

“Other players [like] CenturyLink have similar assets,” Wilderotter said. “Some unconventional folks might look. The satellite category [for instance]. We have had conversations in the past. They weren’t the right offers.”

Many shareholders stay loyal to Frontier because the company pays a significant dividend to those holding stock. Anything that threatens the dividend typically drives Frontier’s stock price lower, so Wilderotter was quick to note any other acquisitions will not come at the expense of that dividend.

Wilderotter

Wilderotter

“We would do acquisitions in a way that preserves the dividend,” Wilderotter said. “We might take on more debt instead.”

Frontier’s business plan relies heavily on selling service in less competitive rural areas often bypassed by large cable operators. Because of inherent network limitations created by copper telephone lines, Frontier maintains market dominance mostly in communities where cable service is not widely available or is provided over antiquated infrastructure unsuitable for significant broadband upgrades.

In the last two years, Frontier has spent several billion dollars to upgrade its own infrastructure to offer faster and more reliable Internet access, but the upgraded service is still out of reach for many Frontier customers who need it the most. In central West Virginia, Frontier customers in Gilmer (pop. 8693) and Braxton (pop. 14,523) Counties can’t wait to drop satellite Internet access for Frontier DSL. The infrastructure has been reportedly in place for several months, but the service has not yet been switched on.

Additional Frontier broadband expansion depends on company investment and federal broadband improvement funds.

In September, West Virginia’s congressional delegation announced an award of roughly $24.1 million in leftover federal funds to continue construction of broadband infrastructure in rural areas of the state.

“With help from the FCC, so many more of our families and businesses will soon have the transformative and necessary power of high-speed Internet at their fingertips, opening the doors to many new educational and economic opportunities,” said Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller.

Frontier also recently applied for an extra $28.9 million from the Connect America Fund to target broadband for another 47,000 homes and business in West Virginia.

Gilmer County

Gilmer County, W.V.

If Frontier receives 100% of the requested amount, the Obama Administration’s broadband funding programs will have contributed $63 million towards service improvement in West Virginia.

Frontier Communications manager Daniel Page said the next target areas for broadband improvement are in Pleasants (pop. 7,605) and Ritchie (pop. 10,236) Counties, both in northwest West Virginia.

Wilderotter says 85% of Frontier customers now have broadband access available to them, up from 60% in 2011.

“Our goal is to be able to reach over 90%, probably by the end of this year or first part of next year,” Wilderotter said.

The biggest challenges facing Frontier over the next year?

“Technology disruption—and [industry players'] business models being challenged,” Wilderotter told the newspaper. “Customer expectations on how they utilize the Internet continue to morph as rich applications are made available.”

To manage increased traffic, Frontier can invest in capacity upgrades or start network management measures to limit subscribers’ Internet usage.

Frontier has run a usage limit trial in Kingman, Ariz., Elk Grove and Palo Cedro, Calif., Mound, Minn. as well as Cookeville and Crossville, Tenn. for over a year to measure bandwidth consumption by application type. In those areas, Frontier DSL is usage capped at 100 or 250GB per month. Customers exceeding their allowance are advised to either limit usage or convert to a “high user” service plan starting at $99.99 a month.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Fox Business News Frontier Broadband 8-8-13.flv

Frontier CEO Maggie Wilderotter told Fox Business News in August the company was “laser focused” on broadband.  (5 minutes)

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Frontier: 75% of Our Customers Hate Their Cable Company, 50% Would Switch With the Right Offer

frontierFrontier Communications believes it can win back disconnected customers, many taking their business to competing cable companies, with marketing offers that avoid tricks, traps, and hidden fees.

Frontier executives told investors on a recent quarterly results conference call that the phone company was adding new broadband customers poached from local cable operators, unusual as DSL market share has eroded in favor of cable broadband.

“A lot of folks in [the markets we inherited from Verizon] took cable because that was the only game in town, and it didn’t mean that they liked their cable operator,” said CEO Maggie Wilderotter. “We did surveys in these markets, 75% of their customers don’t like them and 50% of them said they’d be willing to switch for the right offer.”

