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Community Broadband Battle in Savannah Media Pits Local GOP Against Broadband Choice

Savannah, Ga.

The very idea that a city would get involved in selling better broadband service to its residents has sparked a coordinated campaign to sully municipally owned providers and color the results of an ongoing study to determine if Savannah, Ga. is getting the kind of internet access it needs.

While the city and county continue their Broadband Fiber-Optic Feasibility Study and survey residents about incumbent providers including AT&T, Comcast, and Hargray Communications, an organized pressure campaign coordinated by the Chatham County GOP is well underway to undermine any idea the city should compete against the three dominant local internet providers.

“The purpose of this study is to examine how we are currently served with broadband infrastructure, particularly focused on the services available to our community residents, anchor institutions, businesses, and key services like public safety, health and education,” a Savannah city spokesperson told Stop the Cap!

The city’s goal is to: “confirm that residents, anchor institutions and businesses have access to the services they need and that those services are competitively priced.” Incumbent providers are betting the answer to that question will likely be no and have started early opposition to discourage the city from attempting to build its own broadband network. Comcast and AT&T have apparently teamed up with the local Chatham County GOP to defend current providers in suspiciously similar-sounding letters to the editor.

Consider two examples.

About a month ago, Stephen Plunk, executive secretary of the Chatham County Republican Party, liberally sprinkled talking points provided by outside think tanks in an editorial published by the Savannah Morning News:

The Savannah Morning News published this ominous illustration adjacent to a guest editorial from a Chatham County GOP official opposing public broadband.

Only 6,000 residents in Chatham County, out of about 280,000, do not have access to wired internet of any sort. About 90 percent of Savannah residents can choose from two or more wired internet service providers . The city’s current residential providers offer speeds up to 105 mbps, and its 12 business providers offer speeds that are generally between 100 mbps and one gigabit.

Private providers also are making big new investments here. Last year, Hargray Communications announced a plan to offer one gigabit speeds to Lowcountry customers. In March, Comcast announced its intention to offer 10-gigabit speeds to city businesses. Last month, AT&T said it also will begin offering superfast capacity.

Next, let’s look at whether a city should provide service directly to customers. Or, is it wise? To determine that, the city council must ask itself whether it wants to go down the path of Marietta, which ran its own internet company several years ago but was forced to sell that network at a loss when it failed to turn a profit year after year. Marietta’s mayor eventually admitted the city never should have become an ISP. There are government ISPs that do make a profit every year, but they are rare. Chattanooga’s government-run system is often touted as a model, but the city received more than $100 million from the federal government to get its system started.

This morning, Mary Flanders, chairwoman of the Chatham County GOP wrote essentially the same things in an “opposing views” piece published by the Connect Savannah weekly newspaper (and at least cited some of her sources):

They should proceed carefully. Cautionary tales about municipal broadband networks abound.

Consider the situation in Marietta, the sprawling suburb northwest of Atlanta. Marietta started its own municipal network that stretched along a 210-mile long route. After spending $35 million to build out the network, Marietta earned a grand total of 180 customers.

The then-Mayor said the city couldn’t keep pace with the expenses associated with the constant flood of technology upgrades required to manage a broadband network. The city ultimately sold the network in 2004 for a $20 million loss.

Pacific Research Institute, in a report on municipal broadband, found that “Mariettans had decided that they would rather take a $20.33 million loss than continue to subsidize a municipal telecom venture that was sucking their city dry.”

Marietta may be relatively close to home, but it’s not the only example. Provo, Utah spent $40 million to build its network, only to sell it to Google Fiber for the princely sum of $1. In Groton, Connecticut, taxpayers lost $38 million.

City leaders need to consider the downside risk to municipal services if and when the broadband network fails to attract customers and generate case. The shortfall has to be made up somewhere. Where will the money come from? Tax hikes?

Budget cuts to basic services or to the police or fire department? Try explaining that to voters come election time, especially if the crime rate is on the rise.

According to Kelly McCutcheon, President of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, typically the consultants are the only ones who come out good on these deals. It would be a bitter pill to swallow by Savannah citizens and city leaders alike.

