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FCC’s Ajit Pai on Mission to Sabotage Charter-Bright House-Time Warner Cable Deal Conditions

Pai

As a result of the multibillion dollar cable merger between Charter Communications, Bright House Networks, and Time Warner Cable, the three companies involved freely admitted: your cable bill was unlikely to decrease, you won’t have any new competitive options, there was no guarantee your service would improve, or that you would get faster broadband service than what Time Warner Cable Maxx was already delivering to about half its customer base.

While shareholders and Wall Street bankers made substantial gains, top Time Warner Cable executives walked away with multimillion dollar golden parachute packages, and Charter took control of what is now the country’s supersized, second most powerful cable operator, regulators also required the dealmakers share at least a tiny portion of the spoils with customers.

Then President Donald Trump’s FCC chairman — Ajit Pai — took leadership of the telecom regulator. Now all bets are off.

Pai is reconsidering the settled deal conditions imposed by the FCC under the last administration, and wants to give Charter Communications a free pass to let them out of their commitment to compete. Last week, Pai circulated a petition among his fellow commissioners to roll back the commitment Charter acknowledged to expand its service area to at least one million new homes that already get broadband service from another cable or telephone company.

Former FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler sought the competition requirement to prove that cable operators can successfully run their businesses in direct competition with each other, potentially inspiring other cable companies to face off with incumbent operators outside of their own territories. A paradigm shift worked for Google, which inspired ISPs to boost speeds in light of its gigabit Google Fiber service, which reset customer expectations.

The FCC order approving the merger deal was hardly onerous, requiring Charter to compete head-to-head for customers in places the company can choose itself. Lawmakers eliminated exclusive cable franchise agreements years ago, but established major cable operators like Charter have gone out of their way to avoid competing in areas that already receive cable service. While Wheeler may have hoped some of that competition would be directed against fellow cable companies, Charter CEO Thomas Rutledge quickly made clear to investors and the FCC Charter would continue to avoid direct cable competition, instead promising to expand service into non-cable areas that already get DSL service from the phone company or no broadband at all.

“When I talked to the FCC, I said I can’t overbuild another cable company, because then I could never buy it, because you always block those,” Rutledge said. “It’s really about overbuilding telephone companies.”

Charter’s CEO believes most phone companies are not competing on the same level as cable operators and are unwilling to make the necessary investments to upgrade their aging wired infrastructure to offer faster internet speeds. That makes competing with telephone companies like Windstream, Frontier, and Verizon’s DSL-only service areas a much better proposition than trying to compete head-to-head with Comcast, Cox, or Cablevision.

Rutledge’s clear views about Charter’s expansion plans apparently never made it to the American Cable Association, a cable industry lobbying group that defends the interests of independent and smaller cable operators. Despite Rutledge’s public statements, the ACA and its members are afraid Charter could expand on their turf anyway, potentially forcing small cable operators to compete with the same level of service Charter offers. The horror.

The ACA’s arguments found a sympathetic audience in Mr. Pai and now he wants to let Charter off the hook, at the expense of competition and better service for consumers.

Under the proposal circulated by Pai, Charter would still be required to expand its cable broadband service by at least one million new homes, but those homes would no longer have to be in areas outside of Charter’s existing service footprint. In practical terms, this would mean Charter would focus on wiring areas not far from where it provides service today — ‘DSL or nothing’-country. Charter would also be able to fritter away the number of expansions required by counting newly constructed neighborhood developments it would have likely wired anyway, as well as upgrading its remaining shoddy legacy cable systems — some still incapable of offering broadband or phone service.

The ACA’s talking points prefer to emphasize the David vs. Goliath scenario of a big bully of a cable company like Charter being forced to compete (and likely obliterate) existing small cable operators:

“The overbuild condition imposed by the FCC on Charter is stunningly bad and inexplicable government policy,” said ACA president and CEO Matthew Polka, in a statement. “On the one hand, the FCC found that Charter will be too big and therefore it imposed a series of conditions to ensure it does not exercise any additional market power. At the same time, the FCC, out of the blue, is forcing Charter to get even bigger.”

