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Frontier’s Latest Salvation Plan Doesn’t Include Significant Broadband Upgrades

While celebrating its success at cutting $350 million in expenses, Frontier’s newest plan to keep the company from drifting towards bankruptcy is a $500 million increase in revenue (and hopefully profits) with a series of “revenue enhancements” and cost cutting.

Significant broadband upgrades in legacy DSL service areas are not on the table, as Frontier continues to spend most of its capital on matching Connect America Funds (CAF) and state grants to expand broadband into unserved and underserved rural areas.

“Approximately 80% of our capital program continues to focus on revenue generating and productivity enhancing projects,” said R. Perley McBride, Frontier’s outgoing chief financial officer. “The focus of our capital spending remains consistent. We continue to focus on our CAF builds, using both wired and wireless technologies.”

Frontier has been criticized by some for spending too much on its network and acquisitions and not enough on shareholder return. The company suspended its dividend in February, and the share price has remained below $6 a share since July. After announcing its latest quarterly results and a new $500 million EBITDA initiative on July 31, the average share price posted only modest gains of around $0.25 a share.

Frontier’s business remains troubled, with looming debt repayments in its future. The date to remember is Sept. 15, 2022 — the day Frontier needs to repay $2 billion in unsecured bonds to maintain its credibility in the credit markets. If it fails to pay, the company could find future financing difficult, which is often what triggers a trip to bankruptcy court.

The year 2022 is also very important to Californians. Frontier disclosed it planned to expand rural broadband service to 847,000 unserved/underserved rural residents by the end of 2022, with specific commitments in the next few years to upgrade 77,402 locations, in part with CAF funding, increase broadband speed for 250,000 households, and deploy newly available service to 100,000 homes.

Frontier’s own deployment goals in California — goals the company may not be honoring. (Image courtesy of: Steve Blum’s blog)

According to the California Emerging Technology Fund (CETF), Frontier has no intention of meeting its rural broadband commitments. In effect, similar to Charter Communications, it merely made the commitments to win approval of its acquisition of Verizon’s wireline and FiOS business in California.

A day of reckoning for the company’s alleged failure to meet its obligations is likely forthcoming. Steve Blum’s blog notes Frontier isn’t saying much:

In its formal response to CETF’s allegations, Frontier never actually says that it kept to that timetable. All it says is that “Frontier sent a letter to the Communication Division dated March 8, 2018 on its commitments that includes a confidential attachment reflecting completed locations through December 31, 2017”. It sent a letter, but doesn’t say what’s in the letter or even claim that the letter documents fulfillment of its obligations.

CETF told California regulators a disturbing story about Frontier’s failure to perform and other allegations in its filing with the California Public Utilities Commission, alleging Frontier is reneging on the deal it made with the state and various stakeholders in return for getting its acquisition approved. The group also accused Frontier of failing to deliver on its affordable broadband offering, because the company made signing up difficult and bundled extra fees and surcharges onto the bill.

“Frontier launched its existing affordable broadband offer in late August 2016 and to date only 9,173 adoptions have been achieved, a mere 4.5% of the 200,000 household adoption goal,” the CETF wrote. “Due to the initial Frontier eligibility requirement that Frontier customers be a telephone landline Lifeline subscriber and the total bundled cost, the affordable broadband offer has only attracted 7,452 low-income subscribers, which is 190,827 households short of the agreed-upon goal.”

Frontier has a employer turnover problem in California, evident from this filing by the CETF. (Courtesy: CETF)

The CETF said Frontier was “shirking” and should face the maximum fine of $50,000 a day retroactive to July 1, 2016 for failure to comply with its obligations. As of the end of July, 2018 that fine would amount to over $39 million.

To comply with existing obligations to California, Frontier could have to spend in excess of $1 billion in the next two years. But Frontier has told investors it planned to spend no more than $1.15 billion on capex in fiscal year 2018 across its entire national service area. This could explain why Frontier may be stalling on upgrades in California.

Also raining on Frontier’s parade is the muted reaction to Frontier’s latest money-raising scheme. Shareholders appear lukewarm, with some openly skeptical that Frontier can deliver what it promises.

