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Rural New Yorkers Left Behind by Gov. Cuomo’s ‘Broadband for All’ Program

Tens of thousands of rural New York families were hopeful after Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced in 2015 his intention to bring true broadband to every corner of the state by the year 2018. At the time, it was the largest and most ambitious broadband investment of any state in the country, putting $670 million in lawsuit settlement money and rural broadband funds from the FCC on the table to build out rural broadband service other states only talk about.

But for many rural New Yorkers, Gov. Cuomo’s program was a failure that could lock in substandard internet service (or no service at all) for years. What began as a 100% broadband commitment later evolved into 99.9% (then 98% in another estimate) after state officials learned $670 million was not enough to convince providers to share the cost of extending their networks to the most rural of the rural as well as those unlucky enough to live just a little too far down the road to make extending cable broadband worthwhile. But the governor proclaimed mission accomplished, and as far as the Cuomo Administration is concerned, the rural broadband issue has been resolved.

“There were a lot of tax dollars that were flipped and the governor has said, ‘Internet for everybody. Everybody will have internet.’ Well, that’s not the case. We’re not seeing that and those were his promises, not mine, but I voted for that money. A lot of other members did too,” Sen. Rob Ortt (R-North Tonawanda) told WBFO radio last year.

Ortt wants to know where the money is going and who exactly is getting it, and proposed legislation requiring annual reports from the Empire State Development Corporation detailing expenditures and disclosing the formula used to determine who gets true broadband service, and who does not.

For those not getting high-speed wireless or wired connections, the state has either offered nothing or dreaded satellite internet service, paying HughesNet $14,888,249 to supply discounted satellite equipment Hughes itself routinely discounts as a marketing promotion on their own dime.

For rural residents learning HughesNet was their designated future provider, many experienced with satellite internet over the last decade and hating nearly every minute of it, it was “thanks for nothing.”

“The governor pulled the rug right out from under us,” Ann told Stop the Cap! from her home near Middle Granville in Washington County, just minutes away from the Vermont border. “I have kids that require internet access to finish research and send in homework assignments. Internet service is not an option, and my kids’ grades are suffering because they have to complete homework assignments in the car or in a fast food restaurant or coffee shop that has Wi-Fi.”

Ann used HughesNet before, and canceled it because service went out whenever snow arrived in town.

“I thought the governor promised 100 Mbps service and HughesNet can’t even provide 25 Mbps,” she claims. “If you get 5 Mbps on a clear summer’s day, you are doing okay. In winter, reading email is the only thing that won’t frustrate you. It’s slow, slow, slow.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announcing rural broadband initiatives in New York.

Nick D’Agostino brought his family to a new home an hour northeast of Syracuse when he got a new job. He was counting on the governor’s commitment to bring wired internet access to a home that used to have Verizon DSL, but no longer does after Verizon’s wired infrastructure deteriorated to the point where the company stopped offering the service to new customers like him arriving in the neighborhood. D’Agostino had to spend hours researching the state’s Broadband Program Office website to find out which provider was going to be supplying his census block (neighborhood) with 100 Mbps internet. He found HughesNet instead.

“It’s a kick in the pants because we have a lot of experience with HughesNet and Exede and neither came close to meeting their advertising claims,” he told Stop the Cap! “Exede was often unusable and a horrible company to deal with. HughesNet has a new ‘Gen 5’ service that is capable of DSL speeds, but comes with a low data cap and speed throttling.”

D’Agostino warns that New York made a terrible choice relying on satellite internet, even though HughesNet’s latest fleet of satellites has offered improvement over HughesNet a decade ago.

“The problem is HughesNet customers in a geographic area all share the same spot beam — a regionally targeted satellite signal that serves a specific state or region,” D’Agostino said. “When we lived in North Carolina, the population growth in rural areas meant a lot more satellite customers were sharing the same spot beam, and speeds plummeted, especially after Netflix, Hulu, and cord cutting took off. Nothing eats bandwidth like streaming video, which is why you can subscribe to their 50 GB allowance package and be over that limit after a single week.”

D’Agostino fears that tens of thousands of additional satellite users will dramatically slow down HughesNet across upstate New York unless the company finds a way to get more shared bandwidth to serve the state’s rural broadband leftovers.

“That usually means, ‘wait until the next generation of satellites are launched,’ something nobody should have to wait for,” D’Agostino said.

The obvious solution for D’Agostino is to convince Charter Spectrum, the nearest cable provider, to extend its lines down his street. The cable company agreed, if he paid an $88,000 engineering, pole, and installation fee.

