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Utah Opens Formal Investigation Into Frontier Communications; Poor Service Cited

The Utah Division of Public Utilities (DPU) has launched a formal investigation into the performance of Frontier Communications of Utah after the state received an “abnormal number of complaints” over the past few years about the company’s ability to provide adequate landline phone and internet service in the state.

Frontier only services a small part of Utah, and many of the complaints come from the community of Castle Valley, a small town in Grand County in east-central Utah. The community has a population of just over 300 residents. Frontier is the sole telecommunications provider for much of the area.

“Providing adequate, reliable telecommunications services to the residents of Utah does not happen by chance. It is the result of monitoring a number of factors such as capacity, trouble reporting, and aging of infrastructure,” writes the DPU in a discussion about the investigation. “This monitoring provides support for wise capital investments that prevent outages, such as those being investigated in the current dockets. However, operating conditions can create unique challenges even with optimal investments. The DPU has also observed (through annual reports filed with the DPU) that in recent years Frontier has reported declining levels of annual capital investment. For these reasons the DPU initiated its own investigation into Frontier’s service quality.”

Castle Valley, Utah

The regulator noted Frontier has (so far) ignored a request for information filed with the phone company on June 11, 2019.

The DPU’s primary concern is with Frontier’s lack of investment in its legacy networks, which include those in Utah. Without appropriate investment, service quality deteriorates, particularly in rural areas where long stretches of copper cable have much greater exposure to the elements and have more opportunities for failure. Frontier has already indicated it plans no significant investments in its legacy copper service areas in 2019.

Frontier Admits Its Rural Phone Business is Now “Unsustainable”

Frontier Communications has publicly admitted its residential telephone service in rural and “high-cost” service areas is “unsustainable,” resulting in an increasing number of lengthy service outages and unreliable service.

Javier Mendoza, vice president of Frontier Communications, made the admission in response to a growing chorus of complaints about rapidly deteriorating landline service in the state of West Virginia. Service has gotten so bad it prompted the senior senator from West Virginia to complain directly to Frontier CEO Dan McCarthy.

“In times of crisis, no one should ever have to think twice about whether he or she will be able to call for help,” Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) wrote in a letter directed to McCarthy. “Unfortunately, I have been alerted of several instances where my constituents who utilize Frontier’s landline service have not been able to complete calls due to service outages.”

The West Virginia Public Service Commission is currently auditing Frontier’s operations in the state after seeing “a large increase” in complaints about Frontier’s service. Frontier has been the state’s largest telecom company since 2010, when it acquired Verizon’s wireline network in West Virginia.

According to some customers, service has been going downhill ever since.

“I don’t always depend on it to work because I know it is probably not going to do that,” Frontier customer Lawrence Gray told WSAZ-TV. “So it used to be a real shock when you picked it up and it didn’t work. The other day when I picked it up and you couldn’t get a dial tone, I was like well here we are again. It is the way it is.”

Frontier is the dominant phone company in West Virginia.

Lawrence’s wife Patrecia notes they are both in their 70s and are anxious about being able to reach 911 in an emergency. Frontier has experienced several 911 outages in West Virginia as well.

“If we ever want to call 911 and it is not working, what do you do because we have no call phone service here,” Patrecia said.

The Gray family reports that it typically takes Frontier five to seven days to restore their phone service after an outage. That is unacceptable to Sen. Manchin.

“The safety of my constituents is my highest priority and the fact that so many of them are unable to do something as basic as calling 911 for assistance is unacceptable,” Manchin wrote Frontier. “Access to phone service is not a luxury; it is a critical lifeline that could mean the difference between life and death and I implore you to resolve this problem within your company immediately.”

Frontier’s response, through Mendoza, is to blame the situation on the unprofitability of Frontier’s landline network in rural West Virginia, after choosing to buy it nine years ago.

