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Even Frontier Hints Without Major Broadband Upgrades, It’s Dead

Phillip Dampier September 18, 2017 Consumer News, Frontier 5 Comments

Frontier Communications spent $2 billion in 2014 to purchase AT&T’s Connecticut wireline business, believing it could make a fortune selling internet and cable television service to wealthy Nutmeg State residents over a network AT&T upgraded to fiber-to-the-neighborhood service several years earlier.

But thanks to a combination of management incompetence, cord-cutting, and Frontier’s competitors, the phone company’s dreams have turned bad in Connecticut, where the company lost hundreds of millions in the last three years along with at least 22% of its customers in the state. As a result, Frontier has turned a business that made AT&T $1.3 billion four years ago into one that earned Frontier $901.9 million last year.

Hartford Business notes Frontier’s biggest challenge is holding on to customers once they disconnect their landline service. In Connecticut between 2014 and 2016, Frontier lost 154,000 landline customers in the state, leaving just under 522,000 remaining landline customers. That is way down from the 675,000 customers AT&T had just before it sold the service area to Frontier. AT&T struggled with a similar problem, having more than one million landline customers in 2011, according to numbers from Connecticut’s Public Utilities Regulatory Commission (PURA). What made AT&T different is its investment in U-verse — AT&T’s answer to the challenge of lost landline customers. AT&T invested in a new fiber to the neighborhood network to boost broadband speeds and sell television service, giving departing landline customers a reason to continue doing business with AT&T.

For millions of Frontier Communications customers in its “legacy service areas” — owned and operated by Frontier for years, if not decades, those upgrades have been slow to come, if they have come at all. As a result, dropping Frontier service in favor of a wireless or cable company is not a difficult decision for many customers, and cable operators report significant growth where their only competition is DSL service from Verizon or Frontier.

Frontier’s own executives admit broadband upgrades are essential if Frontier is to survive the challenges of landline disconnects.

Customers are increasingly taking a pass on landline service.

“It’s a surprise to no one that we have voiceline declines in Connecticut,” Mark Nielsen, Frontier’s general counsel and executive vice president told the business newspaper. “The challenge is to build our internet and video business so as to offset the declines in voice. We are very committed to the Connecticut operation, we see great potential in it.”

That commitment is coming in the form of internet speed upgrades. Frontier’s primary competitors in the state are cable operators Comcast, Charter, and Cox, some offering speeds as high as a gigabit. Frontier is trying to compete by introducing speeds at or greater than 100Mbps, but so far only in a few parts of the state.

According to Nielsen, Frontier’s profitability is less important to investors than maintaining positive cash flow, which means assuring more money is coming into the operation than going out.

“Cash is what’s available to make investments to return capital to shareholders,” Nielsen said.

But that represents a conflict for Frontier, because many shareholders are attracted to the stock’s long history of returning money to shareholders in the form of dividend payouts. If Frontier has to invest more of its capital on upgrades and network upkeep, that can result in a dividend cut, which usually causes the share price to decline, sometimes dramatically. If Frontier can manage to invest less and cut costs, that frees up more money that can be paid to investors.

For the past several years, Frontier’s business plan has been to avoid spending large sums on network upgrades. But the company was willing to spend handsomely to acquire more customers from a three-state deal with Verizon that cost $10.5 billion. Frontier’s acquisition of Verizon landline customers in Florida, California, and Texas made sense for many shareholders because it would dramatically increase the number of customers served by Frontier, and that in turn would boost revenue and cash flow, from which Frontier’s dividend to shareholders would be paid. Frontier acquired a fiber rich, FiOS service area in all three states, which automatically meant the company would not need to undertake its own significant and costly upgrades.

But Frontier did have to transfer its newest customers from Verizon’s systems to those operated by Frontier. If a company spends enough time and money to protect customer data during such “flash cutovers,” they are usually successful. A company that attempts it without careful planning causes service to be disrupted, sometimes for weeks, which is exactly what happened after Frontier switched customers in the three states to its systems. Customers have never forgotten, and have left every quarter since the deal was first announced.

Financial analysts see where this is headed.

“Each and every quarter their revenues decline, and each and every quarter their customer totals decline,” David Burks, a financial analyst at Hilliard Lyons, told the newspaper. He called Frontier a company that is struggling. He added Frontier needs to stem revenue erosion. He downgraded Frontier’s stock last month after the company reported a second-quarter net loss of $662 million. He could not ignore what he called “disturbing trends,” such as an 11.5 percent year-over-year decline in total customers across Frontier’s entire operation.

 

To win new customers Frontier must improve its network with upgrades that will cost the company billions — spending that is certain to affect Frontier’s shareholder dividend. Even if it does spend money to upgrade, some analysts are wondering whether it is too late.

“The time to play catch up has passed, given the time to market advantage that cable has, and we expect continued pressures from cable as DOCSIS 3.1 steps up the speed advantage that cable already enjoys,” wrote Jeffries in a a report written about by FierceTelecom. “In our view, it is far too late for the ILECs to ramp spend to compete, particularly given high leverage and the significant cost required to expeditiously play catch up.”

