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West Virginia Legislature Won’t Consider Any Bill That Could Offend Frontier, GOP Delegate Claims

frontier loveThe Republican leadership of West Virginia’s House of Delegates is alleged to have quietly placed a ban on considering any bill that could potentially offend Frontier Communications, frustrating state lawmakers attempting to introduce broadband improvement and consumer protection measures.

In a press release posted to his Facebook page, Delegate Randy Smith (R-Preston) complained that the House GOP leadership told him his two broadband-related bills waiting for consideration would “go nowhere because it would hurt Frontier.”

“Frontier has its hands in the state Capitol,” Smith said in the release obtained by the Charleston Gazette. “The company knows how to play hardball with the legislative process.”

When asked to name names of those obstructing his broadband-related measures, Smith declined, at least for now.

“It was one individual,” Smith said. “He said leadership wouldn’t support this because they feel like it’s targeting Frontier. If it comes to the point I have to, I’ll give names. I know you’re wanting names.”

Last December, Smith’s frustration with Frontier boiled over.

Smith

Smith

“For too long, West Virginia has lagged behind other states when it comes to accessible computer technology and infrastructure,” Smith said. “We’ve been offered excuses about our state being too mountainous for improving conditions here. But it’s not the state’s rugged terrain holding us back. Although a few areas of the state have a choice of service providers, most are stuck with whatever Frontier decides is enough. And not only do I receive complaints about their service, there are multiple grievances about how they bill their customers. We can, and must, do more to create competition to drive the quality of services up and drive costs down.”

“This is not a Republican or Democrat issue. This is a West Virginia issue,” Smith said. “And we need to catch up to other states in the 21st century.”

For the first time in 80 years, Republicans won a majority in the House of Delegates, pledging to transform West Virginia into a “business friendly state.” But even Smith, an assistant majority whip for the new Republican leadership, seemed stunned by the willingness to grant Frontier de facto veto power over telecom-related legislation.

Last week he learned his two broadband bills were essentially dead on arrival, because they would not be supported by Frontier.

  • HB2551, co-sponsored by 10 GOP delegates, would prohibit Internet providers from advertising broadband service as “high-speed Internet” unless the company offered a download speed of 10Mbps or higher. The majority of West Virginia experiences real world speeds far slower than that from Frontier;
  • HB2552, intended to address chronic billing problems by Frontier, would allow Internet customers to take billing disputes to Attorney General Patrick Morrisey’s office, if the state Public Service Commission refuses to review their complaints.
Speed tests on Frontier's "High-Speed Max" Internet service aren't high speed at all.

Speed tests on Frontier’s “High-Speed Max” Internet service aren’t high speed at all.

When Smith’s accusations went public in the pages of the Gazette, Republican leaders scrambled to deny his allegations.

House Majority Leader Daryl Cowles (R-Berkeley) told the Gazette House Republicans have no “blanket position” against bills that Frontier opposes.

“There’s no policy by leadership that these bills should move or shouldn’t move based on who’s supporting them or who doesn’t,” Cowles said. “It sounds like Randy is frustrated. He, like many out there, are frustrated by their Internet speeds and service.”

“I was told Friday that there’s no way those bills were going to run,” Smith countered.

Frontier won’t deny its disapproval of Smith’s bills.

“We’re the only provider that chooses to serve much of rural West Virginia, and we see the legislation as having a negative effect on further development of rural broadband services,” said Frontier spokesman Dan Page.

Frontier customers in West Virginia are among the company’s most vocal critics nationwide, complaining about unavailability of DSL, billing errors, poor service, and most common of all: selling service and speed the company cannot consistently deliver. A statewide class action lawsuit against Frontier for failing to provide advertised speeds has attracted hundreds of Frontier customers. The suit maintains Frontier has engaged in “false advertising,” a violation of the state’s Consumer Credit and Protection Act.

Smith introduced the two broadband measures partly out of his own frustration with the company.

Cowles

Cowles

“I regularly conduct speed tests on my Internet connection and the results are laughable,” Smith told his mostly rural constituents. “I’ve had download speeds of around 0.20Mbps. No wonder they’re called Frontier. Those are the kinds of speeds you’d expect on the American frontier in the 17th century.”

Smith recognized some members of his own party will take Frontier’s side over his.

“Of course, my bills don’t go over well with some members of my own party,” Smith said. “But right is right and wrong is wrong.”