“That is not going to happen, even if we got the dozen or so neighbors in our position to split the cost,” he said. “This is why Cuomo’s program is a flop. It turns out close to $700 million is not enough, and they probably always knew there would be people they could never economically serve because they are miles and miles from the nearest DSL or cable connection. But if the electric and phone companies are compelled to offer service, the same should be true for internet access.”

D’Agostino believes rural New Yorkers left behind need to organize and make their voices heard.

“They keep saying we are .1% of New York, but I’ve seen plenty of rural town supervisors and other local officials across upstate New York complain they have all been left behind, and that decision will cost their towns good education, jobs, competitive agribusiness, and services online that everyone assumes people can easily access,” he said. “Clearly the state is not telling the truth about how many are being internet-orphaned. There have been three rounds of broadband funding in New York. It is time for a fourth round, finding either tax breaks or funding to get existing providers to reach more areas like mine that are less than a mile from a Spectrum customer.”

Ann shares that sentiment, and adds that Vermont is looking for ways to get internet to its rural residents as well.

“We’re at the point where companies or co-ops already offering service are probably the quickest and easiest option to solve the rural internet crisis, but they are not going to pay to do it if they are not required to,” she said. “We have taxes and surcharges on our phone bill now that are supposed to pay for internet expansion, but the amounts are too small to get the job done I guess. Perhaps it is time to revisit this, because 99.995% is better than 99.9% and satellite internet should be the last resort for people living in a cottage miles from anyone else, not for people who can be in town in less than a five-minute drive.”

A familiar story for any rural resident trying to get internet access to their rural home. But there is a small silver lining. HughesNet’s newest generation of satellites has provided a modest improvement that is often better than rural DSL. (10:19)

Questions Grow Over CenturyLink’s Massive 2-Day December Outage

Phillip Dampier January 22, 2019 CenturyLink, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't, Video 1 Comment

What do an emergency operations center in Cochise County, Ariz., Colorado hospitals, the Idaho Bureau of Corrections, and many 911 call centers across Massachusetts have in common? They were all brought down by a two-day nationwide CenturyLink outage from Dec. 27-28 that also resulted in internet outages for tens of thousands of CenturyLink’s residential customers. The cause? CenturyLink blamed a single, faulty third-party network management card in Denver for disrupting services for CenturyLink and other phone companies, notably Verizon, from Alaska to Florida.

Hours after outage began, two days after Christmas, CenturyLink issued a general statement:

“CenturyLink experienced a network event on one of our six transport networks beginning on December 27 that impacted voice, IP, and transport services for some of our customers. The event also impacted CenturyLink’s visibility into our network management system, impairing our ability to troubleshoot and prolonging the duration of the outage.”

That “network event” caused serious disruptions to critical services in 37 states, including 911, according to Brian Kyes, president of the Massachusetts Major City Chiefs of Police Association.

“This is affecting 911 (wireline & wireless) delivery to most of Massachusetts,” Kyes said in a statement during the outage to the Boston Herald. “We have heard from MEMA that this issue may also affect some landlines but I have not heard of any specific situations or communities that have been impacted. We are advising all police and fire chiefs to test their local 911 systems and notify their residents of potential issues by reverse 911, social media or any other means that they have at their disposal. The interruption in service may depend on a particular phone carrier and the information that we have is that it may be intermittent.”

CenturyLink outages on Dec. 27, 2018. (Image: Downdetector.com)

The disruptions affected much of Massachusetts — a state served primarily by Verizon Communications, because CenturyLink is a major commercial services vendor inside and outside of its local landline service areas and supplies some connectivity services to Verizon, mostly for wireless customers.

ATM networks also went down in certain parts of the country. CenturyLink is one of many vendors providing data connectivity between the cashpoint machines and several banking institutions.

Also impacted, the Idaho Department of Corrections, including inmate phone systems, and the Idaho Department of Education, which lost the ability to make or receive calls.

Consumers also noticed their internet connections were often down or sporadic in some locations, primarily because CenturyLink’s backbone network became saturated with rogue packets.

The Denver Post presented a more detailed technical explanation about the outage:

CenturyLink said the [defective] card was propagating “invalid frame packets” that were sent out over its secondary network, which controlled the flow of data traffic.

“Once on the secondary communication channel, the invalid frame packets multiplied, forming loops and replicating high volumes of traffic across the network, which congested controller card CPUs (central processing unit) network-wide, causing functionality issues and rendering many nodes unreachable,” the company said in a statement.