“Frontier serves only about ten percent of the state voice lines in its service area—and falling—but has 100 percent of the universal service obligation to serve the most rural and high-cost areas,” Mendoza said in a statement. “Our customer base continues to decline, while the cost of service per line has increased dramatically. This has resulted in an unsustainable model for providing service in rural and high-cost areas, manifesting in increased numbers of service complaints. We plan to reach out to the state’s leaders to collaboratively find solutions to this difficult challenge.”

Those challenges may be more difficult than imagined, considering the frequent complaints received by the Public Service Commission about the ongoing service problems experienced by customers.

Doug and Patricia Stowers represent a case in point. The Stowers family lives in Griffithsville, an unincorporated community in eastern Lincoln County. The nearest cell phone coverage in this part of West Virginia is a 14-mile drive into the town of West Hamlin. A landline is essential in Griffithsville and many other parts of West Virginia where cell service is spotty at best. The only choice of provider is often Frontier Communications.

This branch was left hanging on Frontier’s phone line… after a service call reporting branches on Frontier’s cable was finished. (Image courtesy of the Stowers family)

The Stowers family installed their landline in 2012. A single Frontier technician laid nearly one-quarter of a mile of phone cable, sections of which were laid on the ground next to the roadway.

“Since 2012, coverage has been sporadic. It took us a few service interruptions before we noticed a connection of when the county mowed [along the roadway] and the phone going out,” wrote Patricia Stowers. “When we found a long section of main line had been laid along the edge of the road, we walked the road, and made sure the line was thrown over edge out of the reach of the mowers.”

That is where Frontier’s phone cable stayed, for years. In areas where the phone cable was hung above ground, tree limbs and brush often cover the line, even after Frontier dispatches repair crews to address the latest service outage. At one point, the family discovered parts of their phone cable were now exposed to the core. A Frontier technician temporarily “patched” the cable and then placed it back on the ground, this time at the bottom of a dry creek bed.

When the family reports service outages to Frontier, having patience is a virtue.

“When we call for repairs, we are scheduled three to seven days out. To me this is unacceptable,” writes Patricia. “If we had a choice, trust me, we would not have phone service from Frontier, however, we are at their mercy.”

An attorney for Frontier Communications in Charleston disputed parts of the Stowers family complaint, noting that each time the family reported an outage, the company dispatched a technician to repair the trouble and the family was given credit on their bill.

The attorney also noted that the service address in question was a “weekend/vacation residence.” The cable lying in the creek bed was “not in service” and was “scheduled to be removed.” Further, despite the Stowers’ claims that branches were left laying on their phone line, the attorney claimed Frontier found only “a small branch lying on the 2-pair cable servicing the weekend/vacation residence” and it would be removed “with a pole saw.”

Frontier routinely responds to service complaints filed with the PSC with this declaration:

Pending final resolution and dismissal of this matter, Frontier respectfully reserves all defenses and objections, including without limitation the right to demand strict proof of each and every allegation of the Complaint not expressly admitted in this Answer.

WSAZ-TV in Huntington, W.V. reports Frontier’s landline service in the state is deteriorating, and Frontier admits its rural phone service is “unsustainable. (2:41)

Wall Street Hates CenturyLink’s Dividend Cut; Company Punished for Upgrade Spending

CenturyLink’s stock is being pummeled after the company announced a cut in divided payouts to shareholders earlier this year, preferring to keep the money in-house to reduce debt and increase spending on necessary broadband upgrades.

Last fall, CenturyLink stock was trading for over $23 a share. By January, rumors that CenturyLink was going to cut its dividend put the stock on a downward trajectory, falling to an all-time-low below $11 this month. Company officials argued that with tightening credit opportunities and increasing interest rates, the company needed to devote money normally paid back to shareholders towards paying down its $35.5 billion long-term debt and provide better service to its customers.

A half billion dollars of that money will also be spent on upgrading CenturyLink’s broadband service, particularly in rural areas where the company is receiving Connect America Fund (CAF) dollars from the federal government.