On cue, Cowles rushed to Frontier’s defense.

“Frontier has been trying to spend money to upgrade service, but it hasn’t been easy for those guys,” Cowles said. “We’re trying to expand broadband and improve the speeds everywhere we can. We try to nudge Frontier when we can, push them when we can, while we respect their investment.”

A considerable part of that “investment” came at the cost of U.S. taxpayers. Last fall, the U.S. Department of Commerce’s inspector general announced an investigation into how Frontier spent a $42 million federal stimulus grant in the state. The inspector general is reviewing thousands of pages of documents turned over by the company. Critics contend Frontier spent the stimulus funds to defray the cost of a statewide fiber network Frontier now owns and controls.

Cowles told the Gazette that despite the media attention on the issue, he remained unsure if Smith’s bills would ever reach the House floor for consideration.

At least three House members — two Republicans and one Democrat — work for Frontier.

Frontier’s Acquisition of Verizon Landline/FiOS Properties in Calif., Tex., and Fla. Called “Insane”

Frontier Communications today announced a $10.54 billion all-cash acquisition of Verizon’s wired networks, including landline and FiOS properties, in the states of Florida, California, and Texas.

Frontier will acquire Verizon’s wireline operations that offer services to residential, commercial and wholesale customers numbering 3.7 million voice connections, 2.2 million broadband connections, and 1.2 million FiOS video connections. The acquired territory is 54 percent served by FiOS fiber to the home service.

frontier expanded improvement

“This transaction marks a natural evolution for our company and leverages our proven skills and established track record from previous integrations,” said Maggie Wilderotter, Frontier Communications chairman and chief executive officer. “These properties are a great fit for Frontier and will strengthen our presence in competitive suburban markets and accelerate our recent market share gains. We look forward to realizing the benefits this transaction will bring to our shareholders, customers and employees.”

Dan McCarthy, Frontier’s president and chief operating officer, commented, “This transaction is an exciting opportunity for Frontier. We are well-positioned to maximize value for our shareholders and create a great experience for new customers. We have four FiOS markets today from our 2010 transaction with Verizon, and a high level of familiarity with the systems underlying these properties. We plan to flash-cut convert these properties to Frontier’s systems as we did in states including West Virginia and Connecticut.”

frontierBut Frontier’s “flash cut” conversions in West Virginia and Connecticut led to months of serious service and billing problems leading to two state-level investigations into Frontier’s performance. Problems are still ongoing in parts of Connecticut several months after Frontier transferred Connecticut territories from AT&T. Customers in West Virginia continue to criticize Frontier Communications for its underwhelming broadband performance.

Saibus Research, a Wall Street analyst, said they were “stunned” Frontier was repeating the same mistake it made back in 2010 when it acquired other former GTE service areas from Verizon.

“We remembered that its $8.7 billion wireline purchase in 2010 did not work out so well for it,” wrote the analyst. “When we consider that Frontier’s share price declined by nearly 60% from 2010-2012 after the deal closed before recovering those losses since 2012, we were shocked that Frontier’s share price increased by 10.6% in response to its announcement that it was buying assets from Verizon. Frontier’s pro forma revenue has declined by 30% since 2009, its residential consumer base declined by 33%, its operating income declined by 34% and its dividend declined by 60% since then.”

“Albert Einstein said that insanity is doing the same thing over again and expecting a different result and we think that Frontier’s CEO Maggie Wilderotter has come down with a serious case of insanity for her willingness to buy whatever Verizon is selling,” said Saibus Research. “As such, we think income-oriented telecom investors should consider accumulating shares of Verizon, and selling or shorting Frontier.”

Frontier will accumulate billions in new debt to fund the transaction, bad news for legacy Frontier customers still served by the company’s copper wire networks. Frontier hoped to realize $500 million in cost reductions from its 2010 acquisition of Verizon territories in the Pacific Northwest, West Virginia, and several midwestern states. Instead of savings, it ended up spending millions to rehabilitate deteriorating landlines Verizon underinvested in for years. The new unsecured debt load will likely cut into available funds to upgrade older networks, particularly in the northeast and inside New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Frontier will get marginal improvements in programming costs from the greater volume discounts its larger customer base qualifies to receive. But outside of Connecticut (Frontier U-verse) and Washington, Oregon, Indiana and South Carolina (Frontier FiOS), the rest of Frontier’s customers will continue to be offered Dish Network satellite service and various flavors of DSL.