Wilderotter said a significant part of the phone network it acquired from Verizon was initially not compatible with broadband service. Frontier’s market share in broadband was predictably low until it expanded broadband service in those areas.

Wilderotter: Most of our customers are satisfied with 6Mbps broadband.

Wilderotter: Most of our customers are satisfied with 6Mbps broadband.

As the invests in its broadband facilities, market share has improved, as have speeds in some areas.

“Forty percent of our footprint has 20Mbps today, so we’ve continued to invest even though 80% of what we sell is 6Mbps and if we look at the usage patterns of our customers, it’s under 6Mbps on a monthly basis,” said Wilderotter. “Somewhere between 12 and 40Mbps is probably going to be the sweet spot of what we’re going to have to build to but we put in the right backbone in order to make that happen.”

Frontier claims its entire middle mile network between central office facilities and individual neighborhoods has been upgraded with fiber, giving Frontier added capacity.

Wilderotter told attendees at the Goldman Sachs Communacopia Conference that Frontier will continue the practice of selling simplified pricing packages that de-emphasize temporary discounts and high value awards like Apple gift cards or television sets. The company renewed its current commitment not to leverage modem fees, impose lengthy contracts, or offer temporary discounts that expire midway through a term commitment.

“Our current bundles really resonate well,” said Frontier chief operating officer Dan McCarthy. “It gives people predictability, it doesn’t really require commitment from a price protection plan, and there are no hidden fees.”

Price seems to matter a lot to Frontier customers.

“It isn’t always about speed for customers — 80% of the customers’ sales that we have today are for more the basic speed level of 6Mbps,” said McCarthy. “They have the ability to take 12 or 20Mbps max in many cases but they still choose 6Mbps. It’s really more about service, it’s about the price value equation, it’s about simplicity and really not having surprises.”

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Copper Theft Epidemic Worsens; Chinese Scrap Metal Buyers Crave Telecom Cable

COPPER theftDespite dozens of new state laws and an effort by lawmakers to make metal theft a federal crime carrying a 10-year prison sentence, the epidemic of copper cable theft is expected to get worse before it gets better. The reason? China’s insatiable demand for North America’s enormous supply of discarded and stolen wire.

“The FBI has indicated that there’s so much theft taking place that it’s causing a national infrastructure issue,” said Lt. Terry Alling, a law enforcement official who now consults with police departments on how to recognize and curtail valuable metal thefts.

Scrap copper used to end up in the trash, especially telephone and coaxial cable used by phone and cable companies. With bare, high quality copper wiring valued at only $0.50 a pound for years, many scrap dealers were uninterested in shielded telecom cables that were a costly nuisance to process for recycling.

That changed in late 2003 when copper prices began a dramatic rise, first doubling to $1 a pound by 2004 and then suddenly spiking to an eye-popping $4 by 2006. Only the arrival of the Great Recession in 2008 would temporarily stem demand, dropping prices below $1.50 a pound. Two years later, prices dramatically rebounded, reaching an all time high of $4.50 a pound, and have remained above $3 ever since.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/KOMO Seattle Copper Theft Epidemic 5-6-13.mp4

KOMO in Seattle went undercover to sell scrap copper and quickly discovered why copper wire theft is now an epidemic — scrap dealers are ignoring the law and buying suspect copper with no questions asked. (5 minutes)

As prices have increased, so have copper thefts. Starting about a decade ago, law enforcement personnel discovered they were responding to a growing wave of reports of stolen manhole covers, copper pipe taken from abandoned buildings or construction sites, copper air conditioner coils gone missing, and even statues and other art work ripped out of the ground.

copper pricesOutside of the risk of falling into a manhole missing its cover, the biggest threat to public safety has come from utility infrastructure theft. Brazen thieves have shown their interest in turning scrap metal into cash has taken a priority over their personal safety and yours. Amazed utility workers were shocked to find thieves even willing to steal infrastructure from live power substations, often leaving customers in the dark as a result. A less risky, but just as profitable strategy has come from harvesting telephone cable right off of telephone poles, knocking out service for hundreds or thousands of customers as a result.