The plan’s success depends on:

  • Frontier’s ability to raise rates and find other “revenue enhancements” of $150-200 million. Rate increases drive customers to competitors, reducing revenue.
  • Vague “operational improvements” are expected to bring $150-200 million.
  • Customer care and support savings are anticipated to generate $125-175 million in EBITDA benefit.

Outgoing CFO McBride relies heavily on opaque corporate-speak like this, with few specifics:

“In addition to the dedicated resources, we are utilizing a new approach that will significantly accelerate the benefits of both revenue and expense initiatives. This new approach involves utilization of external expertise to significantly reduce the time to successfully realize our objectives. This will allow us to execute more initiatives in parallel while still managing day to day requirements of the business.”

In short, this suggests Frontier will outsource a lot of initiatives they used to manage in-house. The company also plans to start limiting truck rolls to customer homes if the company determines the problem is likely elsewhere in their network. It also claims it is cutting customer hold times at their call centers, which are still frequently outsourced.

What Frontier has made clear, again, is their determination to keep a cap on spending, which means much of the money Frontier will spend each year will go towards network maintenance, not service upgrades. Therefore, customers can expect incremental upgrades, usually when a construction project requires Frontier to replace existing copper wire infrastructure with fiber optics or at a building site for a new housing development. Most customers in existing neighborhoods served by legacy copper wiring on the poles since the 1960s will continue to be serviced by those lines until they are torn down in a storm or stolen. Frontier has consistently shown no interest in wholesale network upgrades in its legacy service areas.

Tennessee’s “Smoke and Mirrors” Rural Broadband Initiatives Fail to Deliver

Rural Roane County, Tenn.

Earlier this month, a standing room only crowd packed the offices of Rockwood Electric Utility (REU) in Rockwood, Tenn., despite the fact the meeting was held at 10 a.m. on a Friday morning.

Local residents were there on a work day to listen to area providers and local officials discuss rural broadband access. Most wanted to know exactly when the local phone or cable company planned to expand to bring internet access to the far corners of the region between Knoxville and Chattanooga in east Tennessee.

Comcast, Charter, and AT&T told Roane County Commissioners Ron Berry and Darryl Meadows, State Sen. Ken Yager (R-Kingston), and the crowd they all had a long wait because the companies couldn’t profit offering rural broadband service to the county.

“That is what our shareholders expect and the way we operate in a capitalistic society,” declared Andy Macke, vice president of external affairs at Comcast.

“The biggest challenge for all of you in this room is what they call the last mile,” said Alan L. Hill, the regional director of external and legislative affairs at AT&T Tennessee. “It is a challenge. We all face these challenges.”

In short, nothing much had changed in Roane County, or other rural counties in southeastern Tennessee, to convince service providers to spend money to bring internet service to the region. Until that changed, AT&T, Comcast and others should not be expected to be on the front lines addressing rural internet access. Successive governors of Tennessee have long complained about the rural broadband problem, but the state legislature remains cool to the idea of the state government intervening to help resolve it.

Gov. Haslam

In 2017, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam noted Tennessee currently ranked 29th in the U.S. for broadband access, with 34 percent of rural Tennessee residents lacking access at recognized minimum standards. In splashy news releases and media events, Haslam sold his solution to the problem — the Broadband Accessibility Act, offering up to $45 million over three years to assist making broadband available to unserved homes and businesses.

In reality, the law authorized spending no more than $9.5 million annually on rural broadband grants over the next three years. It also slashed the FCC’s broadband standard from 25/3 Mbps to 10/1 Mbps, presumably a gift to the phone companies who prefer to offer less-capable DSL service in rural areas. In the first year of awards, 13 Tennessee counties, none in the southeastern region where Roane County lies, divided the money, diluting the impact to almost homeopathic strength.

Critics called Haslam’s broadband improvement program “The Smoke and Mirrors Act” for promising a lot and delivering little. At current funding levels, broadband service can only be expanded to 5,000 of the estimated 422,000 households that lack access to internet service, and then only with the award winner’s matching financial contribution.