If approved by regulators, the transaction will be finalized in 2016.

Verizon Preparing to Sell $15 Billion in Cell Tower/Wired Assets – Tex., Calif., and Fla., Landlines Likely for Sale

Phillip Dampier February 3, 2015 Consumer News, Verizon 1 Comment
Verizon's landline coverage map.

Verizon’s landline coverage map.

Verizon is working on a sale of its cellphone towers and a portion of its landline assets in a series of deals that could fetch the company more than $15 billion, according to a breaking report in the Wall Street Journal.

The company is looking to raise cash to pay down debt incurred when it bought out Vodafone’s 45% share of its wireless unit and to cover $10.4 billion in wireless licenses the company just won in a government auction last week.

The most likely targets in a landline sale are Verizon territories outside of the northeast.

Verizon has already dumped its landline assets in Hawaii (sold to Hawaiian Telcom), northern New England (sold to FairPoint Communications), West Virginia and many smaller city and suburban territories acquired from GTE (all sold to Frontier).

In its 2010 sale to Frontier, Verizon retained assets in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area, central Texas and Southern California regions. But now all three states are prime targets for a sale. Likely buyers include Frontier Communications, which already has a major presence in Florida including a national call center, and CenturyLink, which acquired Qwest and has a large service area in the southwest and western United States. Frontier remains the most likely buyer, having aggressively expanded its landline network in legacy AT&T (Connecticut) and Verizon service areas.

Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam has shown little interest in maintaining Verizon’s wired assets or growing FiOS and has been willing to sell off major parts of Verizon’s landline network to continue prioritizing Verizon Wireless. McAdam led Verizon Wireless from 2006-2010, before being named CEO of Verizon Communications.

Verizon-logoHe foreshadowed the forthcoming landline sale in January when he told an investor conference he was willing to make significant cuts to Verizon’s wired networks.

“There are certain assets on the wireline side that we think would be better off in somebody else’s hands so we can focus our energy in a little bit more narrow geography,” he said at the time.

Verizon is also expected to follow AT&T’s lead in selling off much of its cell tower portfolio. It will lease access to the towers it sells.

Verizon maintains FiOS networks in Texas, California, and Florida, but that is not expected to deter the company from selling its landline assets. Frontier acquired Verizon FiOS properties in the 2010 sale in both the Pacific Northwest and Indiana. Those services operate under the Frontier FiOS banner today.

Google Fiber Headed to Atlanta, Charlotte, Raleigh-Durham, N.C., Nashville; Avoids Verizon FiOS Country

atlanta fiberGoogle has announced it will bring its fiber broadband service to four new cities — Atlanta, Charlotte, N.C., Raleigh-Durham, N.C. and Nashville, Tenn., according to a report on Google’s Fiber blog.

In a familiar pattern, Google recently sent invitations to local news organizations in those four cities to attend events this week, without identifying the subject.

As with earlier similar events, the topic was the local launch of Google Fiber.

The cities were all on Google’s 2014 list for possible expansion. Those left out (for now) include Salt Lake City, San Antonio, Phoenix, Portland, Ore., and San Jose, Calif. Google recently told city officials in those communities it was still contemplating projects, but remain undecided for now.

After the announcements this week, it will take at least one year before Google is ready to light up the first “fiberhoods” in the cities, usually selected based on customer signups.

Google will challenge Comcast and AT&T in Georgia, Time Warner Cable and CenturyLink in North Carolina, and Comcast and AT&T in Nashville. In Atlanta, the fiber build will not only include Atlanta, but also Avondale Estates, Brookhaven, College Park, Decatur, East Point, Hapeville, Sandy Springs and Smyrna.

expansion

Google will offer unlimited gigabit broadband service for an expected $70 a month. AT&T limits U-verse customers to 250GB in Georgia and Tennessee, and Comcast has subjected both Atlanta and Nashville to its compulsory usage cap experiments, setting a monthly usage allowance at 300GB.

Time Warner Cable does not limit broadband customers in North Carolina, but the Republican-dominated state government is also hostile to community-owned broadband, making it unlikely either Raleigh-Durham or Charlotte will see public broadband competition anytime soon.

Fiber-is-comingGoogle officials have also been reportedly sensitive to local government red tape and regulation. In Portland, the Journal reports Google has put any fiber expansion on hold there because Oregon tax-assessment rules would value Google’s property based on the value of their intangible assets, such as brand. That would cause Google’s property taxes in Oregon to soar. Until the Oregon state legislature makes it clear such rules would not apply to Google Fiber, there will be no Google Fiber in Portland.