Once the syndrome gets going, it can be difficult to trace back to its original source and to stop, a big reason networks are designed to isolate failures early and contain them.

“We have learned through experience about these different types of failure modes. We build our systems to try and localize those failures,” said Craig Partridge, chair of the computer science department at Colorado State University in Fort Collins and a member of the Internet Hall of Fame. “I would hope that what is going on is that CenturyLink is trying to understand why a relatively well-known failure mode has bit them.”

The Federal Communications Commission also expects answers to some questions, opening another investigation of the phone company. In 2015, CenturyLink agreed to pay a $16 million settlement to the federal agency after a seven-state outage in April 2014.

Pai

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said the agency would once again take a look at CenturyLink, focusing on disruptions to emergency services.

“When an emergency strikes, it’s critical that Americans are able to use 911 to reach those who can help,” Pai said in a statement. “This inquiry will include an examination of the effect that CenturyLink’s outage appears to have had on other providers’ 911 services.”

A retired manager at Qwest, a former Baby Bell now owned by CenturyLink, strongly criticized CenturyLink’s lack of communications with customers and an apparent lack of network redundancy.

“For a company in the communication business, they sure failed on this,” said Albuquerque resident Sam Martin. “I participated on the Qwest Disaster Recovery teams, and I do not recall ever having the network down for this kind of time and certainly never the 911 network. The 911 network should never have been down. The lack of this network can contribute to delays in rescue and fire saving lives.”

Martin is dubious about CenturyLink’s explanation for the network outage, suggesting a defective network card may be only a part of the problem.

“The explanations given so far are not valid,” Martin said. “The public may not be aware of it, but the communication network has redundancy and for essential services like inter-office trunking and 911 calls, there are duplicate fiber optic feeds – “rings” that duplicate the main circuit in another path – and switching equipment to these locations so that they may be switched electronically and automatically upon failure to a back-up network ring. When these systems are operating properly, the customer is unaware a failure occurred. If the automatic switching does not take place, employees involved with disaster recovery can intervene and manually switch the affected network to another fiber ring or electronic hub and service is restored until the actual damage is fixed.”

None of those things appeared to happen in this case, and the outage persisted for 48 hours before all services were restored.

“CenturyLink has to have a disaster recovery plan with redundancies in place for electrical, inbound and outbound local and toll-free carriers, as well as network and hardware component redundancies. CenturyLink should be able to switch between multiple fiber optic rings or central offices in case entire networks of phones go down. They would then locate and repair, or replace, defective telecommunication components without the customer ever knowing. The fact that this did not happen is discouraging and scary for the consumer. The fact that it happened nationwide is even more surprising and disturbing. Hopefully the truth will come out soon.”

A critical editorial in the Albuquerque Journal added:

We need answers from CenturyLink beyond the cryptic “a network element” caused the outage. We need to know how many CenturyLink and Verizon customers were affected. And we need to know what they – and other internet and phone providers – are doing to prevent similar outages or worse from happening in the future. Because if the outage showed nothing else, it’s that like an old-time string of Christmas lights, we are living in an interconnected world.

And when one light goes out, they can all go out.

KTVB in Boise, Idaho reported on CenturyLink’s massive outage on Dec. 27-28 and how it impacted local businesses and government services. (3:09)

Windstream Relying on Government Funding to Double 100 Mbps Availability in 2019

Windstream is relying on the Federal Communications Commission’s Connect America Fund to double the areas where it will offer 100 Mbps broadband service, expected to reach 30% of the company’s 18-state local service area by the end of the first quarter of 2019.

“Windstream understands that premium internet speeds are critical to families and businesses in rural America, and we are systematically enhancing our network to meet that urgent demand,” said Jeff Small, president of consumer and small and medium-sized business services. “Network upgrades are expensive, especially in rural areas where there are relatively few customers, so Windstream is using a combination of its own capital and crucial support from the FCC’s Connect America Fund to make faster speeds more widely available. Without support from the Connect America Fund, many of these projects simply would not be economically feasible.”

Thomas told attendees at the Citi 2019 TMT West Conference Windstream’s legacy copper wire telephone network is not up to the job of handling the kinds of internet speeds more modern technologies can manage.

