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Frontier’s Network is Falling Apart in West Virginia; Audit Finds Company Needs to Improve Maintenance

Frontier provides service to all but around a half dozen communities in West Virginia.

A comprehensive independent audit of Frontier Communications operations in West Virginia found the phone company is not keeping up with network maintenance, causing increased service problems for the company’s customers.

The significantly redacted 164-page report produced by Schumaker and Company found plenty of room for improvement for Frontier’s landline and broadband services.

The report was commissioned under order by the West Virginia Public Service Commission after the regulator received almost 2,000 customer complaints about Frontier’s service. The PSC’s demand for an audit also received the support of over 700 Frontier customers in the state.

Despite several redactions, the report offers clues about the quality of Frontier’s infrastructure for landline and internet services in West Virginia.

Frontier provides service for all but a half dozen localities in the state. Because of West Virginia’s mountainous topology, significant portions of the state do not receive adequate cellular service, making wired landlines still an essential safety tool in some areas. Despite that, Frontier’s relatively poor performance has driven away a significant number of its customers. Some subscribe to cable phone service, but most now depend on cell phones.

A Frontier crossbox in use in West Virginia.

The PSC allowed Frontier to offer a redacted public version of the auditor’s report after Frontier cited confidential business information and the Commission’s lack of regulatory oversight over the company’s DSL internet service. The redactions were substantial, blotting out significant information such as the age of Frontier’s network and equipment in different corners of the state, the condition of the company’s large number of utility poles, outage statistics, budgeting and investment numbers, repair programs, and basic information about the company’s employees and its broadband service offerings. The PSC staff filed its own recommendation that such redactions be rejected, noting Frontier is the unique carrier of last resort in West Virginia, with no competitor likely to attempt similar service. Staff members also claimed the telecom industry would find data specific to West Virginia not very useful elsewhere.

Despite the redactions, it is easy to deduce Frontier has a significant problem. Its copper landline network is gradually succumbing to a lack of regular maintenance, which can cause prolonged service degradation and outages. The audit specifically cites Frontier’s growing challenges dealing with a copper wire network that has been on utility poles for decades. Some wiring is likely to have been installed during the Johnson or Nixon Administration. The audit found that previous owner Verizon embarked on two significant copper line replacement programs, one in 1974 and the other in 1983 — 46 and 37 years ago, respectively. No large scale replacements have been undertaken since.

Phone companies like Frontier have been losing landline customers for years. The audit estimated that “more than half (57%) of American homes only have wireless communications. The displacement is even more pronounced when viewed through the prism of demographics. Over three quarters (76.5%) of young adults (aged 25-34) live in homes with only wireless connections.” In 2018, Frontier told the PSC 37 percent of its access lines were permanently disconnected between 2010 and 2017, bringing the number of customers down from 613,443 to 385,832. A 2017 Center for Health Statistics study found that roughly 53 percent of all West Virginia adults use wireless services exclusively, while another 10 percent use wireless services most of the time, with almost 22 percent of West Virginia adults still using landline services exclusively or most of the time. Frontier holds on to a larger percentage of customers than that with the sale of its rural DSL internet service.

Frontier heavily redacted the independent audit about its performance.

Frontier’s largest service problems result from its indefinite reliance on splicing damaged or degraded line pairs servicing individual customers. With fewer customers, the company has more choices of alternative line pairs it can use to restore service for customers affected by service interruptions. The audit found many line splices were decades old and often were responsible for eventual larger scale service outages, especially when repairs were inadequately completed exposing the entire cable to the elements. The audit also found no formal tree trimming operation was in place at the company, which meant trees inevitably overgrew into the company’s lines. In storms, trees can disrupt service by blowing into cables or even tearing wires off utility poles. The report also noted that technicians often drove around and spotted network defects and other problems likely to eventually cause service outages, but there was no formal reporting and mitigation strategy, which often left repairs delayed for months or years.

Frontier is also facing a talent flight, as network engineers that have serviced the lines since they were operated by Verizon are preparing to retire in large numbers. That could create even greater problems as inexperienced new technicians unfamiliar with the state of Frontier’s network gradually replace them.

Despite these problems, the auditors found Frontier was still earning a healthy amount of revenue in West Virginia. Oddly, that assertion was hotly disputed by Frontier itself, claiming that conclusion was “flatly wrong” and it had been losing money in the state every year since 2012.

