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Frontier’s Troubles Mount: Company Rejects Low-Ball Offers for Assets, Worries About Its Debt

Phillip Dampier June 14, 2018 Consumer News, Frontier No Comments

Frontier’s acquired service area in central Florida is depicted in orange.

Frontier Communications failed to attract any credible bids for its Florida service area it hoped to sell to raise cash to help pay down its massive debts, now reaching 23 times the size of the market value of its outstanding shares of stock.

Frontier’s money problems come largely from its 2016 $10.54 billion acquisition of Verizon Communications’ wireline operations in California, Texas and Florida (CTF). That added to Frontier’s debt, which now amounts to $17.8 billion, racked up mostly through acquisitions and merger activity.

After acquiring the ex-Verizon service areas, customers fled because of Frontier’s poor performance. Customers complained about lengthy service interruptions, inaccurate billing, and poor customer service. Frontier executives originally trumpeted the CTF acquisition as a crown jewel in the company’s portfolio. To some analysts, it now appears to be an albatross around the company’s neck, threatening to create serious financial problems when some of the company’s bond-financed debts mature in 2021 and 2022.

In February, a source told Bloomberg News the company could not expect to sell off its territories in one transaction, because there weren’t likely to be any buyers. Instead, Frontier offered buyers pieces of its network with the hope of attracting regional telecom companies, private equity and hedge fund investors, or local fiber optic service providers. In late May, Frontier revealed it had received multiple bids for pieces of its Florida operation, but no offer was adequately high enough to proceed.

Now that an asset sale appears to be unlikely, Frontier executives are in talks with their bondholders to figure out what will come next. It is a critical moment for the company, which is currently paying over $1.5 billion in interest annually, at an average interest rate of 8.1%. Refinancing debt could prove costly as interest rates have risen. Another option is bankruptcy reorganization, which other telecom companies have done to shed debt.

Frontier’s executives are in a difficult position. If they set the asking price for their assets too high, there will be no buyers. If they adjust prices downwards, it could attract fire sale buyers and signal the marketplace the company is desperate, weakening the value of its remaining assets.

“The Florida sale wasn’t going to de-lever the company meaningfully, but it would have given them a little more flexibility to handle their 2021 and 2022 maturities,” Lindsay Gibbons, an analyst at Creditsights, Inc., told Bloomberg News. “The problem is that they have a weak negotiating position. If they sold Florida for less than what they paid, it wouldn’t look good and it puts a watermark on the other asset values.”

NextGen Fiber: 10 Gbps XGS-PON Heads to Frontier, Greenlight Networks

As gigabit internet becomes more common across the United States, some ISPs are seeking a speed advantage by offering even faster speeds to residential and business customers. On Tuesday, Nokia announced Frontier Communications and Rochester, N.Y.-based Greenlight Networks would be upgrading their fiber networks to the company’s XGS-PON solution, which can handle 10 Gbps upload and download speeds.

“Next Generation PON technologies such as XGS-PON are increasingly being deployed as demand for ultra-broadband applications and services continue to grow,” said Julie Kunstler, principal analyst at Ovum, in a statement. “Providing operators with the ability to use the same passive and active plants, XGS-PON solutions like Nokia’s can be quickly deployed and used to capture 10Gbps service opportunities that help operators to improve the return on their existing fiber network investments.”

Many existing fiber networks currently rely on GPON (gigabit passive optical network) technology — which allows one fiber in a bundle of fibers to service multiple homes and businesses. GPON networks are typically capable of download speeds of 2.488 Gbps and shared upstream speeds of 1.244 Gbps. Many ISPs using GPON technology typically offer fast download speeds, but often slower upload speeds.

Next generation XGS-PON allows up to 10 Gbps in both directions over existing fiber networks. In fact, the technology is future proof, allowing operators to immediately upgrade to faster speeds and later move towards Full TWDM-PON, an even more robust technology, without expensive network upgrades.

Most providers are leveraging XGS-PON technology to deliver symmetrical broadband — same upload and download speeds — to residential customers and to expand network capacity to avoid congestion. XPS-PON technology also supports faster-than-gigabit speeds than can be attractive to commercial customers.