The demand for rural broadband financial assistance is obvious from the $66 million in requests received from 71 different utilities, co-ops, and communications companies in the first year of the program, all seeking state funding to expand rural broadband. Only a small fraction of those requests were approved. AT&T applied for money targeting Roane County and was turned down. AT&T’s Hill expressed sympathy for the county’s school children who need to complete homework assignments by borrowing Wi-Fi access from fast food establishments, area businesses, and larger libraries. But AT&T’s sympathy will not solve Roane County’s broadband problems.

What might is Rockwood Electric Utility, the municipal power company that sponsored the broadband event.

REU is a not-for-profit, municipally owned utility that has successfully served portions of Roane, Cumberland, and Morgan counties since 1939. By itself, the community-owned utility is no threat to companies like Comcast, because it offers service in places the cable company won’t. But if REU partnered with other municipal providers and offered internet service in larger nearby towns and communities to achieve economy of scale and a more secure financial position, that is a competitive threat apparently so perilous that the telecom industry spent millions of lobbying dollars on state legislatures like the one in Tennessee to ghost-write legislation to discourage utilities like REU from getting into the broadband business, much less dare to compete directly with them. AT&T, Charter, and Comcast also fear how they will compete against municipal utilities that have successfully delivered electric service and maintained an excellent reputation in the community for decades.

Tennessee law is decidedly stacked in favor of AT&T, Charter, and Comcast and against municipal utilities. Although the state allows municipal providers to supply broadband, it can come only after satisfying a series of regulatory rules designed to protect commercial cable and phone companies. It also prohibits municipal providers from offering service outside of existing service areas. That leaves communities served by a for-profit, investor-owned utility out of luck, as well as residents in areas where a rural utility lacked adequate resources to supply broadband service on its own.

Haslam’s Broadband Accessibility Act cynically retained these restrictions and blockades, hampering the rural broadband expansion the law was supposed to address.

For several years, Sen. Janice Bowling (R-Coffee, Franklin, Grundy, Marion, Sequatchie, Van Buren and Warren Counties), has tried to cut one section of Tennessee’s broadband-related laws that prohibits municipal providers from offering service outside of their existing utility service area. Her proposed legislation would authorize municipalities to provide telecommunication service, including broadband service, either on its own or by joint venture or other business relationship with one or more third parties and in geographical areas that are inside and outside the electric plant’s service area.

In her sprawling State Senate District 16, a municipal provider already offers fiber broadband service, but Tennessee’s current protectionist laws prohibit LightTUBe from offering service to nearby towns where service is absent or severely lacking. That has left homes and businesses in her district at a major disadvantage economically.

Sen. Janice Bowling (R-Tenn.) discusses rural broadband challenges in her 16th district south of Nashville and her bill to help municipal utilities provide broadband service. (4:20)

“In rural Tennessee, if we have what is called an industrial park, and we have electricity, you have running water, you have some paved roads, but if you do not have access to fiber at this point, what you have is an electrified cow pasture with running water and walking trails. It is not an industrial park,” she complained, noting that the only reason her bill is prevented from becoming law is lobbying by the state’s cable and phone companies. “We can no longer leave the people of Tennessee hostage to profit margins of large corporations. We appreciate what they’re doing. We appreciate where they do it, but in rural Tennessee we will never meet their profit margins and so we can no longer be held hostage when we have the ability to help ourselves.”

Sen. Yager

Her sentiment in shared by many other Tennessee legislators who serve rural districts, and her Senate bill (and House companion bill) routinely receive little, if any, public opposition. But private lobbying by telecom industry lobbyists makes sure the bill never reaches the governor’s desk, usually dying in an obscure committee unlikely to attract media attention.

That reality is why residents of Roane County were meeting in a crowded room to get answers about why broadband still remained elusive after several years, despite the high-profile attention it seems to get in the legislature and governor’s office.

“‘It is a critical issue as I said. It is not a luxury. It is a necessity. I certainly understand your frustration,” responded Sen. Ken Yager. “This problem is so big I don’t think one person can do it alone, one entity. It’s going to have to have partnerships. One thing this bill encourages is for your co-ops to partner with one another to bring broadband in.”