In urban and larger service areas, Windstream is most likely to deploy fiber to the home service in new housing developments and select gentrified neighborhoods where a business case exists to invest in fiber upgrades. The company also typically replaces its copper wireline infrastructure with fiber where road construction projects or damage forces the company to replace or relocate its lines. Suburban and more densely populated rural areas are likely to receive an upgraded version of Windstream’s DSL service that can manage up to 50 or 100 Mbps. In Windstream’s significant rural service area, the phone company is increasingly turning to fixed wireless technology, especially in flat midwestern states like Nebraska and Iowa where it plans to offer a combination of 3.5 GHz “CBRS” and 5G millimeter wave fixed wireless broadband capable of delivering up to 1,000 Mbps.

Windstream’s service area

“[We are deploying wireless internet] probably at a larger scale than a lot of the larger wireless companies,” Thomas said, especially in flatter areas where wireless signals go a long way.

Because most current broadband expansion fund programs require companies to commit to at least 25/3 Mbps service, simply expanding basic ADSL technology has proven inadequate to meet the government’s speed requirements. But wiring fiber to the home service to get faster speeds in rural areas does not meet the Return On Investment requirements Windstream’s shareholders demand. Windstream claims fixed wireless can solve both problems.

“You can get 100 Mbps out there very cost-effectively,” Thomas claimed. “You are really blowing away copper infrastructure and making it irrelevant because you’re embracing this 100 Mbps technology.”

As of early 2019, Windstream claims that 60% of its customers can get at least 25 Mbps service, 40% can receive at least 50 Mbps service. By the end of March, 30% will be able to receive 100 Mbps service.

 

A satisfied Windstream customer talks about his upgrade to 50/8 Mbps, which replaces his old 6 Mbps DSL service. (6:03)

AT&T Introduces Phony 5GE to Highlight Newly Lit Spectrum (It’s Really Still 4G LTE)

AT&T customers with Samsung Galaxy 8 Active or LG’s V30 or V40 smartphones began noticing a new icon on their phones starting last weekend: an italicized 5GE, leading some to believe 5G wireless service has now reached AT&T’s network.

Not so fast, AT&T.

AT&T’s use of 5GE, which stands for “5G Evolution” in AT&T’s techie parlance, is another example of how wireless carriers exploit up and coming technology upgrades that are unprotected from overzealous marketing misuse. The actual 5G standard is different from 5GE, and customers using 5G on millimeter wave frequencies can expect very different performance in comparison to today’s 4G LTE experience. But with 5G being hyped in the media, AT&T is attempting to capture some of that excitement for itself.

The company’s marketing division managed to accomplish a speed and technology upgrade without spending millions of dollars on actual 5G network upgrades — just by changing an icon on customers’ phones and making them believe they are getting a 5G experience. In fact, 5GE is actually just the latest evolution of 4G LTE already known to Verizon customers as LTE-Advanced or LTE Plus on Sprint’s network — technology including carrier aggregation, 256 QAM, and 4×4 MIMO that has been in use on competing cellular networks in the U.S. since at least 2016. But just as Verizon customers saw significant speed improvements from Verizon’s updates to the 4G LTE standard, as AT&T deploys similar upgrades in each of its markets, customers should notice similar performance improvements.

AT&T claims 5GE is already live in 400+ markets with more to come. In the short term, the “upgrade” that was pushed to AT&T network devices last weekend only switched on the 5Gicon, which will mean little to AT&T customers already reached by 5Gand never knew it until this past weekend, and nothing to those still waiting for the upgrade to arrive.

Walter Piecyk, an analyst at BTIG Research, says AT&T’s latest spectrum deployments will matter more than whatever the company brands its latest upgrade, and could eventually allow AT&T to surpass Verizon Wireless in network performance.

AT&T’s recent effort to improve its network by deploying more wireless spectrum — up to 60 MHz in many areas, is not the 5G upgrade customers might expect, but it will deliver faster speeds and more performance on today’s smartphones.

AT&T calls its forthcoming actual 5G network 5G+, and the company is launching a modest but authentic 5G experience in limited “innovation zones” in Jacksonville, Fla., Atlanta, Ga., Indianapolis, Ind., Louisville, Ky., New Orleans, La., Charlotte and Raleigh, N.C., Oklahoma City, Okla., as well as Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, and Waco, Tex.