Frontier intends to deploy Nokia’s technology in ex-Verizon markets in California, Texas, and Florida, beginning in Dallas-Fort Worth. It will allow Frontier to beef up its FiOS network and market stronger broadband products to Texas businesses. In Rochester, Greenlight will use the technology to upgrade its fiber service, which competes locally with Frontier DSL and Charter/Spectrum. Spectrum recently introduced gigabit download speed in Rochester. Greenlight can now expand beyond its 1 Gbps offering, but more importantly, increase its maximum upload speed beyond 100 Mbps.

“Greenlight is constantly looking at ways we can deliver new services that fit every customer need. We pride ourselves on offering the fastest internet speeds available in the markets we serve and Nokia’s XGS-PON technology will play a critical part in our ability to deliver these services to our customers,” said Greenlight CEO Mark Murphy. “With Nokia’s next-generation PON fiber solution we will be able to deliver the latest technologies, applications, products and services quickly and reliably to our customers and ensure they have access to the ultra-broadband speeds and capacity they require now and in the future.”

Nokia points out its XGS-PON technology may also be very attractive to wireless companies considering deploying 5G services. Extensive fiber assets available in area neighborhoods will be crucial for the success of millimeter wave 5G technology, which relies on small cells placed around neighborhoods and fed by fiber optics.

Control Freak: Frontier Goes All Out to Limit Minnesota Investigation

Frontier Communications spent more time working on ways to keep Minnesota customers from turning up at upcoming public hearings to discuss their poor service than actually resolving those customers’ service troubles.

Minnesota has a big problem with Frontier. The company has been the subject of an unprecedented number of customer complaints and negative comments — 439 in just a five-week period from Feb. 12 – March 19, 2018 about poor service, repair crews that don’t show up, woefully inadequate internet service, poor billing and customer service practices, and false advertising. As a result, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) launched an investigation into Frontier’s service performance in the state (Note: most links in this article will require a free account at the Minnesota Department of Commerce to read. Register here.), which is about the same time Frontier’s top executives in the state began a campaign of damage control focused primarily on keeping internet complaints out of the public record.

The complaints, summarized below by the Minnesota PUC, are familiar to many Frontier Communications customers around the country:

Some parties allege being without telephone service for about a week’s time on multiple occasions. Such instances resulted in customers being unable to access 911 or connect medical devices dependent on land telephone lines. Missed incoming calls, noise on phone lines and other phone quality complaints are not infrequent. Nearly all comments mention that they are being charged for service product(s) not being provided as promised, often with related billing and cancellation disputes as a consequence.

Nearly all parties complain that Frontier’s customer service representatives provide inconsistent information on available service in the customer’s area and its price. Many report routinely being sold higher level (more costly) service or hardware as a remedy for service problems that remain or return after the recommended solution is in place. Customers often note being told later that the upgraded service they were sold is not available at their location.

Many complaints concern home service visits that require subsequent visits to correct or augment earlier actions, often with charges but no resulting remedy. Often customers say they experience long delays in getting repairs scheduled, must take lengthy time from work to await for service representatives to arrive only to find problems cannot be remedied. Missed service appointments, mistaken disconnections, unrequested service additions, installation and wiring errors are common complaints.

Customers frequently report discovering they are allegedly on a contract with penalties for ending service early even if they had explicitly refused to accept long term contracts. Apparently such contracts automatically renew without customer notice upon payment of the first month of the new period. Customers indicate being warned of damaging credit reports in addition to accumulating penalties if they do not pay disputed bills. Billing disputes also include promised discounts not being provided, penalties accumulating on disputed amounts, and checks being sent but not being credited to accounts.

Based on decades of experience, the PUC staff knew trouble when they saw it, and found the complaints about Frontier credible and serious.

“The total number of comments and complaints, often with detailed documentation, appears to indicate that widespread problems with service quality, customer service and billing exist,” PUC staffers wrote. “Customers express the very highest levels of frustration over service quality and over their interactions with Frontier representatives. Customers express despair over their billing and lack of alternatives. Finally, they express outright ‘gratitude for the hope that someone might come to their aid.”