The bill Sen. Yager refers to and endorsed at the meeting was written by Sen. Bowling. Sen. Yager must be very familiar with Bowling’s proposals, because she has appeared before the Senate Commerce & Labor Committee he belongs to year after year to promote it. On March 3, 2018, the bill failed again in a 4-3 vote. But unbeknownst to those in attendance at the public meeting, Sen. Yager himself delivered the fourth “no” vote that killed the bill.

Undeterred, Bowling promises to be back next year with the same bill language as before. Perhaps next time, voters will know who their friends are in the legislature, and who actually represents the interests of big corporate cable and phone companies.

Verizon Reaches Deal With N.Y. Public Service Commission to Expand Fiber Network

Verizon Communications will bring fiber and enhanced DSL broadband service to an additional 32,000 New Yorkers in the Hudson Valley, Long Island, and upstate as part of a multi-million dollar agreement with the New York Public Service Commission.

When combined with an earlier agreement, Verizon has committed to bringing rural broadband service to more than 47,000 households in its landline service area, with the state contributing $71 million in subsidies and Verizon spending $36 million of its own money.

By the end of this year, Verizon expects to introduce high-speed fiber to the home internet service to 7,000 new locations on Long Island and 4,000 in the Hudson Valley and upstate regions.

“The joint proposal strikes the appropriate balance for consumers, Verizon and its employees,” said PSC Chairman John Rhodes. “The joint proposal builds upon and expands important customer protections previously approved by the Commission and it requires Verizon to expand its fiber network and invest in its copper network, both of which will result service improvements.”

The broadband expansion agreement will include copper reliability improvements in the New York City area, where FiOS is still not available to every home and business in the city. It also includes a commitment to provide fiber-to-the-neighborhood (FTTN) service in sparsely populated areas. This will allow Verizon to introduce or enhance DSL service capable of speeds of 10 Mbps or more.

Verizon has also committed to remove at least 64,000 duplicate utility poles over the next four years around the state. Utility companies have been criticized for installing new poles without removing damaged or deteriorating older poles.

For now, neither Verizon or the PSC is providing details about where broadband service will be introduced or improved.

The state has negotiated with Verizon for more than two years to get the company to improve its legacy landline and internet services, still important in New York. Verizon has complained that with most of its landline customers long gone, it didn’t make financial sense to invest heavily in older, existing copper wire technology. But Verizon suspended expansion of its fiber to the home network in upstate New York eight years ago, leaving many customers in limbo as landline service quality declined. There are still more than two million households and businesses in New York connected to Verizon’s copper wire network.

The state says the deal will “result in the availability of higher quality, more reliable landline telephone service to currently underserved communities and will increase Verizon’s competitive presence in several economically important telecommunications markets in New York.”

The upgrades will cover landline and broadband service improvements. Verizon has no plans to restart expansion of FiOS TV service.

The agreement was reached as the PSC continues to threaten Charter Communications with additional fines and Spectrum cable franchise revocation for failure to meet the terms of its 2016 merger agreement with Time Warner Cable.

Australia’s National Broadband Network Looking for Scapegoats Over Maddening Slowdowns

Australia’s speed-challenged NBN is looking for scapegoats and finds video game players an easy target.

In 2009, Australia’s Labor Party proposed scrapping the country’s copper wire networks and replacing virtually all of it with a state-of-the-art, public fiber to the home service in cities from Perth to the west to Brisbane in the east, with the sparsely populated north and central portions of the country served by satellite-based or wireless internet.

It was a revolutionary transformation of the country’s challenged broadband networks, which had been heavily usage capped and speed throttled for years, and for large sections of the country stuck using Telstra’s DSL service, terribly slow.

The National Broadband Network concept was immediately attacked by the political opposition as too expensive and unnecessary. Conservative demagogues in the media and in Parliament dismissed the concept as a Cadillac network delivering unnecessarily fast 100 Mbps connections to 90% of Australians that would, in reality, mostly benefit internet addicts while leaving older taxpayers to foot the estimated $43AUS billion dollar bill for the network.