Some of the worst problems for telecom companies are in rural areas and smaller cities where thieves can remove cable with a good chance of not being seen.

In the Pacific Northwest, Spokane experienced cable theft from area substations. In Olympia, $30,000 of electric cable was stripped from street lights.

Three soccer fields in Federal Way experienced repeated copper theft, resulting in $150,000 in damages, despite efforts by the Federal Way Soccer Association to discourage thieves.

“We’ve changed the locks in all the systems, we’ve gone to gluing down doors on the boxes — nothing is stopping them,” said George Fifer.

Frontier Communications customers in Washington have been among the hardest hit. Last year, Frontier reported 10 major outages as a result of copper wire theft in the state. Frontier’s problems are nearly as bad in Ohio and West Virginia, those states being hit the most often. This year is more of the same in Washington, with at least 2,000 Frontier customers knocked out of service since April.

Frontier Communications has reported lines being stolen in Snohomish, Skykomish and Granite Falls, causing temporary outages for customers throughout north King and Snohomish counties.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/KCPQ Seattle Thieves ripping out bulk phone lines 7-25-13.flv

In July, KCPQ in Seattle reported copper thieves struck again, wiping out phone service in parts of Snohomish County, Wash. Nearly 2,000 Seattle-area customers have been hit so far. (3 minutes)

frontier truck“Customers are taken out of service, they’re put at risk, they can’t call 911,” said Frontier Communications general Manager Ken Baldwin. “The emergency folks can’t run the trace and know where they need to be.”

Alling estimates at least 90 percent of the copper theft is committed by meth addicts, motivated by their habit and unafraid to take risks.

They rely on selling their stolen copper to a network of scrap dealers that pay consumers and construction firms for “recovered/unwanted metals.” Although many scrap dealers operate legitimate businesses and don’t want to deal in stolen copper, there are more than a few willing to look the other way. Those dealers typically pay quick cash at below market prices to people who cannot credibly explain where the weekly bales of phone cable are coming from, so they don’t ask.

There is usually little risk to the dealers, who are unlikely to leave stolen copper in the storage yard for very long.

Alling says the copper crime wave is being fed by insatiable demand from the booming economy of China.

“They’re buying all the copper that they can get their hands on,” Alling said. “It’s speculated that they’re stockpiling and there’s not going to be any slowdown whatsoever for an extended period. The price is going to stay up which means that theft is going to stay up as well.”

A forthcoming book excerpted by Bloomberg Business Week seems to confirm Alling’s experience.

“Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade,” published in November by Bloomsbury Publishing, digs deep into the world of scrap metal and the Asian metal market that increasingly drives most of the demand.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/KCPQ Seattle Copper wire theft becoming an epidemic 1-2013.flv

Washington’s Most Wanted reports wire theft is becoming an epidemic in the Pacific Northwest, costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars and risking public safety. Now local law enforcement is learning how to fight back. (3 minutes)

copper wireChina alone accounted for 43.1 percent of all global copper demand in 2012, writes Adam Minter, more than five times the amount of copper acquired by the U.S. that same year. For at least a decade, China has imported 70 percent of the scrap copper it uses to power its enormous manufacturing and construction industries. China’s most attractive source for recycled copper? The United States.

Minter writes at least 100 roving Chinese scrap dealers are traveling across the country in rental cars from scrap yard to scrap yard. They come ready to buy… a lot. Some scrap dealers receive visitors from China almost daily. Minter notes many of those 100 will spend an average of $1 million a week on discarded (or stolen) copper, much of it considered “low-grade” by American dealers because it requires cumbersome and expensive processing before it can be melted down or reused in new ways.

That is no problem for scrap dealers like Johnson Zeng, employed by a scrap importer in China’s Guangdong Province.

As Zeng browses one scrap yard in St. Louis, his interest piques when he sees bales and boxes of power lines and what the scrap trade calls “jelly.”

This is where Frontier Communications and other phone companies come in.