Customers hoping for rescue discovered Frontier’s legal team instead, on a mission to do everything possible to limit the scope of the state’s investigation and discourage public participation by suggesting customers with internet complaints would not be welcome at the hearings.

Frontier, joined by fellow independent phone company CenturyLink, immediately realized the implications of holding public hearings about the performance of their DSL service in Minnesota. Both companies likely receive an even larger number of service complaints than regulators do, and here is just a sampling:

‘If you don’t like our service in the countryside, move to town!’

Graham Adams: “We have had Frontier for a little over 2 years and have had nothing but problems. Internet is constantly out for days sometimes weeks at a time. I think it’s preposterous they can charge me $42 a month for 5 Mbps service that is inconsistent at best. Because we live outside city limits Frontier is the only internet service available.”

Christopher Krolak:  “I have been a Frontier Communications customer for about 4.5 years. I live in an area where there isn’t a lot of competition for high speed internet. I pay $30 per month for “up to 6 Mbps” service but real world speeds are best case 2 Mbps and fall to 0.3 Mbps during peak times. When I’ve called about the large discrepancy between advertised speed and actual speed, Frontier has responded that the area I live in is only provisioned for about 2 Mbps speed and an infrastructure upgrade is required. Frontier is unwilling to give any timeline forecast for when such upgrade will be made.”

Sylvia Svihel: “We have been a customer of Frontier’s for 41 years as it has been the only land line in our area. Our phone, internet and Dish service are tied into the same package. The prices keep going up. We did upgrade our service for a faster speed but we see zero improvement on the speed…just an even higher bill. I have lost track of how many times we have contacted Frontier on lost service. They usually just say it’s the modem and to reboot it and everything will be OK. I reboot the modem, sometimes multiple times a day.”

Jay Johnson: “I have been a Frontier customer for internet for a long time. The service I pay for is “up to 6 Mbps” but I’d be lucky to get 1.2 Mbps. They have a monopoly in this part of Mille Lacs County. There are really no other options other than satellite or cellular and those are not really any better speed and certainly not price.”

Roger Wikstrom: “We have had Frontier service for 32 years. Beginning about 20 years ago we added internet service, which has always been unreliable. […]We complained many times and had dozens of service calls over the years. At one point, the technician told us we were out in the country, the brass at Frontier did not really care about our service, and that if we wanted good service from Frontier, we should move to town.”

Based on a growing record of complaints, the PUC sought to hold public hearings to gather more information from consumers and to better understand the problems being experienced by Frontier customers. Almost immediately, Frontier began to claim the complaints were few and far between, and most of the complaints seen on the record pertain to the company’s DSL internet service, which Frontier claims is not subject to oversight by the PUC and cannot be a subject on the agenda of the public hearings.

Frontier’s Lawyers: It would confuse customers and give them false hope if they believed the Commission can force Frontier to improve DSL service.

Frontier’s attorneys lecture the Minnesota Department of Commerce

Frontier’s attorneys have repeatedly objected to any investigation or hearings that cover anything beyond the performance of Frontier’s landline telephone service. Frontier was joined by CenturyLink, which also argues Minnesota no longer has any jurisdiction over broadband issues, noting a state court recently ruled telecommunications services are subject to state regulation and oversight, while “information services” like internet access are not.

Frontier was particularly irritated that the hearings could stray into an open mic session filled with consumers upset about Frontier’s DSL service. Unless customers were warned in advance the public meetings were not to include discussions about internet service, it “would create false expectations and confusion for customers.” In fact, if regulators permitted this, Frontier claims it would “violate federal law.”

“Holding public hearings directed to internet access service complaints would not be constructive because the Commission would be precluded from taking action concerning internet service rates or service quality using any information it may collect during the public hearings,” Frontier added.

Here is where the Republican-dominated FCC comes to the aid of Frontier and CenturyLink. At the insistence of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, stripping away state oversight of poorly performing telecom companies was a key industry benefit gained with the implementation of Pai’s “Restoring Internet Freedom Order,” implemented on Jan. 8, 2018. That FCC Order swept away former FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler’s favored classification of broadband as a “telecommunications service,” which is subject to oversight, and instead put it firmly back in unregulated territory as an “information service.” That proved helpful to CenturyLink’s argument:

In making its decision the FCC broadly preempted state regulation and decided that “regulation of broadband Internet access service should be governed principally by a uniform set of federal regulations, rather than by a patchwork that includes separate state and local requirements.” The FCC expressly preempted any ‘public utility-type’ regulations, . . . akin to those found in Title II of the Act and its implementing rules . . .”