Let’s dig into some of the specifics on Internet needs in Savannah. Of the 280,000 residents in Chatham County, only 6,000 residents do not have access to wired Internet of any kind. About 90% of Savannah residents can choose from two or more wired Internet service providers (ISPs).

The city’s current residential providers offer speeds up to 105 mbps, and its twelve business providers offer speeds that are generally between 100 mbps and one gigabit, which is considered to be very speedy in the Internet world.

Private providers also are making big new investments in the area. Last year, Hargray Communications announced a plan to offer one gigabit speeds to Lowcountry customers. In March, Comcast announced its intention to offer 10-gigabit speeds to city businesses. Last month, AT&T said it also would begin offering incredibly fast capacity to Savannah entrepreneurs.

On track to be profitable by 2006, local politics forced an early sale of the community fiber network that was succeeding.

Most of these talking points have been debunked by Stop the Cap! over our nine-year history. The examples of municipal broadband failures are so few and far between, we’ve come to recognize them, and many of the shop worn examples provided by the Chatham County Republicans are more than five years old.

In Groton, Conn., the emergence of a municipal provider inspired network upgrades and more competition from Comcast while the phone company Southern New England Telephone (later AT&T and today Frontier Communications) did everything possible to keep the publicly owned provider from offering phone services to customers. In the end, Comcast undercut the municipal provider and AT&T’s deployment of U-verse created problems for the then-rosy revenue projections the municipal provider was depending on to recoup its original construction costs. The network was sold five years ago to a private provider and customers still appreciate the quality of the original network today run by Thames Valley Communications, which rates four out of five stars while its competitors Frontier and Comcast rate two. It would be wrong to assume today’s municipal broadband providers have not learned important lessons and now account for incumbents responding to competition with heavily discounted rate retention plans for customers threatening to leave, as well as network upgrades. Revenue projections have become more conservative, both to deal with unexpected construction costs and the revenue likely to be earned in light of cut-rate plans from the competition. But many customers make the switch anyway, persuaded by the quality and reliability of superior fiber networks, rate stability, and a more responsive level of customer service.

The networks in Provo, Utah and Marietta, Ga., are examples of what happens when politicians opposed to the concept of municipal broadband intentionally meddle with them in an effort to prove an ideological argument or to help move along a pre-conceived sale of publicly owned infrastructure to private companies.

In Provo, the fiber to the home network was built and quickly hamstrung by a Utah state law that forbade the city from selling broadband service to the public. Instead, it had to sell wholesale access to private companies it had to attract, who in turn would provide service to the public. Imagine a marketing campaign for a new provider that required customers to deal with two unfamiliar providers just to sign up.

Christopher Mitchell, who studies municipal networks and advocates for community involvement in broadband, wrote a year ago iProvo was facing serious challenges primarily because politicians and industry lobbyists got in the way:

“Industry lobbyists convinced Utah legislators to restrict local authority over municipal networks to ‘protect’ taxpayers and that argument is still frequently used today by groups opposing local internet choice. The law does not actually revoke local authority to invest in networks, it monkeys around with how local governments can finance the networks and requires that municipalities use the wholesale-only model rather than offering services directly.

“However, the debt-financed citywide wholesale-only model has proven to be the riskiest approach of municipal networks. Building a municipal fiber network where the city can ensure a high level of service is hard and can be a challenge to make work financially. Trying to do that while having less control over quality of service and splitting revenues with 3rd parties is much harder.”

Marietta’s experience with municipal broadband failed only because a new mayor unilaterally declared it an ideological failure and sold the network at a loss for political reasons. We covered that debacle ourselves back in 2012:

In Marietta, the public broadband “collapse” was one-part political intrigue and two-parts media myth.

Marietta FiberNet was never built as a fiber-to-the-home service for residential customers.  Instead, it was created as an institutional and business-only fiber network, primarily for the benefit of large companies in northern Cobb County and parts of Atlanta.  The Atlanta-Journal Constitution reported on July 29, 2004 that Marietta FiberNet “lost” $24 million and then sold out at a loss to avoid any further losses.  But in fact, the sloppy journalist simply calculated the “loss” by subtracting the construction costs from the sale price, completely ignoring the revenue the network was generating for several years to pay off the costs to build the network.