“Our plan for 2019 includes investing to improve the trajectory of the business increasing CapEx by roughly $500 million,” Jeff Storey, president and CEO of CenturyLink said on a January analyst conference call. “As I mentioned earlier those investments include expanding the fiber network, adding new buildings throughout our footprint, enhancing our enterprise product portfolio, continuing our investments in CAF-II, and transforming our customer and employee experience.”

Investors were not impressed with those plans, and CenturyLink’s share price cratered.

Independent phone companies have traditionally attracted investors with handsome dividend payouts, but the realities of their aging infrastructure and the inability to compete effectively with cable companies on lucrative broadband services have left companies like CenturyLink, Windstream, and Frontier Communications in a quandary. Shareholders do not perceive value investing in fiber optic network upgrades and punish companies that announce dramatic increases in network investments. Customers left on slow-speed ADSL networks are increasingly dissatisfied with their internet experience and seek alternative providers — usually the local cable company. As Frontier Communications has discovered, attempting to win back ex-customers has been exceedingly difficult, often only possible with lucrative promotional offers that undercut the cable company. But such offers attract customers with above-average price sensitivity, making it difficult to extract increased revenue from them going forward.

CenturyLink’s stock price has dropped to an all-time low over the last six months.

Investors are also increasingly concerned about the financial viability of investor-owned phone companies that are stuck between leveraging their old networks and facing down shareholders when upgrades become essential. AT&T and Verizon have wireless units responsible for much of the revenue earned by those two Baby Bells. Traditional phone companies have had less luck trying to sell ancillary support services like Frontier’s “Peace of Mind” technical support service, or bundling satellite TV service into packages.

CenturyLink’s Local Service Territory (Source: CenturyLink)

CenturyLink is increasingly depending on its enterprise and wholesale businesses to earn revenue. That fact has prompted some shareholders to ask why the company hasn’t spun off or sold off its traditional landline network and consumer businesses, which currently account for only 25% of its revenue. In May, CenturyLink seemed determined to placate those investors with an announcement it was exploring “strategic options” for its consumer business. Investors theorize that CenturyLink could “unlock value” from its legacy landline networks in such a sale or spinoff that would benefit shareholder value. It would also be much cheaper than investing in that network to upgrade it.

The chorus for a sale increased after Frontier Communications announced it was spinning off its landline territories in the Pacific Northwest to a company specializing in upgrading legacy networks to support better broadband. Frontier, mired in debt and facing a concerning due date for some of its bonds, made the sale to give a boost to its balance sheet. Frontier had also been facing increasing scrutiny about a potential Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing. Windstream declared bankruptcy earlier this year, reminding investors that a trip to bankruptcy court could quickly wipe out all shareholder value.

MoffettNathanson, a Wall Street analyst firm that specializes in telecommunications, finds little to like about CenturyLink shedding its own landline operations. Frontier’s sale benefited from the fact a significant part of its Pacific Northwest territory was built from an acquisition from Verizon, which had already installed its FiOS fiber to the home network in parts of Washington and Oregon. About 30% of the territory Frontier is selling is fiber-enabled. In comparison, CenturyLink has installed fiber to the home service in only about 10% of its territory, dramatically reducing any potential sale price. Much of CenturyLink’s core fiber network powers its enterprise and wholesale operations — businesses CenturyLink would likely keep for itself.

MoffettNathanson also sees little value from the proposition a buyer could leverage CenturyLink’s network to provide backhaul fiber capacity for future 5G services, because CenturyLink provides service mostly in smaller communities likely to be bypassed by 5G, at least for the near term.

Wall Street’s idea of a win-win strategy for CenturyLink is to keep its consumer business and expand its broadband service footprint and capability, if the federal government offers to cover much of the cost through more rounds of CAF subsidies. Taxpayers would subsidize broadband expansion while CenturyLink and shareholders share all the profits.

Frontier Wrestles Worst ISP in America Award Away from Mediacom

“Frontier offers a level of suckage that cannot be proportionally compared with any other company in America. Stabbing yourself with knitting needles is less painful than their snail slow internet service and dealing with customer service agents that formerly served as prison guards at a Syrian detention camp.” — A deeply dissatisfied Frontier DSL customer in Ohio

Frontier Communications has achieved a new low in customer satisfaction, wrestling away the award for America’s worst ISP from perennial favorite Mediacom, in a newly released American Customer Satisfaction Index.

