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Frontier’s Inner Secrets Revealed: ‘We Underinvested for Years’

Frontier Communications has revealed to investors what many probably realized long ago — the independent phone company chronically underinvested in network upgrades and repairs for years, giving customers an excuse to switch providers.

Remarkably, the phone company did not just underperform for its remaining voice and DSL internet customers. In a sprawling confidential “Presentation to Unsecured Bondholders” report produced by Frontier’s top executives, the company admits it was even unable to achieve significant growth in its fiber territories, where Frontier-acquired high-speed FiOS and U-verse fiber networks held out a promise to deliver urgently needed revenue.

Frontier’s bondholders were told the company’s ongoing losses and poor overall performance were unsustainable, despite years of executive “happy talk” about Frontier’s various rescue and upgrade plans. In sobering language, Frontier admitted its capital structure and efforts to deleverage the company’s massive debts were likely to cut the company off from future borrowing opportunities and deter future investment.

The presentation found multiple points of weakness in Frontier’s current business plan:

Voice landline service remains in perpetual decline. Like other companies, Frontier’s residential landline customers left first, but now business customers are also increasingly disconnecting traditional phone service.

About 51% of Frontier’s revenue comes from its residential customers. That number has been declining about 5% annually, year over year as customers leave. Frontier’s internet products are now crucial to the company’s ability to stay in business. Less than 30% of Frontier’s revenue comes from selling home phone lines. For Frontier to remain viable, the company must attract and keep internet customers. For the last several years, it has failed to do either.

Frontier customers are disconnecting the company’s low-speed DSL service in growing numbers, usually leaving for its biggest residential competitor: Charter Spectrum. Frontier remains saddled with a massive and rapidly deteriorating copper wire network. The company disclosed that 79% of its footprint is still served with copper-based DSL. Only 21% of Frontier’s service area is served by fiber optics, after more than a decade of promised upgrades. Frontier’s own numbers prove that where the company still relies on selling DSL, it is losing ground fast. Only its fiber service areas stand a chance. Just consider these numbers:

  • Out of 11 million homes in Frontier’s DSL service area, only 1.5 million customers subscribe. That’s a market share of just 13 percent, and that number declines every quarter.
  • Where Frontier customers can sign up for fiber to the home service, 1.2 million customers have done so, delivering Frontier a respectable 40 percent market share.

Frontier has been promising DSL speed upgrades for over a decade, but the company’s own numbers show a consistent failure to deliver speeds that can meet the FCC’s definition of “broadband,” currently 25 Mbps.

At least 30% of Frontier DSL customers receive between 0-12 Mbps download speed. Another 35% receive between 13-24 Mbps. Only 6% of Frontier customers get the “fast” DSL capable of exceeding 24 Mbps that is touted repeatedly by Frontier executives on quarterly conference calls.

Despite the obvious case for fiber to the home service, Frontier systematically “under-invested in fiber upgrades” in copper service areas at the same time consumers were upgrading broadband to acquire more download speed. Frontier’s report discloses that nearly 40% of consumers in its service area subscribe to internet plans offering 100 Mbps or faster service. Another 40% subscribe to plans offering 25-100 Mbps. In copper service areas, Frontier is speed-competitive in just 6% of its footprint. That leaves most speed-craving customers with only one path to faster speed: switching to another provider, typically the local cable company.

So why would a company like Frontier not immediately hit the upgrade button and start a massive copper retirement-fiber upgrade plan to keep the company in the black? In short, Frontier has survived chronic underinvestment because of a lack of broadband competition. Nearly two million Frontier customers have only one choice for internet access: Frontier. For another 11.3 million, there is only one other choice – a cable company that many detest. Frontier has enjoyed its broadband monopoly/duopoly for at least two decades. So long as its customers have fewer options, Frontier is under less pressure to invest in upgrades.

For years Frontier’s stock was primarily known for its generous dividend payouts to shareholders — money that could have been spent on network upgrades. But what hurt Frontier even more was an aggressive merger and acquisition strategy that acquired castoff landline customers from Verizon and AT&T in several states. In its most recent multi-billion dollar acquisition of Verizon customers in California, Texas, and Florida, Frontier did not achieve the desired financial results after alienating customers with persistent service and billing problems. The longer term legacy of these acquisitions is a huge amount of unpaid debt.