N.Y. Settles With Charter Communications; Rural Expansion Website Now Available

New York residents can click the image above and input their address and see if Charter’s expanded service area will include their home or business.

The New York State Public Service Commission (PSC) today announced approval of a $13 million settlement agreement with Charter Communications after the cable company failed to build-out its cable network as required in last year’s approval of Charter’s acquisition of Time Warner Cable. The $13 million settlement is the largest cable company financial settlement of its kind in state history and possibly the largest in the nation’s.

“In its approval of the merger, the Commission required Charter to undertake several types of investments and other activities,” said Commission Chair John B. Rhodes. “While Charter is delivering on many of them, it failed to expand the reach of its network to un-served and under-served customers at the pace it committed. We are taking these additional steps to ensure full and complete compliance.”

Charter Communications was required, as a condition of approval of its merger with Time Warner Cable, to expand its broadband service to 145,000 unserved/underserved homes and businesses in New York over the next four years. Rural broadband expansion was one of the conditions Stop the Cap! recommended to the New York regulator in our testimony regarding the merger proposal.

In the first year, Charter failed to meet its buildout requirements, only reaching 15,164 locations — less than half of the 36,250 it agreed to serve by May, 2017. The cable company first tried to blame utility companies for dragging their feet allowing Charter to place its cables on their utility poles, an argument that failed to impress the PSC. Even if utility companies instantly cleared the way for Charter, the cable company admitted it would not be ready to proceed because of necessary preparatory work needed to begin the buildout.

As a result, Charter has been forced to place $13 million in an escrow-type account that New York can tap into in amounts of up to $1 million increments to penalize the company for further delays. Charter can win back all $13 million if it stops missing its six-month buildout targets. Each time it does miss a deadline, the State reserves the right to withdraw funds in amounts that will vary based on the seriousness of the violation. Some forfeited funds will be used to acquire computers and internet training for low-income New Yorkers. The rest will be channeled into New York’s general fund.

Charter’s new targets require the company to expand its cable service in increments of 21,646 homes over six periods through May 18, 2020.

Many rural New Yorkers with no access to broadband service have complained Charter has not been forthcoming about whether the broadband expansion will reach their individual home or business, so the cable company has also agreed to launch a new website where New Yorkers can input their home or business address to learn if they are included in the broadband expansion. Charter warns that inclusion on the build-list database is not a guarantee that a home or area will be actually be reached.

“Build plans, timelines, and all other information provided are subject to change and areas designated for build may not be built,” the website states.

Charter is also required to deliver broadband speeds up to 100Mbps statewide by the end of 2018 — something the company has already accomplished in almost every part of the state where it provides service. The company is not subject to broadband rate regulation, and Charter charges a $199 setup fee for customers who seek to upgrade to speeds in excess of 60Mbps (except in former Time Warner Cable Maxx service areas, where 100Mbps is already the standard broadband speed). Charter must also make 300Mbps available to all New York residents by the end of 2019, something the company will likely achieve in most parts of the state sometime late next year.

Charter Communications is by far the largest cable company serving New York State. The company provides cable television, internet and telephone service in the major metropolitan areas of Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Albany and the boroughs of Manhattan, Staten Island, Queens and parts of Brooklyn. Cablevision, now owned by Altice, covers the other boroughs and Long Island, as well as part of the Hudson Valley and Westchester County.

FCC Speed Tests Show Charter’s Slow Upgrades Affecting Some Customers

Phillip Dampier August 1, 2017 Broadband Speed, Charter Spectrum, Consumer News No Comments

Regular speed test results from a network of volunteers using FCC-supplied equipment are showing some problems with Charter Communications’ ability to meet its advertising claims for fast broadband speeds.

After Charter acquired Time Warner Cable in May 2016, it formally suspended Time Warner Cable’s Maxx upgrade program, designed to increase broadband speed and capacity across the cable company’s footprint. Charter committed to completing Maxx upgrades already underway at the time the merger was concluded, but future upgrade activity would have to wait for up to three years before being completed.

As a result, newly available speed test results are showing that in some areas where Charter delayed upgrades, some customers are seeing their speeds gradually drop as capacity no longer adequately meets demand.

One sign of trouble is when broadband speeds begin to slow or become unstable during peak usage times, typically in the evening hours. This is usually a sign customers have saturated the shared neighborhood connection serving their area. When customers head for bed, speeds usually return to normal. But customers are also complaining that in some instances they never get the speeds advertised by Charter’s Spectrum. Sometimes this is a result of a local line problem, but in some neighborhoods, a large number of customers sharing an inadequate or faulty connection can cause speed slowdowns that persist day and night.

A closer examination of daily speed test results over the last year show that while ordinary speed tests using Charter-hosted speed test servers or websites don’t always show a problem, independent tests of network traffic performance in areas bypassed for upgrades are showing signs of traffic jams.