No internet service provider did particularly well in customer satisfaction, but Frontier managed to alienate more of their customers than any other this year, ranking poorly in speed, reliability, and customer service. Customers also complained about being given inaccurate information, inaccurate billing, and surprise charges on their bill.

Frontier’s worst performance is delivered in legacy DSL service areas, where its aging copper wire network is often incapable of delivering 21st century broadband speeds. In many areas, speeds drop well below 10 Mbps during peak usage. Even worse, company officials signaled that the company had few plans to improve its wireline network or service experience in 2019. As a result, many customers switched providers, if one was available. If Frontier is the only option, customers often have no options.

“For several years we have had no internet options except for Frontier. We receive 10 to 20% of the service we pay for time and time again,” wrote one customer in a complaint with the Better Business Bureau. “The service has even diminished over time, [and] whenever my work demands me to log online, I often have to leave my home at different times of the day or night to a location where I can get free Wi-Fi or drive 24 miles to my job. This is totally unacceptable. Every single weekend and every night my internet shuts off. I mean every night. Nothing has been done from a customer’s view to improve service.”

What seems to have driven Mediacom out of last place was not so much an improvement in their network or service.

“Mediacom has the second-lowest score among subscription TV services at 56, but has one of the highest-rated mobile apps, both in terms of quality and reliability,” the ACSI found.

Frontier has an improved website, but still offers many potential subscribers a severe disappointment when shopping for internet plans, and finding only one:

Irony Dept.: Frontier Paying $1,000 to Someone Willing to Live With Obsolete Flip-Phone for a Week

Frontier Communications will pay one smartphone addict $1,000 if they will give up their device for one week and rely on a 1990s-era obsolete flip phone instead. The cringe worthy challenge, soaked in irony, is brought to you by a phone company that delivers late 1990s-era DSL to a substantial number of its customers.

Frontier:

If you’re chosen, you’ll be responsible for using a flip phone in place of your smartphone for seven full days (that’s 168 hours!), and we want you to log your experience. We’ll have you track (don’t worry, your info stays safe with us!) how long it takes you to do basic tasks such as texting and checking email, how many times you wish you could Google something, how many hours you slept, how your productivity changed (or didn’t!), and even if you were late to appointments (after all, how does anyone get around without Google Maps?). Was your experience #TheWorstThingEver? Did you find new freedom? Either way, we want to hear about it.

Applicants can register until July 8, 2019. 

What’s in it for you

$1,000 in compensation

Boredom Buster Swag Bag (i.e. your survival kit) including:

  • An actual, physical map (yes, those still exist!) to make up for your GPS.
  • A pocket phonebook, because who memorizes numbers anymore?
  • A notepad and pen to make grocery trips a little less painful.
  • A couple ’90s CDs (think Britney and NSYNC) to soothe your Spotify withdrawals.
  • Remote work environment as you earn your $1,000—no heading to an office at 8am for this job!
  • No drug testing or background check required.
  • A unique social experiment and a chance to go back in time . . . or, well, something like that.

The goal of the experiment is “to help us understand how much we rely on smartphones and how that affects day-to-day life. (Our hypothesis? A lot.)”

It is too bad Frontier didn’t embark on an experiment to determine how much customers rely on high quality, 21st century internet access. They could quickly learn that for many of those stuck with Frontier’s DSL service… they can’t, because Frontier does not provide it.

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  • Phillip Dampier: Can you scan or photo a copy of the letter and I'll blot out the personal info. Would like to investigate. [email protected]
  • Paul Houle: Recently I got a letter from Frontier that disclosed that my internet speeds were not up to the advertised rates. Seems like they had a dispute with ...
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  • Anthony: Phillip Dampier: What if I cancel the service, and then a week later request the service again?, that will give me the initial benefits? or should I u...
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