Frontier’s notorious customer service problems are now legendary. Frontier’s new CEO Bernie Han promises that customer service improvements are among his top four priorities. Improving the morale of employees that have been forced to disappoint customers on an ongoing basis is another.

Frontier executives are proposing to fix the company by deleveraging the company’s debt and restructuring it, freeing up capital that can be spent on long overdue network upgrades. Executives claim the first priority will be to scrap more of Frontier’s copper wire network in favor of fiber upgrades. That would be measurable progress for Frontier, which has traditionally relied on acquiring fiber networks from other companies instead of building their own.

But the company will also continue to benefit from a chronic lack of competition and Wall Street’s inherent dislike of large capital spending projects. The proposal does not come close to advocating the scrapping of all of Frontier’s copper service in favor of fiber. In fact, a rebooted Frontier would only incrementally spend $1.4 billion on fiber upgrades until 2024, $1.9 billion in all over the next decade. That would bring fiber to only three million additional Frontier customers, those the company is confident would bring the highest revenue returns. The remaining eight million copper customers would be stuck relying on Frontier’s existing DSL or potentially be sold off to another company.

Frontier seems more attracted to the prospect of introducing or upgrading service to approximately one million unserved or underserved rural customers where it can leverage broadband subsidy funding from the U.S. government. To quote from the presentation: Frontier plans to “invest in areas that are most appropriate and profitable and limit or cease investments in areas that are not.”

Another chronic problem for Frontier’s current business is its cable TV product, sold to fiber customers.

“High content/acquisition costs have made adding new customers to the Company’s video product no longer a profitable exercise,” the company presentation admits. If the company cannot raise prices on its video packages or successfully renegotiate expensive video contracts to a lower price, customers can expect a slimmed down video package, likely dispensing with regional sports networks and other high cost channels. Frontier may even eventually scrap its video packages altogether.

To successfully achieve its goals, Frontier is likely to put itself into Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization no later than April 14, 2020. The company’s earlier plans may have been impacted by the current economic crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic, so the exact date of a bankruptcy declaration is not yet known.

Frontier Communications Bankruptcy Imminent; Company Will Miss March Bond Payments

Phillip Dampier March 10, 2020 Competition, Consumer News, Frontier 2 Comments

A Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization of Frontier Communications is imminent, as the company is planning to skip a crucial $320 million debt payment to bondholders on March 15, automatically triggering a 30-day grace period before creditors can demand full payment of Frontier’s debt.

Bloomberg News notes this decision comes as Frontier prepares to file for bankruptcy as early as March 16, with a plan that will reduce its owed debts and turn over control of the phone company to creditors. Frontier has more than $17.5 billion in debt, which is becoming unmanageable for a company that has lost customers month after month for years.

A Frontier bankruptcy would jolt the telecom industry because it would be the largest failure of a telecom company since 2002’s bankruptcy of Worldcom, which used to include MCI.

Sources told the news organization Frontier was holding discussions this week with prospective lenders willing to provide a “debtor-in-possession loan” to the company. That loan would be essential to finance a restructuring of the troubled phone company, backed by giving lenders control over Frontier’s operations.

Multiple groups of bondholders will also be involved in the discussions, including activist shareholder Elliott Management Corp., which most recently pressured AT&T to improve its business model by focusing on its core businesses.

News of Frontier’s plan to miss bond payments caused a dramatic drop in Frontier’s stock price today, which was trading as low as 29 cents a share.

Spectrum Mobile’s Unlimited Customers Get Free Access to Verizon’s 5G Network

Spectrum Mobile customers enrolled in an unlimited data plan will get free access to Verizon’s millimeter wave 5G network, if they own a device that supports 5G service.

Charter Communications extended its deal with Verizon Wireless, which currently supplies Spectrum Mobile with 4G LTE service, to include Verizon’s 5G service, now available in a few neighborhoods in these cities:

  • Atlanta
  • Chicago
  • Dallas
  • Grand Rapids
  • Houston
  • Los Angeles
  • New York City
  • Providence
  • St. Paul
  • Boise
  • Cincinnati
  • Denver
  • Greensboro
  • Indianapolis
  • Memphis
  • Omaha
  • Salt Lake City
  • Washington D.C.
  • Boston
  • Cleveland
  • Des Moines
  • Hampton Roads
  • Kansas City
  • Miami
  • Panama City
  • Sioux Falls
  • Charlotte
  • Columbus
  • Detroit
  • Hoboken
  • Little Rock
  • Minneapolis
  • Phoenix
  • Spokane

Customers on Spectrum’s pay-per-gigabyte plan can access Verizon 5G service by switching to Spectrum’s $45 unlimited plan. Otherwise, they will remain locked to Verizon’s 4G LTE network only. Spectrum Mobile is selling customers Samsung’s S20, S20+, and S20 Ultra 5G-capable phones with financing package prices ranging from $41-58 a month, and promises other 5G-capable devices will also be supported in the future.