Much of the stolen telephone cable sold for scrap contains hundreds, if not thousands of individual copper wires, each wrapped in insulation and in turn wrapped around a thick black sheath to keep the weather out. This is the cable one might find serving entire neighborhoods or business blocks with landline phone service and DSL. If you cut into that cable, often 2″ in diameter, there is a chance it would begin oozing a Vaseline-like gel — the “jelly” Zeng has an interest in. That goo is primarily designed to keep underground phone cables dry because it helps repel corrosion-causing moisture.

A minimum order for a Chinese exporter typically needs to fill at least one shipping container.

A minimum order for a Chinese exporter typically needs to fill at least one shipping container of this size.

Minter notes American recyclers hate jelly cable because it clogs their processing equipment. In China, it is in high demand because it is cheaply obtained and can be processed by an army of workers that cut the cable apart and wash away the petroleum product by hand.

Without the demand for “low-grade” copper wiring such as telephone cables coming from abroad, thieves would be unlikely to find any interest for their ill-gotten gains.

Cable companies have it easier. Asian exporters have shown little interest in coaxial cable because the effort to free the copper center conductor from the thick plastic sheath and wire netting that surrounds it is, for now, not worth it.

The demand on scrap dealers to maintain sufficient inventory to keep the roving band of exporters coming back is intense. Most Chinese buyers need a minimum order of one shipping container holding at least 40,000 pounds to make the deal worthwhile. Those containers are the size of a load driven by an 18-wheeler tractor-trailer.

At just one scrap yard, Zeng offered to buy all 10,000 pounds of “jelly” phone cable — all the dealer had in stock that day –  5,000 pounds of “grease wire,” and a large quantity of discarded Christmas tree light strings — another popular target for Asian exporters looking for cheap low-grade wire.

Within hours, Zeng would be back inside his rental car traveling to the next scrap dealer in a journey that took him from Illinois to South Carolina.

The recycling industry points out that if the Chinese were not in the market for American wire, it would end up in a landfill because copper demand within the United States is too low to justify the processing and labor costs to recycle it.

But that demand also fuels the growing copper theft plaguing the United States, and that costs every American taxpayer.

“The Department of Energy estimates that for every $100 that a copper thief actually gets in stolen materials, it costs $5,000 in repairs,” Alling said.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/KXLY Spokane Copper Theft Law 7-2013.flv

KXLY in Spokane reports miles of live power cables have been stolen by copper thieves. It takes a small amount of copper wire to make a lot of money, encouraging thieves to take more risks for bigger payoffs. Now a new Washington state law includes a “no-buy” list that keeps repeat offenders from selling to dealers in adjacent counties.  (3 minutes)

special reportAlling blames the meth addicts who commit the crimes, but also fingers scrap metal dealers who buy without asking questions. The source of stolen copper varies in different parts of the country. While telecommunications lines are most affected in rural communities, copper pipes and air conditioning coils are favorite targets in urban areas.

Most states have enacted new laws to curb the trade in stolen copper. Many require dealers to demand ID from sellers and keep detailed purchase records allowing law enforcement to identify the source of stolen cable found at scrap yards. Others require a license to sell copper to recyclers, a limit on the amount of scrap that can be sold to a dealer, and provisions for stiff fines and jail time for those caught buying or selling stolen metal.

In some states like West Virginia, tougher copper theft laws are beginning to curb thieves, but in South Carolina the thefts continue, despite the fact the state requires sellers of copper to first obtain a permit from a local sheriff’s office before selling their metal.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie vetoed a state copper theft control measure in New Jersey last week, claiming it would impose “overly burdensome regulations” on the state’s scrap dealers. The bill would have required that all payments for scrap metal be made by non-transferrable check unless the seller has a photo ID on file with the scrap company, and that businesses could only accept deliveries made by motor vehicle, allowing firms to record the buyer’s plates and driver’s license.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), are tackling copper theft on the federal level by co-sponsoring the Metal Theft Prevention Act – a proposal to make stolen metal a federal crime.

Klobuchar

Klobuchar

S. 394 and its House companion bill H.R. 867 would impose a 10-year prison sentence on anyone caught stealing metal from telephone or cell towers, highway equipment or other critical infrastructure. The bill would also make it tougher to fence stolen metal by requiring more record-keeping for recycling agents, and prohibiting them from paying cash for purchases larger than $100.