In a money-saving maneuver, AT&T’s combined spectrum upgrades include 20 MHz of FirstNet first responder spectrum (prime 700 MHz spectrum shared with AT&T customers except during emergencies) it received in 2017, 20 MHz of AWS-3 spectrum (1755-1780 MHz for uplink operations and 2155-2180 MHz for downlink) it acquired for $18 billion in 2015, and 20 MHz of WCS spectrum (2300 MHz) it acquired from NextWave for $650 million back in 2012. All of this spectrum is expected to be activated at the same time as technicians work to upgrade each AT&T cell tower. This dramatically cuts AT&T’s costs and truck rolls for incremental upgrades.

AT&T calls its improved 4G LTE network “5G Evolution”

“We’re turning up not only the FirstNet spectrum that we got, but all of this other spectrum that we’ve acquired over the last few years,” AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson told investors at a December conference. “So as we climb these cell towers, we turn up the spectrum. By the time we get to end of 2019, we will have increased the capacity on AT&T’s network by 50%. I mean, you just have to pause and think about this. The entire AT&T wireless network capacity is going to increase over the next 14 months by 50%. I mean, that’s huge.”

Some areas have already received partial upgrades, others may find newly improved rural coverage as AT&T meets its commitments to the government’s FirstNet platform, which calls for more robust rural coverage. Some areas that never had AT&T coverage before may get it for the first time.

AT&T’s biggest competitor, Verizon, has commanded a lead in 4G LTE coverage from 2010 forward after utilizing a considerable amount of its available spectrum for the faster standard. But Verizon has not been a robust bidder for new spectrum recently, except for the millimeter wave frequencies it bought for its emerging 5G network. It has some additional unused AWS-3 spectrum it can use for expansion, but Piecyk believes Verizon may already be using those frequencies in many markets where it is likely facing a spectrum crunch.

While AT&T lights up 60 MHz of additional spectrum, Verizon is primarily depending on the ongoing conversion of 10-15 MHz of existing spectrum it now uses for 3G service to LTE each year. But the company is reportedly running out of frequencies in areas where data demand requires that extra spectrum the most.

The only short term solution for Verizon, which is not participating in marketing hoopla like 5GE, is to make its current spectrum more efficient. That means more cell towers sharing the same frequencies to reduce the load on each tower, improved antenna technology, and using newly available spectrum in the CBRS and millimeter wave bands to manage network traffic. Verizon may even use unlicensed shared spectrum to handle some of the load. Unfortunately, smartphones equipped to take advantage of these new bands are not yet available and may not be until 2020.

For AT&T, improved network performance is seen as a key to resume robust growth in new subscribers.  After Verizon dramatically improved its LTE network in 2014, AT&T stopped growing its lucrative post-paid phone subscriber base, according to Piecyk. Now it may be AT&T’s chance to turn the tables on Verizon.

This AT&T produced video helps consumers understand what 5G, beam forming, small cells, and coverage differences between 4G and 5G are all about. Notice the 5G trial speed test showed download speeds topping out at around 137 Mbps. (4:26)

Minnesota Regulators: Frontier is a Shoddy, Criminally Rogue Phone Company

(Image courtesy: Minnesota Public Radio)

Minnesota regulators slammed the performance of Frontier Communications in a highly critical 133-page report released Friday, describing a rogue phone company that appears to have knowingly violated at least 35 state laws and operating rules, while jeopardizing the lives and wellbeing of 100,000 Frontier customers in parts of northeastern and southern Minnesota and the Twin Cities metro area.

“Many of the issues reported by consumers show direct violations of Minnesota law and Commission rules, and indicate broad, systemic problems with Frontier’s service quality, recordkeeping and business operations,” the report concluded.

A year-long investigation by the Minnesota Commerce Department found ample evidence of Frontier’s terrible customer service, fraudulent billing, and its rapidly deteriorating and often decrepit landline network, sometimes left in disrepair for months or years with little regard for the safety of customers, workers, or the public.

As part of the investigation, seven public hearings were held last fall in Frontier’s Minnesota service area. The resulting report is based on more than 1,000 consumer complaints and statements, as well as Frontier’s responses to information requests by the Commerce Department.

In many cases, Frontier left health-compromised customers using landline-based health/safety monitoring services without phone service for over a month, putting cost-saving measures ahead of the safety of customers that need reliable phone service the most. The investigation also found “that orders for new telephone or internet access service, being a new source of revenue for Frontier, and a sales commission for the customer service representative, take priority over repairs of internet or phone.”

The report also blasted Frontier’s shoddy customer service department, described as “shocking” in the report. In dozens of complaints, customers reported correcting service problems was often a nightmare.