At present, Verizon’s millimeter wave 5G service only works outdoors and is generally only available in very limited urban areas, often in business, shopping, or entertainment districts downtown. Charter is considering launching its own wireless network in the future utilizing CBRS frequencies, which can reach indoors and can travel over longer distances than millimeter wave technology. For now, Spectrum Mobile is dependent on Wi-Fi and Verizon Wireless’ nationwide network.

 

Cable Industry Upgrade Investments Cratered in 2019; Lack of Competition Removes Incentives

Heynen

Equipment vendors serving the cable industry had one of the worst years in recent memory, with cable industry investment in upgrades dropping like a stone in 2019.

Companies supplying cable broadband equipment that powers internet service saw steep revenue declines to just over $1 billion, compared to $1.6 billion in 2018 and $1.7 billion in 2017. One vendor reported a 30% drop to just $255 million last year, according to Jeff Heynen, Dell’Oro Group’s senior research director for broadband access and home networking. Providers spend this money on DOCSIS broadband upgrades, cable modems and routers, and laying the foundation for next generation cable broadband and fiber networks.

Heynen blamed a reduction in capacity upgrades, an ongoing debate about where cable operators will take the DOCSIS standard next, and an overall lack of broadband competition.

Light Reading reports that a general decline in broadband investment by Charter and Comcast were hard-hitting on vendors. Both companies have been profit-taking after completing DOCSIS 3.1 upgrades and believe that gigabit download-capable broadband networks will suffice for several years to come. Phone company broadband competition growth has also waned as AT&T ends its large-scale fiber to the home expansion and as other phone companies refuse to undertake widespread upgrades; most will continue to rely on DSL technology in non-fiber-upgraded markets. The overall lack of competition from phone company broadband speed upgrades has given the cable industry no reason to undertake more upgrades, except in competitive service areas.

Still, the cable industry is planning to deploy two relatively low cost upgrades starting this year: increasing upstream broadband speeds and growing adoption of routers supporting Wi-Fi 6, a new Wi-Fi standard.

Light Reading:

[Heynen expects] moves to expand upstream bandwidth to help lead the next network investment cycle as cable operators deploy mid-splits or high-splits that expand the amount of bandwidth used for upstream traffic. In most legacy North American DOCSIS networks, the spectrum dedicated to the upstream is in the range of 5MHz to 42MHz. Mid-splits will raise that to 85MHz and high-splits could elevate it to around 200MHz.

Those upstream-impacting network decisions will also help to drive a new generation of DOCSIS consumer premises equipment (CPE) that can tune to these updated upstream/downstream bandwidth splits.

Heynen also notes the business picture is brighter in Europe, where phone companies are moving at a much faster pace to ditch DSL in favor of fiber to the home service. As a result, competing cable and wireless providers are investing in fiber networks of their own to remain competitive.

New AT&T TV Streaming Service is Loaded With Costly Tricks and Traps

Phillip Dampier March 2, 2020 AT&T, AT&T TV, Competition, Consumer News, Online Video 1 Comment

AT&T has created a streaming television bundle that cable and satellite subscribers can appreciate. Replicating the kind of promotions familiar to DirecTV subscribers, AT&T debuted its new streaming TV service nationwide this morning with three promotionally priced packages that start at a relatively low price and end with a very high one.

AT&T TV is intended to fill the gap between bare bones, slimmed-down packages offered by services like Sling TV and the bloated television packages offered by traditional cable and satellite providers. The new service is part of AT&T’s plan to gradually wind down DirecTV satellite service and U-verse TV, delivering video content over the internet instead of by cable or satellite. AT&T has already ceased marketing its U-verse TV service and intends to do the same with DirecTV, which had been heavily advertised for years. The best new customer promotions will likely be targeted towards its new streaming service as well.

AT&T TV’s set-top box and remote control.