Klobuchar claims copper theft has shot up by 80 percent in recent years and she wants to put a dent in it.

“The recent rise in incidents of metal theft across the country underscores the importance of federal action to crack down on metal thieves, put them behind bars and make it more difficult for them to sell their stolen goods,” Klobuchar said.

Despite some bipartisan support, Govtrack.us estimates the measure has only a 7% chance of getting past committee and a 3% chance of being passed in the House of Representatives, noting the Republican-controlled body voted only 11% of bills out of committee and only about 3% were enacted over the last two years. The companion bill in the U.S. Senate has already passed a committee vote, so Govtrack estimates it has a 40% chance of passing a full Senate vote, assuming it is not filibustered.

The federal measure is getting significant opposition from Republicans who argue it violates states’ rights to manage the problem through legislation on the state level.

“I have heard concerns expressed regarding people stealing valuable metal and crossing state lines to sell the stolen product,” said Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah).  While I would support federal legislation addressed to such truly interstate circumstances, legislation that more broadly regulates intrastate conduct is constitutionally problematic. In my view, this bill exceeds Congress’s power under the Commerce Clause and imposes a federal regulatory scheme in an area of law the Constitution reserves to the states. In the interest of maintaining the balance between state and federal authority, I will vote against reporting this bill from the Judiciary Committee.”

Alling says in some communities copper thieves have gotten organized into gangs targeting valuable infrastructure, so while legislators work the problem on their end, local police need to organize themselves to combat it.

Alling said police should be on the lookout for thieves with tools like headlamps, bolt cutters and a change of clothes. Police should also search the area where the copper was stolen because often, the bad guys stash the metal nearby until they can remove it without getting caught.

Individuals can also report suspicious activity themselves by calling 911. In some areas, reward funds have been established by utilities for tips that lead to the successful prosecution of metal thieves.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/KOMO Seattle Copper Thieves Plague Washington 9-10-13.mp4

KOMO in Seattle reports Frontier Communications has been plagued with copper cable thefts for the last two years, cutting off critical 911 services to affected residents. (2 minutes)

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Frontier Fined for Excessive Returned Check Fees in Washington

Phillip Dampier August 22, 2013 Consumer News, Frontier, Public Policy & Gov't No Comments

logo_wutcState regulators have fined Frontier Communications $41,400 for 414 violations of Washington’s law governing the largest amount a company can charge for a returned check.

The Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission gave Frontier 15 days to pay the fine, contest it by requesting a hearing, or seek a reduced penalty settlement.

The state found Frontier guilty of charging customers $20-25 for returned checks from Aug. 1, 2010 – March 31, 2012, despite the fact the maximum penalty Frontier is authorized to levy for a returned check in the state is $15.

Customers who overpaid Frontier for returned check charges should contact Frontier at 1-800-921-8101 to negotiate a partial refund or service credit. The state’s fine will not be used to repay customers.

 

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Frontier’s Latest Headache: Natural Gas Workers Accidentally Tear Down W.V. Phone Lines

Phillip Dampier August 12, 2013 Consumer News, Frontier 2 Comments
Fracking traffic

Fracking traffic

The controversial practice of extracting natural gas from so-called “fracking” techniques is generating controversy of a whole new kind as workers are being fingered for interrupting phone and broadband service around the state of West Virginia.

Harrison and Doddridge County residents are irritated they keep losing Frontier phone and Internet service thanks to careless turns by large rig drivers that hook poles and telephone lines and tear them down.

“We’ve lost service three times so far because the trucks keep knocking down phone poles or rip the lines right off,” writes Stop the Cap! reader Jennifer J. “I guess looking for natural gas and keeping phones working at the same time just isn’t possible around here.”

“Since the oil and gas industry has had a boom, we have definitely seen an increase in cut cables and things of that nature in Harrison and especially Doddridge County,” Frontier Communications general manager Chip Van Alsburg told The Exponent Telegram.

Frontier would not reveal exactly how many phone line accidents have been caused by the workers, but Van Alsburg told the newspaper there were a “number of gas-industry-related incidents” recently.

 

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