In reality, Marietta FiberNet had been generating positive earnings every year since 2001 and was fully on track to be in the black by the first quarter of 2006.

So why did Marietta sell the network?  Politics.

Marietta’s then-candidate for mayor, Bill Dunway, did not want the city competing with private telecommunications companies.  If elected, he promised he would sell the fiber network to the highest bidder.

He won and he did, with telecommunications companies underbidding for a network worth considerably more, knowing full well the mayor treated the asset as “must go at any price.”  The ultimate winner, American Fiber Systems, got the whole network for a song.  Contrary to claims from that the network was a “failure,” AFS retained the entire management of the municipal system and continued following the city’s marketing plan.  So much for the meme government doesn’t know how to operate a broadband business.

While members of the Chatham County GOP took potshots at outside consultants hired to consider whether Savannah should explore offering community broadband, Ms. Flanders was far more sanguine about her sources: the Pacific Research Institute (PRI) and the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.

In fact, the Pacific “Research Institute” doesn’t do independent research and it’s not an institute. It’s a right-wing, dark money-funded think tank with ties to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the Koch Brothers. The Georgia Public Policy Foundation, like PRI, prides itself on not revealing the sources of its funding, but SourceWatch uncovered their financial ties to the Donors Capital Fund, a corporate-“murky money maze” specifically designed to hide corporate contributions and the motives those companies have to send the money. So it isn’t a stretch to assume that when a think tank suddenly takes an interest in municipal broadband, checks from AT&T, Comcast, and others have proven to be helpful motivators.

Altice’s Cablevision Scrapping Hybrid Fiber-Coax for New Fiber to the Home Service

Altice, the new owner of Cablevision, is not following the rest of the U.S. cable industry by rolling out the next generation of cable broadband — DOCSIS 3.1 — and will instead scrap coaxial cable entirely in favor of a new, all-fiber network.

The cable industry has depended on some form of coaxial cable to offer its service since about 1950, when the first mom and pop operators set up shop offering community antenna television service in areas that could not easily receive over the air TV stations. Most American cable systems today still use the coaxial cable installed in millions of homes starting in the 1970s, supplemented by outdoor coaxial cable that is often 10-20 years old, supported by a more recent fiber backbone network that improves system reliability and maintenance.

Cable systems were originally designed to deliver analog cable television signals, but over the years bandwidth has been set aside to offer ancillary services like video game products, home security and alarm monitoring, digital radio/music, telephone, and broadband. Because of the billions of dollars invested in existing cable networks, the idea of scrapping existing wiring in favor of fiber optics has been largely rejected by the industry as too costly. As broadband service increasingly becomes cable’s most important service, network engineers have instead worked to realign bandwidth to support faster internet speeds, most commonly by upgrading to more efficient cable broadband transmission standards and by removing space hogs like analog television channels from the lineup.

Regardless of what the cable industry does to increase the efficiency of its hybrid coaxial-fiber networks (known as ‘HFC’), they will never achieve the capacity and robustness of all-fiber networks, which may be why Altice is seeking to stop investing in old technology in favor of something new and better.

Altice’s management is legendary in its zeal to cut costs, so an expensive deployment of fiber to the home service to 8.3 million Cablevision/Optimum and Suddenlink customers would seem contrary to the company’s promise to wring out about $900 million in cost savings for the benefit of shareholders after acquiring Cablevision. DOCSIS 3.1 is clearly a cheaper alternative than rewiring millions of homes for all-fiber service. Last summer, Liberty Global CEO Mike Fries estimated that Liberty Global’s costs to deploy the cheaper DOCSIS 3.1 option in Europe would bring gigabit speeds to customers for about $21 per home — a fraction of the cost of tearing out coaxial cable and replacing it with fiber, estimated to cost about $500 a customer.