The real goal here is to minimize direct competition at all costs. The FCC’s deal conditions already included the need for more rural broadband expansion. Wheeler’s second goal was to introduce a new model — cable company competing against cable company — fighting for new customers by offering consumers better service and pricing. The existence of such competition would belie the industry’s claim that cable overbuilds and head-to-head competition is uneconomical. Wildly profitable, perhaps not, but certainly possible. Historically, the traditional way cable operators dealt with the few instances of direct cable competition was to buy them out to put them out of business. Rutledge was certainly thinking along those lines when he complained that the FCC’s order to compete did not include permission to eventually devour its competitor, effectively making competition go away.

Had Charter chosen to compete with cable companies not afraid to spend money to upgrade service above and beyond the anemic broadband speeds Charter offers, it would likely find few takers for its maximum 300Mbps broadband service that comes with a $200 install fee.

“Why would we go where we could get killed?” Rutledge admitted.

Industry claims that the cable business is already fiercely competitive are also countered by Rutledge’s own statements making clear direct competition with brethren cable companies on the cusp of speed-boosting DOCSIS 3.1 upgrades was bad for business. Instead, he would focus on competing with inferior phone companies, which he characterized as mired in debt, still skeptical about the financial wisdom of fiber optic upgrades, and the only competitor where dismal 3-10Mbps DSL service presented a ripe opportunity to steal customers away.

Clyburn – A likely “no” vote.

Charter’s merger approval and its conditions are a sealed deal that was acceptable to Charter and its shareholders and at least offered small token treats to ordinary consumers. Mr. Pai’s willingness to reopen and undo those commitments is just one reason we’ve referred to his regulatory philosophy as irresponsible, nakedly anti-consumer, and anti-competitive. Mr. Pai’s willingness to embrace things as they are comes at the same time most consumers are paying the highest broadband bills ever while also facing an epidemic of usage caps, usage billing, and increasing service and equipment fees. Mr. Pai’s other actions, including ending an effort to introduce competition into the set-top box market, curtailing customer privacy, ending inquiries on usage caps/zero rating, threatening to eliminate Net Neutrality, and reducing the FCC’s already anemic focus on consumer protection makes it clear Mr. Pai is a company man, on a mission to defend the interests of Big Telecom companies and their lobbyists (that also have a history of hiring friendly regulators for high-paying positions once their government job ends.)

That conclusion seems apt considering what Mr. Pai said about Chairman Wheeler’s vision of improving broadband: “one more step down the path of micromanaging where, when, and how ISPs deploy infrastructure.” Missing from his statement are consumers who have spent the last 20 years watching ISPs govern themselves while waiting… waiting… waiting for broadband service that never comes.

Mr. Pai’s proposal needs just one additional vote to win passage. That extra vote is unlikely until President Trump appoints another Republican commissioner. Pai’s proposal isn’t likely to win support from the sole remaining Democrat commissioner still at the FCC — Mignon Clyburn.

AT&T Slowly Strangling U-verse TV to Reposition Bandwidth for Broadband

Phillip Dampier February 16, 2017 AT&T, Broadband Speed, Competition, Consumer News, Online Video No Comments

AT&T’s U-verse TV has been losing customers for over a year. (Image: Market Realist)

AT&T wants its U-verse TV video service dead, but is willing to watch it bleed customers for a while before likely downsizing or axing the service to make room for better broadband speeds.

The phone company has allowed U-verse TV to wither on the vine for more than a year, losing hundreds of thousands of customers every quarter since late 2015, and surprisingly has done almost nothing to stop the subscriber losses. In all, more than a million AT&T U-verse TV customers canceled service in 2016.

AT&T has admitted it has abandoned aggressively marketing its U-verse TV platform and has put its marketing muscle into selling DirecTV, the satellite provider AT&T acquired two years ago. DirecTV has added customers at a remarkably similar rate that AT&T has been losing U-verse TV customers. AT&T is even willing to watch customers walk into the arms of their competitors, a clear sign AT&T hopes their U-verse TV customers churn away.

Customers report U-verse TV-related promotions and retention plans have gotten worse in the last 14 months and some tell Stop the Cap! they were steered to DirecTV when they contacted AT&T to discuss their options.

Even the U-verse brand is being gradually discontinued. AT&T recently rebranded its fiber to the home service AT&T Fiber, dropping the AT&T U-verse with GigaPower brand the company had used since first announcing gigabit speed access.

AT&T U-verse as a brand is slowly disappearing in favor of AT&T Fiber.