“The auditors did not properly account for pensions, post-employment healthcare, and other benefits paid by Frontier nor for interest costs on the money Frontier borrowed to invest in West Virginia,” wrote Allison Ellis, Frontier’s senior vice president of regulatory affairs. “When those expenses are taken into account, it is clear that Frontier has invested more in the state than it has recouped.”

Auditors recommend that Frontier establish a more robust network engineering effort, aggressively repairing line issues before they become apparent to customers and improving its reporting systems to track service problems from start to finish. It also recommended increasing the amount of fiber in the network to reduce service issues and maintenance expenses and allow for better internet speeds. Finally, it recommends customers receive additional compensation for repeated service outages.

Spectrum Technicians Both Spread COVID-19 and Get Exposed to It By Customers

Phillip Dampier April 2, 2020 Charter Spectrum, Consumer News, Video No Comments

Improvising hand sanitizer, with a bucket, water, and Dawn dishwashing detergent.

Letting a cable technician into your home may expose you, your family, or the technician to the COVID-19 coronavirus, according to multiple reports of people catching the virus during service calls.

Technicians have complained for weeks about inadequate protection for workers that visit customer homes. Several told Stop the Cap! they lack a steady supply of gloves, face masks, and hand sanitizer, and one noted they were forced to improvise with plastic buckets obtained from Lowe’s filled with dishwasher soap and water.

“Every service call is risky these days,” said Ralph, a Spectrum technician serving a city in Upstate New York. “You have no idea what you will run into. For the first week we honestly were not too concerned because the number of customers testing positive outside of New York City was not too high, but we’ve traded stories about coughing customers and those still in bed (obviously ill) as we work around them in bedrooms.”

Ralph says Spectrum pre-screens customers with questions if they have to set up a service call, but customers are obviously not always being honest.

“If my internet and TV was out and I was stuck at home, I guess I can understand why some people are desperate to get their service fixed,” Ralph told us. “They deduced that if they admitted they were self-quarantined or ill, we wouldn’t send anybody out, so they sometimes lie.”

The company has seen an uptick in service calls as people take advantage of Spectrum’s offer of free internet service for students, which has resulted in a number of new customers.

“One lady coughed repeatedly at me as she tried to move some of her personal property out of the way so I could drill a hole to bring in a cable line,” Ralph said. “She started turning blue and her husband had to help her to a chair. I couldn’t get back to my truck fast enough that morning. I have a wife and three kids and the last thing I need to do is bring this virus back to them.”

Pleas for more personal safety equipment have met with shrugs.

“My supervisor said we are on our own until the company comes through, or we could buy our own supplies,” Ralph said. “The PR from this company is frankly bullshit. We are expected to show up and do the work without complaining. I need the job so I keep my fingers crossed I don’t get the virus.”

Another technician anonymously shared his own experiences on Reddit:

I am a field tech currently going through self quarantine for exposure to COVID-19.

I was in a customer’s home working when they handed me a mask. I asked multiple times if them or anyone in the house was sick as for my safety. They responded “I am healthy” every single time. I needed into the Master Bedroom Closet to look at the smart panel. Customer wouldn’t let me in there. I figured someone was sleeping or it was a mess (happens to us frequently).

I finally said, “I need in there to do the free internet install you ordered, either that or we can reschedule for a time someone can go in there.” It turns out her husband was in quarantine because he wasn’t feeling well for a few weeks. I instantly walked outside and called my supervisor and was told “harm was already done and to finish the job.”

I’ve been home with a 100°F+ fever coughing and wheezing for the past week and [today] got a call stating that the customer called in to inform a confirmed case and to notify the tech (me) about the possible exposure. I was there last Monday and continued to work until that Thursday and have possibly contaminated multiple other families. I haven’t been to work since last Thursday but am told without an official test I have to return Sunday. But also, I am being told by my primary care doctor that they need a fever of over 10 days to request a test.

Spectrum technicians are being offered a weekly $25 restaurant gift card if they agree to brave service calls in customer homes.

“It’s really insulting,” said Ralph. “The bosses who came up with this wouldn’t do it for a gift card and frankly $25 off at Olive Garden isn’t going to do me any good if I am in the ICU or dead.”

In North Carolina, a Spectrum technician may have introduced the virus into a Charlotte family’s home during a service call, with dangerous results.

Emily Beaty’s twins were born 26 weeks premature, so she was extremely concerned about admitting strangers into her home. Unfortunately, her internet service was not working well, and fixing it meant a service call.

Beaty told WSOC-TV she carefully went over the steps Spectrum was taking to protect customers from the coronavirus.