Frontier’s lawyers made so much noise about the prospect of internet complaints being heard at public hearings, the Commission elected to allow Frontier to draft the public hearing notices that would be inserted into customer bills and published in newspapers around the state. The Commission also allowed Frontier to clarify the limits of the Commission’s jurisdiction over internet service — a decision it would soon regret.

Minnesota is unusual because it is served by dozens of smaller, typically independent telephone companies, which include Frontier and its subsidiary Citizens Telecommunications of Minnesota.

Give Frontier an inch, and they take a mile, according to some company critics who told Stop the Cap! were astonished on April 30th when Frontier shared its draft notice with the public. The Minnesota attorney general’s office politely characterized Frontier’s notice as a “very narrow reading of the Commission’s jurisdiction over internet service.”

Here it is, as originally proposed by Frontier in April:

The jurisdiction of the MPUC includes telephone services, but does not include Internet services or the speed or quality of access or connections to the Internet or the communications services, such as Voice Over IP, that are provided using only the Internet.

The attorney general’s office objected to Frontier’s characterization of VoIP phone service as completely unregulated. A subsequent proposed revision by Frontier was not welcomed by the attorney general’s office either:

The jurisdiction of the MPUC includes telephone services, but does not include Internet access services or the rates, speed, quality, or availability of Internet services.

After motions to reconsider, the Commission ultimately reversed its earlier decision allowing Frontier to write its own text:

While the Commission does not want to mislead the public into believing the Commission has jurisdiction over matters that are solely within the province of federal entities, neither does the Commission want to erroneously disavow any aspect of the jurisdiction it does have over the goods and services that Frontier provides to its Minnesota customers.

Given the tension between these two objectives—and the fact that this dispute is arising in the context of drafting the language of a public notice—the Commission will resolve this matter by simply eliminating the requirement that the notice address the topic of the Commission’s jurisdiction over aspects of internet services.

Frontier DSL in Watertown: “47 minutes to upload one small photo to Facebook.”

While Frontier argues about jurisdiction issues, customers like Dr. Kathleen McCann — a dentist serving rural Watertown Township in Carver County, share their stories about how inadequate internet access directly harms local communities, and in her case, her patients.

Dr. McCann

“Frontier Communications is my only option for internet,” McCann told regulators. “My internet service is worse than dial-up. I am charged for ‘DSL High Speed Broadband’ on my monthly bill, but my download speeds are only averaging 2 Mbps and the upload speeds average 0.28 Mbps. As a dentist, I am not able to email dental X-rays. It took me 47 minutes to upload one small photo to Facebook recently.”

McCann added what is even worse than her DSL speed is Frontier’s service. She claims there are “frequent drops” every day, and a technician from Frontier measured an average of 20 small service outages a day. One day her service dropped 400 times. Outages can last days.

“The most recent Frontier internet outage began March 3 and as of March 7, there are at least 27 homes in my neighborhood still without internet service,” McCann added. “This is unacceptable, especially since many of these 27 Frontier customers are running their businesses entirely from home. Calls to Frontier, when finally answered after sometimes 40 minutes on hold, are ineffective.”

Public meetings to discuss Frontier service are scheduled in these areas of Minnesota (exact locations to be determined):

  • Ely: September 4, 2018, at 6:00 p.m.
  • McGregor: September 5, 2018, at 6:00 p.m.
  • Wyoming: September 12, 2018, at 6:00 p.m.
  • Slayton: September 25, 2018, at 6:00 p.m.
  • Lakeville: September 26, 2018, at 2:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m.

Conn. Regulator Bans Public Broadband to Protect Comcast, Frontier, and Altice from Competition

Connecticut’s telecommunications regulator has effectively banned public broadband in the state, ruling that municipalities cannot use their reserved space on utility poles if it means competing with the state’s dominant telecom companies — Comcast, Altice, and Frontier Communications.