Market Realist reports AT&T doesn’t necessarily want to spend a lot of money upgrading its legacy U-verse fiber to the neighborhood network across its entire landline service area, but needs to boost broadband speeds to stay competitive with cable broadband. When U-verse was originally launched, the service reserved much of its available bandwidth for television service, limiting broadband speeds to a maximum of around 24Mbps. That is no longer seen as competitively adequate and that leaves AT&T with only two options: upgrade its legacy infrastructure to support fiber-fed gigabit speed or reduce the amount of bandwidth devoted to television services and use it to expand broadband speeds.

AT&T is doing a little of both, expanding its gigabit broadband service in very limited areas in 46 cities with 23 more to come sometime this year. An indication of just how few customers can actually buy AT&T’s gigabit speeds was revealed indirectly by AT&T. Only four million homes and businesses, including 650,000 apartment and condo units can buy 1,000Mbps broadband from AT&T nationwide. Los Angeles and Chicago — both AT&T Fiber service areas, combined have more than five million potential customers alone.

In many cases, fewer than 10% of AT&T’s customers in AT&T Fiber cities can actually buy the service. In Knoxville, Tenn., AT&T admitted its gigabit service was only available in about 30 apartment and condominium complexes.

AT&T is promising to expand its fiber service to reach at least 12.5 million customers in 67 metro areas by the summer of 2019. But that will still likely leave more than half of AT&T’s customers out of reach of the service.

AT&T has told investors it plans no blockbuster budget increases to aggressively roll out fiber service across its footprint, which includes much of the south and midwest and large sections of California. Instead, it will likely offer fiber service to new housing developments, multi-dwelling units, and higher income areas. That decision still requires AT&T to do something for customers not on a near-term upgrade list, and that will likely be a gradual transformation of legacy U-verse into broadband-only service with speeds closer to 50-75Mbps, where video streaming from services like DirecTV Now can travel over the top to customers.

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.”

Charter Still Losing Time Warner Cable Customers With Hard Line on Retention Deals

charter-twc-bhAt least 54,000 Time Warner Cable customers downgraded or canceled their cable TV service in the last three months as Charter Communications continues to take a harder line on offering or renewing customer retention discounts for customers unhappy with their bill.

Time Warner Cable customers are “mispriced” with discounts and deals that lower the cost of service but face bill shock when the promotion ends, according to Charter CEO Thomas Rutledge.

“Third quarter customer results were more inconsistent with good performance at Legacy Charter and Bright House, but higher churn and downgrades in the Time Warner Cable markets, as we expected, given the way Time Warner Cable had marketed promotional pricing,” said Rutledge. “Until our Spectrum pricing and packaging is launched across the newly acquired service areas, we continue to expect higher levels of churn and downgrades where Time Warner Cable was the operator.”

“Over the next few quarters, our operating results will reflect reversing certain product and packaging strategies, in particular at TWC, in which in our view are not sustainable, given high promotional roll-offs and annual rate increases, high customer equipment fees, including modem fees, all coupled with complex and stacked offers,” added Charter’s chief financial officer Christopher Winfrey.

Traditionally, Time Warner Cable has dealt with price sensitive customers rolling off special pricing promotions by gradually resetting rates higher or, when necessary, by renewing the promotion for another year in an effort not to lose the customer. That will stop under Charter’s ownership, according to Mr. Rutledge. As a result, Charter Communications is seeing significant customer losses at Time Warner Cable when customer service representatives won’t budge on pricing.

Rutledge is seeking more discipline in product pricing so Charter does not have to extend cut-rate retention promotions to customers. As part of the Charter Spectrum rebrand, the cable company introduces new cable, broadband, and phone plans while allowing Time Warner Cable’s legacy plans to stay in effect until a customer elects to switch. While Texas and California Time Warner Cable customers have already been introduced to Spectrum plans, much of the rest of the country is still being offered plans only from Time Warner Cable or Bright House.

Rutledge

Rutledge

Customers are most likely to cancel service as their promotion expires. The resulting price hike can be a considerable shock as rates quickly reset to Bright House or Time Warner’s “regular price.”

Charter wants an incentive to get customers to forfeit their Time Warner or Bright House plan and switch to a new Spectrum plan as they are introduced. By making the grandfathered plans as unattractive as possible, the alternative Spectrum plans appear to be a better deal. Unfortunately, until Spectrum-branded plans arrive nationwide, many customers are stuck in limbo rolling off a promotion, are unable to renew it, and forced to wait for new Spectrum plans to be introduced.