Google has also once again shown its reluctance to consider any community or region where Verizon FiOS now provides fiber optic service. The entire northeastern United States, largely dominated by Verizon, has been “no-go” territory for Google, with no communities making it to their list for possible future expansion.

Among the collateral damage are Verizon-less communities in northern New England served by FairPoint Communications and Comcast and portions of western New York served by Frontier Communications where Time Warner Cable has overwhelming dominance with 700,000 subscribers out of 875,000 total households in the Buffalo and Rochester markets.

Wall Street continues to grumble about the Google Fiber experiment, concerned about the high cost of fiber infrastructure and the potential it will create profit-killing price wars that will cut prices for consumers but cost every competitor revenue.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WSOC Charlotte Mayor Google Fiber is coming to Charlotte 1-27-15.flv

Charlotte city manager Ron Carlee spoke exclusively to WSOC-TV’s Jenna Deery about how Charlotte won Google over to bring its fiber service to the community. Having a close working relationship between city infrastructure agencies and Google was essential, as was cutting red tape and bureaucracy. (2:10)

Illinois’ ‘Free AT&T from Regulation and Responsibility’ Bill Returns in 2015

Nobody raises phone rates after deregulation like AT&T.

Nobody raises phone rates after deregulation like AT&T.

AT&T’s bill to maximize profits and minimize responsibility to its customers is back for consideration in the Illinois state legislature.

The Illinois Telecom Act is up for review in the spring and AT&T’s team of lobbyists are gearing up to advocate killing off AT&T’s legal obligation to provide low-cost, reliable landline service to any resident that wants service. AT&T says the measure is a reasonable response to the ongoing decline in its landline customer base, but rural and fixed-income residents fear the phone company will walk away from areas deemed unprofitable to serve and force customers to expensive wireless phone alternatives.

Areas in central and southern Illinois are served by a variety of rural phone companies including AT&T and Frontier Communications. Northeast Illinois is the home of metropolitan Chicago, where businesses depend on reliable phone service and the urban poor and senior residents depend on predictably affordable basic landline service.

The state still has as least 1.3 million residential landline customers paying rates starting at $3 a month for basic “Lifeline” service in Chicago to $9.50 a month for rural flat rate service with a limited local calling area. Cell service costs several times more than AT&T’s basic landline rates and signal quality is often challenged in rural areas. In large sections of Illinois where AT&T has elected not to bring its U-verse fiber to the neighborhood service, customers with basic voice calling and DSL broadband service could find themselves eventually disconnected and forced to switch to AT&T’s wireless residential service.

fat cat attAT&T’s Wireless Home Internet plan charges $60/month for 10GB of Internet use, $90/month for 20GB, and $120/month for 30GB. The overlimit fee is $10 per gigabyte. Telephone service is extra.

Customers will need smartphones or hotspot equipment to reach AT&T’s wireless services. Although often discounted or free for those who sign two-year contracts, credit-challenged customers will be required to pay a steep deposit or buy equipment outright.

“Smartphones are wonderful technology but they don’t come cheap and anybody who has traveled across Illinois knows they’re not always reliable,” David Kolata, executive director of Citizens Utility Board, said at a recent news conference. “Traditional home phone service is the most affordable, reliable option for millions of people and we shouldn’t take away that choice.”

The Federal Communications Commission is currently allowing AT&T to experiment with discontinuing landline service in parts of Alabama and Florida. Customers in urban areas are switched to AT&T’s U-verse service, those in rural areas are switched to cell service. Both services are unregulated. If AT&T can sell the Illinois legislature on abandoning its need to serve as a “carrier of last resort,” the company will have the unilateral right to disconnect service, set rates at will, and be under few, if any, customer service obligations.

In states where AT&T won the near-total deregulation it now seeks in Illinois, phone rates quickly soared. In California, AT&T flat rate calling shot up 115% between 2006 and 2013 — from $10.69 to $23 a month. AT&T also raised prices on calling features and other services.

In earlier trials run by Verizon, similar wireless landline replacement devices lacked support for home medical and security alarm monitoring, did not handle faxes or credit card authorizations, and often lacked precision in locating customers calling 911 in an emergency. The equipment also failed during power outages if the customer lacked battery backup equipment.

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