The ruling by Connecticut’s Public Utilities Regulatory Authority (PURA) is a death-blow for municipalities seeking to build gigabit fiber networks to offer residents the broadband speeds and services that incumbent phone and cable companies either refuse to provide or offer at unaffordable prices.

Among the petitioners appealing to PURA to protect them from competition is Frontier Communications, which owns a large number of utility poles across the state acquired from AT&T. The company was unhappy that municipalities were planning to use reserved space on state utility poles to construct fiber to the home networks that are generally superior to what Frontier offers consumers and businesses in the state. Other providers, like Frontier, said little about the early 1900s Connecticut statute that guarantees municipalities “right of use space” on poles until it became clear some communities were planning to threaten their monopoly/duopoly profits.

The law was originally written to deal with the dynamic telecommunications marketplace that was common in the U.S. during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Utility pole owners were confronted with a myriad of companies selling telegraph and telephone service — all seeking a place on increasingly crowded poles. Local governments could have been crowded out, were it not for the “Act Concerning the Use of Telegraph and Telephone Poles,” approved on July 19, 1905. It was one sentence long:

Every town, city, or borough shall have the right to occupy and use for municipal purposes, without payment therefor, the top gain of every pole now or hereafter erected by any telephone or telegraph company within the limits of any such town, city, or borough.

The law stood as written until 2013, when the legislature clarified exactly who could benefit from the use of “municipal gain.” Where the original law effectively protected reserved pole space for “municipal” use, the language was broadened in 2013 to read “for any purpose.”

Observers said the law was modified because of ongoing disputes with pole owners relating to planned municipal broadband projects. Frontier, in particular, has sought restrictive pole attachment agreements with communities trying to build out their broadband networks. In addition to accusations of foot-dragging over issues like “make ready” — when existing pole users move wiring closer together to make room for new providers, Frontier has tried to impose restrictive language on communities that would permanently restrict their ability to offer service. The most common restriction is to compel towns to agree to use their pole space exclusively “for government use,” which would restrict third-party providers hired to manage a community’s municipal broadband service.

PURA’s decision surprised many, because it completely ignored the 2013 language changes and relied instead on its perception of a conflict between state and federal laws. PURA ruled “municipal gain” establishes “preferential access” for towns and communities, and could be in conflict with the federal Communications Act, which mandates “non-discriminatory access” to utility poles, and prohibits local governments from blocking companies from providing telecommunications services.

“Providing municipal entities free access to the communications gain for the purpose of offering competitive telecommunications services … appears to be inconsistent with these principals and other aspects of federal law,” the decision reads.

In the early 20th century, vibrant competition meant a lot of utility poles were crowded with wires.

Except communities are not seeking to block providers looking to offer broadband service. These communities are seeking to become a provider. Pole attachment controversies typically relate to unreasonable limits on access to poles and allegations of price gouging pole attachment fees, not “preferential access.”

The end effect of PURA’s ruling: communities can use their pole space for government or institutional purposes only, such as building closed fiber networks available only in public buildings like libraries, schools, town halls, and police and fire departments. It also means any community seeking to build a fiber broadband network serving homes and businesses will either have to pay market rates for pole space, give up on the project, or place all the project’s wiring exclusively underground — a potentially costly alternative to aerial cable and one likely to cost taxpayers millions.

“We are very disappointed in the decision,” Consumer Counsel Elin Katz told Hartford Business. Katz is a strong supporter of municipal broadband. “It ignores the plain language of the statute, and by deciding that [municipal gain] cannot be used by our cities and towns to provide broadband to those affected by the digital divide, denies our municipalities a tool provided by the legislature for just that purpose.”

Frontier and the state’s cable and wireless companies, however, are delighted PURA has come to their rescue, calling its decision “fully consistent with the law.”

“Frontier Communications continues to support efforts to expand broadband access in Connecticut,” said spokesman Andy Malinowski. “PURA reached the correct result. This decision helps ensure the continuation of robust broadband competition in our state.”

The New England Cable & Telecommunications Association (NECTA), the cable industry’s regional lobbying group in the region, was also happy to see an end to unchecked municipal broadband growth and the competition it will bring.