Decrepit Network Facilities Falling Off Poles and Drowned in Ditches

Frontier wireline pedestal in Kelsey, Minn., knocked over and submersed in ice water. (Image courtesy of: Mr. and Ms. Ulshafer)

Waterville, Minn. residents that have experienced frequent outages for years were given every excuse in the book by Frontier officials, at one point blaming a mouse in a central office for chewing through their phone lines. Frontier customer Harry Tolzman chronicled years of Frontier’s apparent ineptness in providing reliable phone and internet service to his rural part of Minnesota. His testimony to Minnesota regulators, reproduced in part below, explains a lot of what the report found wrong at Frontier Communications these days:

“[One day, Frontier] decided that they needed to rebury the telephone cable that was — that ran from Elysian to our rural route Waterville, so they contract[ed] with an outfit out of Indiana, Direct Line Communications Underground Burying, who in turn sublets to another company called Premier Underground. So one day these guys show up from Indiana and they needed to bore underneath State Highway 60 to get the cable from across the highway to our residence, which was on the north side of the highway. So they came out and they bored underneath the highway and they ran the cable and then they got into a big argument with the local technician as to where the cable was to run and so they got mad and left.

The next day another outfit, same, Premier Underground out of Indiana, shows up, and they were supposed to connect the cable from the highway down to the closest junction box, which is about 100 yards from my place to the road and it’s another 100 yards from the road to the nearest junction box. So they started in with their plow and they plowed up to the house and they hit some tree trunks and the plow would jump out of the ground.

Finally they got up to the house where I had decorative rock and they say, well, we can’t dig here so we’ll just lay it on top of the rock. And then wherever it jumped out of the ground because of a root, it’s buried about one inch below the ground, in other places it’s 8 or 10 inches, where it should be. So anyhow, they said that’s the best we can do. Then they went across the road to make the connection to the nearest junction box, and they went right down the shoulder of the road about three feet off the blacktop and they were going down the road with their plow. And lo and behold, the state highway department drove by and happened to see them going right down the shoulder of the road. And so they questioned them, and lo and behold they didn’t have a permit to bury this cable.

So the next day a guy shows up and he hooks up his pickup to the cable and he pulls it all out. And the local technician comes out and he lays a temporary line on top of the ground over to where they had plowed underneath the road, and he made the connection so we could get our telephone service back. And they said they would be back to re-bury it in the proper right-of-way position as soon as they had the proper permits. That was two and a half years ago. And this cable is laying in the road ditch, and meanwhile the state highway department came along and they mowed the road ditch and they cut the cable. So they replaced the cable again. And then another time a snowmobile took the cable out. So that cable still lies there strung between the sumac bushes so that they can’t mow it when they mow the road ditch.

And I keep calling these people to get this fixed and they keep telling me, well, they don’t have the permit yet. So I called the highway department in Mankato and they say there’s been no application for a permit to re-bury your cable. In the interim, I had opened up a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission, which is located in Washington, D.C., and they in turn responded to me. And Frontier had the gall to tell them that they had investigated the above statements and offered the following resolution. Upon the investigation, Frontier showed that the line was repaired as of August 11, 2017, Frontier will be burying the line on August 31, 2017. Frontier spoke with Mr. Tolzman and advised him of the above information. They had the gall to tell them it was fixed and that same problem is still there, the cable lies between the bushes. So whenever we have moisture or rain, we’ll be out of service for our landline phone. And it’s just very frustrating to have to call and get a customer service rep many states away that runs his routine check and tells you, well, the problem is not on their end, it’s in your house, and yet it’s never been a problem within the house.”

A Frontier installer draped a new line across this customer’s residential propane tank, and then left. (Image courtesy: (Image courtesy: Mark Steil, MPR News)

As Stop the Cap! reported in 2018, Frontier’s network infrastructure in Minnesota was literally falling off utility poles. Customers reported Frontier technicians used trees as makeshift utility poles, strung phone cables across yards and fields, unburied, and in one case, draped a phone cable over the customer’s propane tank. Despite months or years of complaints, Frontier repeatedly failed to repair infrastructure it knew or should have known was in disrepair, and in several documented cases, Frontier technicians dealt with the loudest complaining customers by swapping line pairs with a satisfied customer, silencing the complaining customer while giving their troublesome or failing line to another customer without their knowledge.

Company officials also lobbied Minnesota officials hard over the summer of 2018 to limit the scope of the investigation into its business practices in the state, claiming at one point that anything short of a gag order forbidding customers from complaining at public hearings about the performance of Frontier’s DSL service would “violate federal law” and “create false expectations and confusion for customers.”