Rutledge announced last week that the next markets to be introduced to Spectrum this month are in New York City and Florida, the latter former Bright House territory. Rutledge predicted half of Time Warner Cable customers will be offered Spectrum plans by the end of this year. But some Time Warner Cable customers may have to wait until next spring before Spectrum rebranding is complete.

Time Warner Cable Maxx is Still Dead, Earning Charter $36 Million in Reduced CapEx

Charter also reported significant financial benefits from prematurely terminating the Time Warner Cable Maxx upgrade effort. Time Warner’s upgrades would have given customers free speed upgrades up to 300Mbps. But Charter pulled the plug on the upgrade project just after completing its acquisition, and has no plans to restart it.

“Cost to service customers declined by about 2% despite overall customer growth of 5.1%, which reflects lower service transactions at Legacy Charter, the lack of all-digital activity at TWC this quarter versus last year’s third quarter, and some benefit from less physical disconnects in all-digital markets,” reported Winfrey. “Capital expenditures totaled $1.75 billion, including $109 million of transition spend. Excluding transition CapEx, our third quarter CapEx was down by $36 million year-over-year, about 2%, driven by all-digital spending at TWC, primarily on [equipment], which did not recur in the third quarter of this year.”

Winfrey

Winfrey

Charter expects to increase CapEx next spring, as the company continues its less ambitious transition to all-digital cable service, which includes broadband speeds topping out at 100Mbps, three times less than what Time Warner Cable was implementing.

Charter is Less Enthusiastic About Digital Phone Service

Time Warner Cable maintained a healthy market share for its digital phone service by bundling it at a promotional price of $10 a month, a rate that remained relatively stable for customers sticking with a triple play package bundle. Time Warner Cable also enhanced its phone service by adding the European Union nations, Mexico, and several popular Asian calling destinations as part of the local calling area, making those calls free of charge.

Charter’s own plan is less feature-rich and customers have to buy an add-on plan to cover international long distance, making the product considerably less attractive to customers. Some customers also find the cost of the phone service has increased under Spectrum, a problem acknowledged by Winfrey, who noted Time Warner Cable’s low-price voice offer in prior year quarters had been discontinued, resulting in higher voice downgrades and relationship churn.

Charter’s Plans for Legacy Charter Customers and Newly-Adopted Time Warner Cable and Bright House Customers

charter spectrum logoRutledge made clear that despite any product changes or rebranding, the long term goal of Charter Communications is to see revenue grow. Whether that will come from gradual repricing of cable products and services to a higher rate or from improved products and services that attract new upgrade business is not yet certain. But Rutledge outlined key areas Charter expects to focus on in the next few years:

  • Charter will complete the all-digital transition at Time Warner Cable and Bright House over the next two years, but it will resemble the kind of service legacy Charter customers get today, not TWC Maxx;
  • Over the next five years or so, with relatively small infrastructure investments, Charter plans to implement DOCSIS 3.1 which will be able to deliver symmetrical multi-gigabit speeds to all 50 million homes and businesses in their service area;
  • Charter plans to aggressively market and grow its services for commercial customers, targeting businesses large and small, at prices that more closely resemble residential service pricing, instead of the price premium Time Warner Cable has traditionally charged its commercial customers;
  • Charter is activating its MVNO agreement with Verizon, which will allow Charter to create and market its own wireless/cellular service using Verizon’s nationwide network. The company is also exploring using millimeter-wave (5G) service to offer better broadband coverage in large commercial spaces like malls and rural properties currently not wired for cable service. Expect the company to create its own wireless/cellular bundle first, because it will rely entirely on Verizon’s network, keeping Charter’s costs low.

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.

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  • Frontier Employee: As a frontier employee in Florida, I can honestly say our problems began way before Frontier came along. In my opinion, it started with Verizon, and...
  • Brandon: I am a current employee in Residential Sales in Deland Fl and it is getting harder and harder to meet the sales goals... any former employees , can y...
  • Former Employee: I was let go back in 2013 after working for Frontier for a little over 7 years. The only reason why I stayed for so long is because I needed to suppo...
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  • Arlene Hughes: the plans are the amts for new signed up customers, the loyal customers get nothing and they pay for all the perks for the new customers. i for one i...
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