But Altice wants to future-proof its network with fiber technology that can support profitable next-generation services that may need speed in excess of a gigabit. Dexter Goei, Altice USA’s chairman and CEO, told Multichannel News Altice was not interested in undertaking incremental upgrades every few years trying to keep up with the internet speed demands of its customers:

Goei

Going with a DOCSIS 3.1 game plan “felt to us as one step forward but not a step forward enough relative to what we see as the future of continued connectivity and higher bandwidth usage,” Dexter Goei, Altice USA’s chairman and CEO, said in an interview, noting that the operator has reached an “inflection point” as it sees a disproportionate number of gross broadband subscriber additions taking higher and higher Internet speed tiers.

“We’re big believers in this trend continuing, and we really are moving toward a 10-gig world,” Goei said. “And to sit around and do this in multiple steps doesn’t make any sense [so we decided] to skip over DOCSIS 3.1 and get straight to the point.”

The cable industry may also be exaggerating the cost of fiber upgrades, especially when they cite the financial challenges experienced by Verizon (FiOS) and AT&T (U-verse) as both built out their respective fiber and fiber-copper networks from the ground up. Cablevision and Suddenlink will not have to build fiber networks from end to end because a significant part of their networks already include a substantial amount of fiber optics. Altice would simply extend the amount of fiber in its network to reach each customer.

Fiber to the home upgrades for Cablevision and Suddenlink customers.

Wall Street remains concerned about where the money to build the project, dubbed “Generation Gigaspeed,” is coming from. The Communications Workers of America is also afraid the money will come, in part, from significant downsizing and salary cuts.

Earlier this week, Altice announced it was spinning off its engineering and technical workers to a new independent entity — Altice Technical Services (ATS). When the spinoff is complete, it will employ as many as 4,500 of Altice’s current workforce of 17,000 employees nationwide, and will eventually manage Cablevision and Suddenlink service calls, outdoor network plant design, construction and maintenance, and house all of Altice’s employees servicing commercial accounts.

Although details remain murky, the union is concerned Altice could be engineering an end run around the New York Public Service Commission’s order approving the buyout of Cablevision if Altice did not lay off any New York workers for the next four years.

“We’re very concerned,” CWA District 1 assistant to the vice president Robert Master said. “But we haven’t fully unpacked it yet. We don’t know what they have in mind.”

CWA District 1 organizer Tim Dubnau was more blunt, telling Multichannel News: “We definitely smell a rat.”

Assuming ATS is configured as an independent entity, it will not be required to adhere to the NY PSC order prohibiting reductions of Cablevision’s customer-facing workforce in New York State, which theoretically could allow Altice to dramatically downsize.

Outside of New York, Altice’s cost cutting has followed a long established pattern company executives have followed in Europe for years, where Altice also offers service. In France, battles over toiletries and office supplies resulted in workers bringing their own toilet tissue to work. Downsizing, despite regulatory orders prohibiting layoffs, went ahead in France as company officials thumbed their noses at regulators. In the United States, a familiar pattern is emerging, charges Altice’s critics. Almost 600 call center workers were terminated in November in Connecticut, and other cutbacks have taken place in North Carolina and other states.

Late last week, the NY Post reported Cablevision employees are now complaining about an increasingly miserable office life as they endure penny-penching from their bosses. In New York, top management reportedly ordered the removal of many office printers to reduce the expense of replacement ink cartridges. Office cleaning expenses have also been reportedly slashed by increasing the length of time between cleanings. Even the cost of an ice machine for a break room has come under intense scrutiny, as cost management specialists demand better deals and less costly equipment. Much of the removed equipment provides one last service to Altice – a tax write-off after being removed from service and donated to charities.

Employees report unprecedented intensity of cost cutting and lengthy scrutiny of almost every expense. Some claim to have resorted to buying certain equipment and supplies out of pocket just to avoid drawing management scrutiny. Employee morale is reportedly low — especially at Cablevision, where reduced pay packages predominate under Altice ownership. Management has told employees to hold out for a planned IPO, which could allow them to reap some of the benefits of a Wall Street-fueled cash-raising exercise likely to be put to work buying up other cable operators in 2017.

The pain of cost-cutting isn’t exactly reaching the top level executive suites, however. Despite a very public dispensing of Cablevision’s lush Dolan family corporate jet immediately after Altice took ownership of Cablevision, a replacement nearly identical to the original was quietly been put into service for the benefit of Altice’s management, according to the newspaper.