The leaders of the center-right Liberal Party of Australia promised in 2010 to “demolish” the NBN if elected, claiming the network was too costly and would take too long to build. As network construction got underway, the organized attacks on the NBN intensified, and it was a significant issue in the 2013 election that defeated the Labor government and put the conservative government of Tony Abbott into power. Almost immediately, most of the governing board of the NBN was asked to resign and in a series of cost-saving maneuvers, the government canceled plans for a nationwide fiber-to-the-home network. In its place, Abbott and his colleagues promoted a cheaper fiber to the neighborhood network similar to AT&T’s U-verse. Fiber would be run to neighborhood cabinets, where it would connect with the country’s existing copper wire telephone service to each customer’s home.

Abbott

Unfortunately, the revised NBN implemented by the Abbott government appears to be delivering a network that is already increasingly obsolete. Long gone is the goal for ubiquitous 100 Mbps. For Senator Mitch Fifield, who also happens to be the minister for communications in the Liberal government, 25 Mbps is all the speed Australians will ever need.

“Given the choice, Australians have shown that 100 Mbps speeds are not as important to them as keeping monthly internet bills affordable, when the services they are using typically don’t require those speeds,” Fifield wrote in an opinion piece in response to an American journalist complaining about how slow Australian broadband was while reporting from the country.

The standard of “fast enough” for Senator Fifield also seems to be the minimum speed at which Netflix performs well, an important distinction for the growing number of Australians watching streaming television shows and movies.

Unfortunately for Fifield, network speeds are declining as Australians use the NBN as it was intended. While perhaps adequate for a network designed and built for 2010 internet users, data usage has grown considerably over the last eight years, and the government’s effort to keep the network’s costs down are coming back to haunt all involved. Several design changes have erased much of the savings the Abbott government envisioned would come from dumping a straight fiber network in favor of cheaper alternatives.

Right now, depending on one’s address, urban Australians will get one of four different fiber flavors the revised NBN depends on to deliver service:

  • Fiber to the Home (FTTH): the most capable network that delivers a fiber connection straight into your home.
  • Fiber to the Neighborhood (FTTN): a less capable network using fiber into neighborhoods which connects with your existing copper wire phone line to deliver service to your home.
  • Fiber to the Basement (FTTB): Fiber is installed in multi-dwelling units like apartments or condos, which connects to the building’s existing copper wire or ethernet network to your unit.
  • Fiber to the Distribution Point (FTTDP): Fiber is strung all the way to your front or back yard, where it connects with the existing copper wire drop line into your home.

In suburban and rural areas, the NBN is depending on tremendously over-hyped satellite internet access or fixed wireless internet. Customers were told wireless speeds from either technology would be comparable to some flavors of fiber, which turned out to be true assuming only one or two users were connected at a time. Instead, speeds dramatically drop in the evenings and on weekends when customers attempt to share the neighborhood’s wireless internet connection.

Instead of improving the wireless network, or scrapping it in favor of a wired/fiber alternative, the government has set on so-called “heavy users” and blamed them for effectively sabotaging the network.

Morrow

NBN CEO Bill Morrow recently appeared before a parliamentary committee to discuss reported problems with how the NBN was being rolled out in regional Australia. Morrow blamed increasing data usage for the wireless network’s difficulties, singling out slacker video game addicts for most of the trouble, and was considering implementing speed throttles on “extreme users” during peak usage periods.

Stephen Jones, Labor’s spokesperson for regional communications, questioned Morrow on what exactly an “extreme user” was.

“It’s gamers predominantly, on fixed wireless,” said Morrow. “While people are gaming it is a high bandwidth requirement that is a steady streaming process,” he said.

Morrow suggested a “fair-use policy” of speed throttles might be effective at stopping the gamers from allegedly hogging the network.

“I said there were super-users out there consuming terabytes of data and the question is should we actually groom those down? It’s a consideration,” he said. “This is where you can do things, to where you can traffic shape – where you say, ‘no, no, no, we can only offer you service when you’re not impacting somebody else’.”

The NBN itself has regularly dismissed claims that online gamers are data hogs. In an article written by the NBN itself, it stressed gameplay was not a significant stress on broadband networks.