“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 claimed.

Customer Service Hell

Elizabeth Mohr’s testimony described an experience typical of many Frontier complaints. When Mohr complained about the poor quality of her Frontier DSL service, which came nowhere near the 12 Mbps she was offered, Frontier unilaterally disconnected her service without notice, leaving her without phone service for 12 days. The company “lost” five of the six repair tickets assigned to Mohr’s disconnect complaint. Frontier later refused to reactivate her DSL service, claiming it had “no ports available,” despite the fact taxpayers helped subsidize the expansion of internet access in her neighborhood.

“We found it took us 47 of our hours on the phone with Frontier to get service, even though they sent us a flier that said you should be able to call and get it,” Mohr testified. “So 47 hours on the phone of our time, six tickets, five of which were closed with no answer. They never showed up.”

Frontier’s bad customer service isn’t a new experience for Mohr either.

“You can get better service from them but you have to be willing to put up a fight. I have been hung up on, probably in the last 13 years, probably 200 times,” Mohr said. “When I would call and say, I have an issue with your network, they wouldn’t believe me. Between my husband and myself, we have 20 years of network administration. We could ping to their system and tell them where the problem was failing and they wouldn’t believe us, and they would hang up on us. So clearly, Frontier has a problem.”

Shellie Metzler of Finlayson claimed she has to be placed on a waiting list to have her phone line repaired — something more in common with East Berlin in the 1970s than the United States in 2019. She waited over a year for repairs for her basic Frontier landline and DSL service, repeatedly being told in over 20 hours of phone calls with the company “there were no lines available.”

The wait was not worth it. After service was installed, Ms. Metzler reported, “I could not hear when on the phone because of the static. Also, each time the phone rang, the internet would go offline.”

Like many Minnesotans, Metzler is still paying for broadband internet service she is not receiving. Metzler was sold Frontier’s Broadband Ultra 12 Mbps DSL service.

“I am receiving, if lucky, 1.2 Mbps,” Metzler reported. “Last week within two days the internet dropped over 100 times. Dropped service and slow internet speeds are everyday occurrences. I should not be charged for the 12 Mbps because I have never had it. I should not be charged for the 6 Mbps because I do not get that either.”

The report also had little positive to say about Frontier’s customer service department:

Subscribers received inaccurate information and expressed great frustration when dealing with Frontier’s customer service personnel, even characterizing the service as being rude and/or unhelpful. Customers also said Frontier’s customer service representatives would often refuse to transfer the customer to a supervisor or the supervisor would fail to return their call as requested.

Many customers reported that contacting Frontier was anything but convenient, describing long hold times prior to speaking with a customer service representatives. Also, several consumers reported that they believed Frontier representatives were unqualified, untrained, or otherwise provided them with inaccurate information. In some cases, representatives yelled at customers and accused them of being rude or inappropriate.

Frontier’s Repairs: ‘Like Placing a Band-Aid on a Hemorrhage’

Frontier’s “High Speed” 21st Century Network fantasy claims extend back to 2010 when former CEO Maggie Wilderotter was telling customers Frontier was loaded with fiber.

The state investigation also uncovered evidence that Frontier often “repairs” poor service for a complaining customer by swapping the bad line pair with another customer with good service who is not likely to complain when their service suddenly deteriorates:

Frontier’s practice is that, when one customer is out of service [or is receiving impaired service] and requests repair, in order to restore service to that subscriber, Frontier disconnects, without notice, the service of another subscriber, and “swaps” the other subscriber’s working lines or cards for the non-working line or card of the subscriber whose service is being restored.

A typical example is the public comment of Debra Boldt of Glen, Minn., who lives on a lake with some summer residents. Ms. Boldt reported that to restore service to one neighbor, Frontier switches non-working lines with the working line of a summer resident who may not know their service is disconnected until they next visit; and, when that person complains, Frontier will then switch the working line from a different resident.

Similarly, Tom Grant testified at the Lakeville public hearing that Frontier technicians have told him, “they basically move cards or switches to be able to solve the problem for that individual customer, while knowing full well that that creates havoc for others that reside on that same node.”

Wayne Nierenhausen testified that technicians have told him: “[W]hen they get a complaint, there’s some kind of card within that box that’s a quarter-mile from my house that they will change to basically whoever made the complaint to get faster speed, but then when another call is made, they’ll switch that card out, put it to whoever made the complaint, and then put the old card back in.”