“They were taking this situation very seriously,” Beaty was told. “They were prescreening their employees and all of their employees were healthy,” the Spectrum representative claimed.

The technician spent most of the service call working outside, but stepped inside briefly to test his repairs. Four days later, Spectrum called to inform her the technician had just tested positive for the coronavirus. Now the family is in voluntary quarantine.

“I just don’t feel like they were doing a proper screening,” Beaty told the TV station. “I mean, they sent a tech out to my house that had a cough and not two days later, he is being tested for coronavirus.”

Spectrum responded in a statement:

“We have confirmed that one of our Charlotte-based technicians has tested positive for COVID-19. We immediately contacted the customers recently served by this technician, as well as the technician’s co-workers.

“We learned this technician was not feeling well on March 25 (Wednesday) and sent the technician home immediately. The technician sought medical attention and was subsequently tested. When we confirmed the positive test on March 27 (Friday), we began contacting customers served by this technician and co-workers.

“We are continually communicating and educating our staff on best practices according to the CDC health and safety guidelines, such as proper hygiene and social distancing. We are encouraging all technicians to take their temperature at home before reporting for work. We have made clear, including in a message directly from our chairman and CEO to all employees that any employee who is sick, or who is caring for someone who is sick, should stay home.

If an employee needs to self-quarantine, they will not need to use their paid sick leave, but will continue to be paid and receive full benefits while under quarantine. The company also has given every worker an additional 15 days of COVID-19-related paid time off, and hourly workers who do not use this time during the COVID-19 pandemic will be paid out the remaining unused days at the end of the year.”


WSOC-TV in Charlotte reports on one family that was exposed to the coronavirus by a Spectrum technician during a service call. (3:01)

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.

Charter Spectrum Offers 60 Days of Free Broadband to Educators

Phillip Dampier March 25, 2020 Charter Spectrum, Consumer News No Comments

As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, Charter Communications has expanded the scope of its 60-day free internet/Wi-Fi offer to now also include educators that currently lack Spectrum broadband service. The offer also remains available to all homes with school-age children who are not currently Spectrum internet customers.

The expanded offer is now available to all K-12 grade teachers and university and college professors who live within Spectrum’s footprint.

To take advantage, contact Spectrum at 1-844-488-8395. A self-install kit will be either mailed or made available at a nearby cable store shortly after your order is placed. Customers can expect 100 or 200 Mbps download speed, depending on the service area. After 60 days, normal rates apply.

 

Verizon Is Giving Customers an Extra 15 GB of Data and Introducing New, Low-Cost Plans

Phillip Dampier March 23, 2020 Consumer News, Data Caps, Verizon, Wireless Broadband No Comments

Verizon does not want their customers to worry about their wireless and home internet bills during the COVID-19 crisis, so they are introducing some new affordable plans for low-income households, waiving late and overlimit fees, and giving wireless customers an extra 15 GB on their data allowance for the next month.

Among today’s announcements:

  • Company waiving all overlimit and late fees on customers that either exceed their data allowance or cannot pay their wireless bill.
  • Verizon’s Lifeline customers will receive two months of waived internet and voice service charges and may qualify for new discounted internet plans.
  • Wireless consumer and small business customers are getting an extra 15 GB of high-speed wireless and/or hotspot data from March 25 through April 30. There is no action needed as the data will automatically be added to your plan.

“We understand the hardships that many of our customers are facing, and we’re doing our part to ensure they have broadband internet connectivity during this unprecedented time,” said Ronan Dunne, CEO Verizon Consumer Group. “With so many Americans working and learning remotely from home, having access to reliable and affordable internet is more important than ever before.”

Effective April 3, Verizon is introducing a new broadband discount program for new FiOS Internet customers that qualify through the Lifeline program. Customers may select any Verizon FiOS speed among Verizon’s Mix & Match plans and receive a $20 discount per month. New customers can get FiOS Home Internet 200/200 Mbps service for $19.99/mo, 400/400 Mbps service for $39.99/mo, or gigabit service for $59.99/mo, with Disney+ included for one year and the first two months of the router rental charge waived (there is no router rental charge for gigabit plan customers).

The extra 15 GB of data won’t be much help for Verizon’s unlimited customers, but it also applies to hotspot service, which is usually limited.

“While more than half of our wireless customer base is on an unlimited data plan, including all of our FiOS and DSL broadband internet customers, we recognize there are many who may need additional connectivity during these trying times,” Ronan added. “We’re here for you and we’ll make sure you have what you need to stay connected.”

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