“Believe it or not, some of the biggest online games use very little data while you’re playing compared to streaming HD video or even high-fidelity audio,” the article stated. “Where streaming 4K video can use as much as 7 gigabytes per hour and high-quality audio streaming gets up to around 125 megabytes per hour, (but usually sits at around half that) certain online games use as little as 10MB per hour.”

The article admits a very small percentage of games are exceptions, capable of chewing through up to 1 GB per hour, but that is still seven times less than a typical 4K streaming video.

In fact, the NBN’s own data acknowledged in March 2017 that high-definition streaming video was solely responsible for the biggest spike in demand. NBN data showed the average household connected to the NBN used 32% more data than the year before. When Netflix Australia premiered in March 2015, overall usage grew 22% in the first month.

So why did Morrow scapegoat gamers for network slowdowns? It’s politically palatable.

“They always have someone to blame for why the NBN doesn’t deliver, they have every excuse except the one that really matters, which is the flawed technology,” said the former CEO of Internet Australia Laurie Patton. “In this case for some reason shooting from the hip [Bill Morrow] had a go at gamers and gamers are not the problem.”

As long as Australia continues to embrace a network platform that is not adequate robust to cope with increasing demands from users, slow speeds and internet traffic jams will only increase over time. In retrospect, the decision to scrap the original fiber to the home network to save money appears to be penny wise, pound foolish.

Updated: Verizon Trials DSL Data Caps in Virginia

Phillip Dampier May 17, 2018 Consumer News, Data Caps, Verizon 2 Comments

Existing Verizon DSL customers in some states are discovering the company is defining “usage” allowances on its two DSL packages. (Image courtesy: Smith6612)

Is Verizon slapping the caps on its DSL customers in the northeast?

A handful of New York and New Jersey Verizon customers were surprised to find Verizon suddenly defining usage limits on their DSL service on its website dashboard for existing customers:

  • High Speed Internet: Up to .5 – 1 Mbps — 150 GB Usage
  • High Speed Internet Enhanced: Up to 3.1 – 7 Mbps — 250 GB Usage

The sudden appearance of data allowances confused some customers, because the only references to them appear on pages for existing customers seeking to change or upgrade their current DSL package, and only in certain sections of upstate New York and New Jersey.

Careful scrutiny of Verizon’s terms and conditions make no reference to the new data caps, although the company declares customers are responsible for all usage charges. There is also no mention of the caps on Verizon’s sales pages for prospective customers, and phone reps didn’t know anything about them either.

Verizon has not indicated what might happen if a customer exceeds that cap or where the caps are being enforced, if anywhere.

We reached out to different Verizon press contacts twice this week to get confirmation and have heard nothing back.

If you are a Verizon DSL customer, do us a favor and let us know in the comment section what you see when you review options to change your DSL service.

Update 7:18pm EDT: Verizon did get back in touch with us after we went to press in response to several questions.

Here is our Q & A with Verizon’s Ray McConville, corporate media relations representative for New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and FiOS:

Q. Is Verizon setting data allowances on their DSL service plans?

No. We have been conducting a usage billing trial to a very small set of customers in Virginia where we would measure their data use and display it in their billing. While these customers were given the 250 GB and 150 GB allowances you showed in those screen shots, we’ve never billed customers who exceed those allowances and have no plans to do so. The purpose of the trial was more the idea of accurately collecting and displaying usage in billing.

Q. If a customer exceeds that allowance, what happens?

Nothing. Again, we don’t do data caps. We have the small Virginia trial of displaying usage in billing, but it’s still not a cap, and customers aren’t billed for exceeding the 150 or 250 GB numbers.

Q. Is this a new policy?

No. It’s not a policy – we don’t have data caps or overage charges.

Q. In what states or service areas, if any, is this data allowance policy in effect?

Just the small Virginia trial, and customers are not charged for going over the “allowance.”

Q. If that is the case, why are customers in New York and New Jersey seeing the usage allowances?

It’s a likely system error; they should not have seen that. Only customers in the very limited part of Virginia where we have the trial should see such a thing.

Q. What is the status of the trial in Virginia?

Trial is ongoing – not aware of any end point.

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