Unlike AT&T’s cord-cutting package — AT&T TV Now, AT&T TV features hundreds of channels, a 500-hour DVR that will store recordings up to 90 days, and over 40,000 on-demand shows. AT&T TV carries just about every cable channel imaginable, along with a healthy amount of regional and national sports, most local stations, scores of international channels in several languages, and premium movie channels galore. AT&T TV does not have the bandwidth and capacity constraints U-verse and DirecTV have, so the service can offer as many channels as customers can afford.

To watch, you need an internet connection with at least 8 Mbps for “optimal viewing.” If you want to bundle AT&T’s gigabit fiber service with AT&T TV, the company offers an extra $10/mo off for the first 12 months of your 24 month contract.

One of AT&T’s biggest selling points for its new TV service is its bundled set-top box, powered by Google’s Android TV. That gives subscribers access to apps in the Google Play Store, which means integrating Netflix, Hulu, and just about any other music or video streaming app is easy. Customers also can benefit from AT&T’s voice remote, which uses Google Assistant.

A careful review of the terms and conditions quickly reveals that this new service is not intentioned for cord-cutters. For starters, AT&T TV channel lineups are larger than other cord-cutting services, and are priced accordingly. The cheapest package on offer — Entertainment (~73 channels), is priced at $93 a month after the new customer promotion expires. AT&T TV also includes a two-year term contract satellite users are well familiar with. If you cancel early, you are subject to an early cancellation penalty of $15 for each month remaining on your contract. A sports programming fee of up to $8.49/mo is charged separately for some customers. A $19.95 setup fee also applies, along with equipment fees of $10/mo for each additional set-top box (the first one is included). Customers can also buy the box outright for $120.

AT&T protects its other video services from revenue cannibalization by disallowing new customer discounts for existing DirecTV and U-verse TV customers. For everyone else, here is what you can expect to pay:

  • Entertainment: $49.99/mo for months 1-12, $93/mo for months 13-24.
  • Choice: $54.99/mo for months 1-12, $110/mo for months 13-24.
  • XTRA: $64.99/mo for months 1-12, $124/mo for months 13-24.
  • Ultimate: $69.99/mo for months 1-12, $135/mo for months 13-24.
  • Optimo Más: $54.99/mo for months 1-12, $86.99 for months 13-24.

Some other points:

  • AT&T TV allows up to three concurrent streams.
  • Regional Sports Fee of up to $8.49/mo. applies to Choice and higher packages.
  • Additional set-top boxes are $10/mo or can be purchased for $120.
  • A $50 AT&T Visa® Reward Card is available if you order AT&T TV online. Expires: 3/31/2020. For new residential customers only. Residents of select multi-dwelling units not eligible.
  • Save an additional $10/mo. for 12 months on TV when you bundle with internet or wireless.
  • $19.95 activation fee.
  • Early termination fee of $15/mo for each month remaining on agreement.
  • Equipment non-return fee may apply if you fail to return equipment when ending service.

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  • matt: what channel will sports tier be on...
  • Maureen O’Brien: I also think Charter Cable (spectrum) is a disgrace. Their billing info is a travesty of justice. I would like to know congressmen/women were agains...
  • Phil: I moved into a new build neighborhood late last year in Ohio, was excited to see (on their website, and verified by calling) that they were offering F...
  • U Marc: This is incorrect Information. XFi pods maxim throughput speeds on 2.4 Ghz band is 300MBPS and 867Mbps on the 5 Ghz band...
  • TJE: After 25 years of being a loyal Charter client, I am done. Rate increases, poor service, the worst customer service in history, being on hold forever...
  • Sherry: I also bought equipment and haven’t had very long also please let me know if you file a lawsuit will join...
  • Sherry: I also invested in equipment and got screwed , I will join a civil action against Spectrum just let me know......
  • Guest: I live in an area where Frontier bought up Verizon FIOS, and then completely underdelivered. Frequent service outages, billing problems. I too changed...
  • Phillip Dampier: There is nothing inherently wrong with the product, they just don't want to sell or support it any longer. They should unlock the hardware and allow t...
  • Phillip Dampier: We've covered that story exhaustively over the years, just not here. Yes, they botched every cutover everytime and drove customers off in herds....
  • Phillip Dampier: I suspect the test for fiber will be the return on investment. They want north of 20% revenue return to fiber-qualify an area. That means urban/suburb...
  • Paul Houle: What's missing from that report is the other stakeholders affected by this. In many Frontier service areas (mine in particular) there is no cell ph...

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