During the last quarter of daily periodic testing, a customer that used to subscribe to Time Warner Cable’s 50/5Mbps service and routinely got those speeds no longer does after switching to Charter/Spectrum’s 60Mbps plan. Customers question where the bottleneck is, because when they test broadband speeds using the company’s own test tools, they usually find their broadband speeds are above what is advertised. But independent, regularly conducted speed tests by third-party organizations reveal problems. One customer noted for the month of July, he received a minimum of 27.3Mbps, a maximum of 70.1Mbps, but an average of only 47.6Mbps from Spectrum’s basic 60Mbps plan — less than what he was able to get from Time Warner Cable’s 50Mbps Ultimate Internet.

A review of traffic graphs show most of the problems are showing up in the evening starting by 5pm weekdays. Tests show uneven performance until around midnight.

Lexington, Ky.: “What Abuse Will Be Heaped On Us Next by Charter/Spectrum”

Lexington, Ky. officials are mad as hell about some of the sales and customer service tactics heaped on the local citizenry courtesy of Charter Communications, better loathed as “Spectrum.”

In a letter released yesterday, Lexington’s chief administrative officer Sally Hamilton told the cable company her office mail is running hot and a lot of it is from local residents furious about Charter’s business practices and pricing.

The city now wants Charter officials to turn over company records detailing customer complaints and attend a public hearing to discuss the cable company’s performance since taking over for Time Warner Cable.

Lexington officials are also unhappy that Charter recently laid off 56 customer service employees in its local office.

“The city is left wondering what abuse will be heaped upon it next by Charter-Spectrum,” the letter said. “Because of the public urgency regarding Charter’s actions regarding its Spectrum service, we insist on a swift response to this letter,” Hamilton added.

The Herald-Leader obtained copies of earlier correspondence between the city and the cable company detailing its response to accusations of “shoddy customer service.”

Local residents are unhappy that Charter has dramatically raised rates, shows an unwillingness to negotiate over its pricing, and has removed a number of channels from Spectrum’s basic cable lineup.

The cable company has also been accused of aggressive sales techniques, including using door-to-door agents to browbeat mentally and developmentally impaired people into signing up for cable service, even though they are legally not able to sign contracts. The city is demanding to know how many times that has happened.

Charter is also accused of preventing customers from talking to supervisors, lowering advertised broadband speeds, and no longer accepting returned cable equipment through the mail.

Charter’s June 5 letter assured the city that “quality customer service is of the utmost importance to Charter,” and claimed the company was in the process of spending $3.1 million on local improvements, including 860 new outdoor Wi-Fi hotspots, and low-cost internet access for the poor.

Kenya Has Faster Mobile Broadband Than U.S.A.

Phillip Dampier June 14, 2017 Broadband Speed, Consumer News, Wireless Broadband 1 Comment

Despite claims from America’s wireless companies that they deliver world-class wireless speeds, a new report from Akamai shows the United States only ranked 28th fastest in the world, beaten by the African nation of Kenya that ranked 14th.

Kenya’s 13.7Mbps average mobile broadband speed is almost twice as fast as the global average and consistently better than the U.S., where 10.7Mbps is the average. Nearly 90% of Kenya relies on mobile phones to reach the internet, primarily because its fixed line network never developed adequately to support faster broadband speeds. Kenyans have cell phones with cheap data plans, supported by a growing optical fiber backhaul network.

The United Kingdom, Germany, Finland, France, Norway and Denmark all scored the highest, with UK customers now getting an average speed of 26Mbps over 4G connections.

What two North American countries are not on this list?

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  • Geroge: 100mbps is now base speed in many areas that aren't maxx...
  • Ed: I find it amazing that anyone expected Frontier to do anything differently...they have never been an invest and build company...they have always been ...
  • kim collins: i work for Frontier. And i have to say there is alot of people who still need their landlines because cell service is not available to them. Frontie...
  • Lee: Those who own the land leased to cell towers, they should NOT have sold the land, need to get good legal council on the terms of the lease if the comp...
  • Rex: The lights in your home (whether incandescent, CFLs or LEDs) emit far more electro-magnetic radiation (over the course of a day) than you could ever g...
  • Adam: That's pretty unfair to Frontier... Obviously AT&T and Verizon sold off big chunks of their wireline operations because they saw the end of profi...
  • Pat: That's just damn sloppy engineering... There's no excuse for them not having backup generators in junctions that serve large numbers of customers. Th...
  • Chuck: Cellular carriers are having a big come-down now that almost everybody has a cell phone. No more new customers to grab, all you can do is steal from ...
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  • BJ: T-Mobile and Sprint are ALWAYS claiming their coverage is so much better than it used to be, even though they've changed almost nothing. When T-Mobil...
  • EJ: Maybe they have been at the top a little to long and are having trouble figuring out exactly how to respond to a market that is a little more competit...
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