Assuming Altice can raise the money to pay for its fiber upgrade, it is expected to be completed within five years for all Cablevision and most, but not all Suddenlink 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.”

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.

CenturyLink Buying Level 3 Communications for $24 Billion

Phillip Dampier October 31, 2016 CenturyLink, Competition, Reuters 1 Comment

centurylink(Reuters) – CenturyLink, Inc. said it would buy Level 3 Communications, Inc., in a deal valued at about $24 billion to expand its reach in the competitive market that provides communications services to business customers.

CenturyLink’s shares slumped 12.4 percent to $26.61 in afternoon trading on Monday, while shares of Level 3 surged 4.9 percent to $56.73.

The cash-and-stock deal, expected to close in the third quarter of 2017, comes as the companies struggle with a slowdown in their core operations and as they face telecommunications rivals like AT&T Inc., Comcast, and Verizon Communications Inc., who also offer internet and phone services to businesses.

CenturyLink aims to create a formidable enterprise telecom player as business clients seek more bandwidth and faster networks to move data traffic.

“We’ve become a much larger and more focused enterprise player,” CenturyLink Chief Executive Glen Post said in an interview after the deal was announced on Monday.

“Together with Level 3, we will have one of the most robust fiber network and high-speed data services companies in the world,” Post said separately in a statement.

Post, who has worked at CenturyLink since 1976, will lead the combined company, while Level 3 Chief Financial Officer Sunit Patel will be chief financial officer.

Analysts were concerned over the fact that CenturyLink will be using its shares to cover the purchase price, which they said would raise its debt-to-equity ratio.

“Our hangup on valuation stems from the fact that CenturyLink is using its shares to fund 60 percent of the purchase price,” Morningstar analyst Michael Hodel said in a research note.

Big Premium

The offer of about $66.50 per share represents a premium of 42 percent to Level 3’s close on Wednesday before reports surfaced on a potential pact between the two companies.

CenturyLink CEO and President Glen F. Post

CenturyLink CEO and President Glen F. Post

CenturyLink, which reported third-quarter earnings on Monday, forecast lower-than-expected fourth-quarter revenue of $4.28 billion-$4.34 billion, dragged by a decline in its wireline business. The company expects an adjusted profit of 53-59 cents per share for the quarter.

Analysts polled by Reuters expect revenue of $4.38 billion and earnings of 64 cents in the fourth quarter.

Monroe, La.-based CenturyLink, which provides telephone services mainly in rural areas, has been investing to grow its enterprise business and upgrade its networks in recent years. Level 3 has one of the most desirable global fiber networks and provides internet services to clients like Apple and Netflix.

Including debt, the deal is valued at about $34 billion and would result in cost savings of $975 million per year, CenturyLink executives said on a conference call with investors.

“These are two companies looking for scale and synergies in reaction to the struggles that both companies are facing in their core business to deliver on growth,” BTIG analyst Walter Piecyk said in an email.

CenturyLink, which operates more than 55 data centers in North America, Europe and Asia and provides broadband, voice, video, data and managed services, has been exploring a sale of some of its data center assets. That sale process is underway, CenturyLink executives said on the call.

Colorado-based Level 3 narrowly avoided bankruptcy in the early 2000s and was helped by got a cash infusion of $500 million in 2002 from investors including Warren Buffett. It purchased enterprise company TW Telecom in 2014 for $5.65 billion.

It’s unlikely that the CenturyLink-Level 3 deal would face regulatory hurdles, analysts said.

The global enterprise market is “so crowded with competition, with more and more new entrants building fiber every day that we see little cause for concern by regulators,” Drexel Hamilton analyst Barry Sine said in a research note.

The breakup fee is of a “normal size” and will be divulged when CenturyLink files its merger agreement with regulators shortly, Post said without providing details.

(Reporting by Malathi Nayak in New York; Narottam Medhora and Supantha Mukherjee in Bengaluru; Additional reporting by Lauren Hirsch in New York; Editing by Shounak Dasgupta and Bernadette Baum)

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