“Our members, who pay millions of dollars annually to rent space on utility poles, offer competitive broadband services with speeds ranging up to 1 gigabit-per-second for residential Connecticut customers, in addition to offering speeds up to 10 gigabits for business customers,” noted NECTA CEO Paul Cianelli.

Other supporters of PURA’s decision include the wireless industry lobbying group CTIA and the Communications Workers of America — unionized employees at Frontier Communications who fear their jobs may be at risk if a municipal provider gives Connecticut customers an additional option for broadband service.

PURA’s decision leaves little room for municipal broadband expansion efforts that have been underway in the state for a decade. Most projects that cannot afford to pay for space on utility poles or the cost to switch to underground cable burial will probably not survive unless a court overturns the regulator’s decision or the state legislature clarifies state law in a way that makes PURA’s current interpretation untenable.

A number of groups are considering suing PURA to overturn its decision, noting the regulator completely ignored the very clear and understandable 2013 language that allows municipalities to use their allotted space on utility poles “for any purpose.” That purpose includes giving the state’s telecom duopoly some competition.

Rochester Philanthropist Tom Golisano Acquiring Greenlight Networks

Golisano

Rochester billionaire and philanthropist Thomas Golisano is seeking expedited regulatory approval from New York’s Public Service Commission to acquire Rochester-based Greenlight Networks, LLC, a fiber to the home network provider for an undisclosed sum.

Greenlight Networks has been slowly overbuilding Charter/Spectrum and Frontier Communications’ service areas in eastern Monroe County since 2012, offering subscribers gigabit internet access. But time may be running short for Greenlight’s competitive broadband speed advantage. Charter Communications is reportedly planning to introduce gigabit service as early as April 25th throughout upstate New York, except for Buffalo.

The urgency of the transaction’s approval is clear in the companies’ filing with state officials requesting an expedited review and approval of the transaction.

“Greenlight’s […] need for working capital and the optimization of capital structure required for long-term success in the competitive telecommunications industry are matters for urgent consideration,” the application states. “Greenlight seeks Commission approval in order to avoid unnecessary delays in the completion of its network expansion projects and in order to secure valuable, committed, outside investors who share Greenlight’s vision and believe in its ability to execute on its plan.”

Greenlight’s success is likely dependent on its ability to rapidly expand its fiber optic network before its biggest competitor, Charter’s Spectrum, capitalizes on its forthcoming ability to match Greenlight’s download speeds. Greenlight receives praise from subscribers lucky enough to live in a neighborhood reached by its network. But residents also report frustration over the slow pace of the company’s fiber network expansion, particularly in suburbs west of the Genesee River that bisects the city of Rochester.

Golisano’s Grand Oaks LLC of Pittsford, N.Y. promises customers the acquisition will not result in any changes in Greenlight’s rates or its terms and conditions.

The petition claims the acquisition is in the public interest because it will offer Greenlight much-needed additional capital to accelerate deployment of its fiber network inside Rochester and beyond. Greenlight’s website suggests the company is considering expansion into the New York State cities of Albany, Binghamton, Buffalo, Ithaca, Syracuse, and the Finger Lakes Region. In Connecticut, the company is considering serving Bridgeport, Danbury, Hartford, New Haven, and Stamford (the corporate home of Frontier Communications). Grand Oak also promises to grow jobs at Greenlight and increase operational efficiency at the company.

Golisano is well-known in Rochester as an entrepreneur, philanthropist, and civic leader. Golisano founded Paychex, a leading national payroll service provider in 1971. After his retirement in 2004, Golisano has been actively involved in local civic causes and advocates for policies promoting improvement in the economy of western New York State.

The application is likely to be approved, but not soon enough to combat Charter Communications’ accelerated broadband upgrades across New York State. By early summer, Spectrum customers across New York State will receive 200 Mbps Standard service, 400 Mbps Ultra service, or 940 Mbps (nearly gigabit) Gigabit service from the cable operator at prices ranging from $65-125 a month. In contrast, Greenlight currently offers customers 100 Mbps for $50, 500 Mbps for $75, or 1,000 Mbps for $100 a month.

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