Customer service problems particularly affect the elderly and infirm, who are the most likely to still have landline service.

The report also heavily criticized Frontier for covering up problems by miscoding trouble reports and service outages to avoid drawing regulator attention. Outages impacting regulated basic phone service were frequently classified as unregulated internet outages, coded as being the fault of the customer, or trouble tickets were closed before repairs were completed. Closing trouble tickets prematurely also extends an extra benefit to Frontier — the company will not credit customers for extended outages if the original trouble ticket is closed.

As a last resort, if Frontier deems repairs too costly, customers are told to “live with it.”

Medically Necessary Phone Service Repairs Ignored

The report also found Frontier’s unwillingness to expedite repairs for customers with serious medical issues were “shocking” because customers were often not informed service representatives have no authority to request a medical-related expedited repair, and notes placed on customer accounts by those representatives are routinely ignored. The company admitted the only way a customer can be flagged a medical priority customer is if a doctor certifies annually, in writing, there is a medical need to maintain reliable phone service:

A letter/document must be received from the customer’s physician annually certifying that a medical emergency exists and that phone service is essential, and that the letter or document must contain the following:

  • State registration or license number of physician.
  • Name and address of seriously ill person.
  • Name, signature of licensed physician or public health official (nurse or physician’s assistant) certifying illness or medical emergency and date.
  • Optional – Any services beyond local exchange service that may be necessary to reach customer’s doctor and that absence of such services would be a serious risk of inaccessibility of emergency medical assistance.

Customers are instructed to mail or fax the documentation to:

Frontier Correspondence
PO Box 5166
Tampa, FL 33675
Fax: 1- 888-609-9919

Billing Controversies

Frontier used to mail checks refunding credit balances to departing customers. Today they mail gift cards, occasionally with no balance on them.

The report also found many “direct violations” of Minnesota law and rules from the company’s billing practices. Customers reported Frontier misrepresented its “vacation rate,” offering discounted phone service during seasonal disconnects at vacation properties. Instead, many customers report being billed normal rates and were refused credits, even when the company admitted the problem was theirs and would be fixed.

Customers also report steep late fees for online payments made before the due date, because Frontier reserves the right to take at least five days (and sometimes more) to process online payments, and does not always honor the date of payments initiated by customers. Many others reported Frontier continued to bill closed accounts for months despite cancelling service. One customer who refused to pay several hundred dollars in new charges on his closed account had his credit ruined after Frontier reported him delinquent. A subsequent agreement to pay off the outstanding bills on the closed account in return for getting negative information removed from his credit report was later refused by Frontier… after the company cashed his check.

Customers who pass away while being Frontier customers had better share their account passwords with surviving relatives. As Tabitha Odegaard discovered after her father in law passed away in November 2017, Frontier will not cancel service for deceased customers without a proper account password. Odegaard told regulators she was still paying for service on behalf of her father-in-law in 2018.

Customers that plan to cancel service might be better off removing auto-pay from their account and not paying their last bill until a final bill is generated. Receiving refunds for cancelled service is a hit-or-miss affair at Frontier, according to the report. Customers must wait at least 90 days for a refund to arrive. Most customers end up with a gift card covering any credit balances, but some report their gift card arrived with a zero balance, or did not arrive at all. In such cases, customers have to wait an additional two months before a replacement card will be issued. One customer reported his refund took seven months to arrive, after getting a gift card with no balance on it. Other customers report only getting a credit balance on their monthly bill for their closed account, with no refund, gradually depleted by ongoing billing fees, taxes and surcharges that accrue each month. The credit balance runs out while waiting for a refund that never arrives.

Report Recommends Fundamental Changes and Frontier Responds

The report recommends that Frontier be required to refund or credit customers for service outages and unauthorized charges; add staffing to improve customer service; and increase investments in infrastructure and equipment.

Frontier responded with a written statement, reading in part:

“Frontier strongly disagrees with the assertions in the Department of Commerce’s initial comments and is reviewing the Department’s filing with the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission. Frontier and its employees work hard to provide reliable, affordable telecommunications services to approximately 90,000 customers in Minnesota, many in rural communities where no other provider will invest in providing service. Frontier recognizes we experience service issues and delays from time-to-time with some of our customers. We are an ethical company committed to our customers and the Minnesota communities we serve. We take this matter seriously and will respond appropriately before the Public Utilities Commission.”

Minnesota Public Radio reported in October 2018 that Frontier has slashed its technical workforce by 50% in Minnesota over the last five years. (4:08)

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