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Californians Complained More About Telecom Companies Than Wildfire Outages Caused by PG&E

More Californians are complaining to state officials about their cable television, internet, and phone service than the energy utilities implicated in causing deadly wildfires that left customers without power for days or weeks.

California’s Office of Senate Floor Analyses prepared a report for elected officials contemplating extending deregulation of the state’s top telecommunications companies. It found deregulation has not always benefited California consumers, noting that several companies have been fined for allowing traditional phone service to fall below required service quality standards. As service deteriorates, lawmakers have tied the hands of state officials trying to enforce what service standards still exist. The report found that the telecom industry has been especially good at covering itself through lobbying and litigation to isolate and disempower consumers seeking redress.

“Many companies, including telecommunications providers, include arbitration clauses in their contracts that limit a consumer’s ability to form a class with other consumers to seek remedies for unfair business practices related to contracts,” the report notes. “These clauses frequently limit consumers to a specified arbitration process that limits the types of remedies consumers can obtain for unfair business practices.”

Customers with unreliable phone service pursuing complaints on the federal level with the Federal Communications Commission have also been dealt a blow by the Trump Administration and its Republican majority control of the FCC.

“It is unclear what kind of remedies consumers can obtain since the FCC has adopted an order limiting its own ability to establish requirements for these services,” the report found.

Deregulation has not stopped Californians from trying to get help from the California Public Utility Commission (CPUC), however. The CPUC’s Customer Affairs Branch recorded 1,087 complaints about the state’s phone and cable companies in January 2019, compared with 677 complaints against the state’s energy utilities and 53 lodged against water utilities.

The CPUC’s Customer Affairs Branch reported communications-related complaints were significantly higher than other utilities. (Image: California Office of Senate Floor Analyses)

“Despite the occurrence of wildfires in which utility infrastructure was implicated, complaints regarding energy utilities remained largely consistent between November 2018 and January 2019,” the report found. “The data indicates that the communications sector generates a greater number of complaints to the CPUC than other utility sectors on average, and a much greater percentage of those complaints are for customer issues over which the CPUC has no regulatory jurisdiction.”

Earlier this year, California’s largest investor-owned utility, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), filed for bankruptcy protection after estimating it was liable for more than $30 billion in damages from recent wildfires. An investigation found equipment owned by PG&E was responsible for starting the worst wildfire in California history. The November 2018 Camp Fire killed 85 people and destroyed the town of Paradise. Yet the Customer Affairs Branch received fewer complaints about PG&E than it received regarding AT&T, Charter Spectrum, Frontier, Cox, and Comcast XFINITY.

Unintended consequences of deregulation have also caused several high profile scandals among telecom companies in the state. Some of the worst offenses were committed by cable and phone companies that further traumatized victims of catastrophic wildfires. An effort to implement new consumer protections for fire victims forced to relocate met fierce resistance from cable and telephone industry lobbyists. Some of those same telecom companies continued to bill wildfire victims for months for service at addresses that no longer existed. AT&T even billed customers that died in the fires.

A recent San Francisco Superior Court decision (Gruber v. Yelp) also found another consequence of deregulation. A judge ruled The California Invasion of Privacy Act (CIPA) does not apply to calls made or received on “digital” phone lines better known as Voice over IP (VoIP). The judge found that since the CPUC does not regulate VoIP calls, and such calls are not legally defined as a traditional phone call, CIPA cannot apply.

More than six months after devastating wildfires swept across the North Bay in 2017, AT&T was still billing customers that died in that fire. KGO-TV reports. (3:31)

After promising to never again erroneously bill wildfire victims, AT&T did it again to those traumatized by the 2018 Camp Fire that killed 85 people and wiped the town of Paradise off the map. KOVR in Sacramento reports on one family pleading with AT&T to stop billing them for landline service at an address that no longer exists. (2:15)

Ohio Files Formal Complaint Citing Frontier’s “Troubling” Deterioration

A broken Frontier telephone pole (left). Frontier phone cables left stretched against a tree (right) Images: PUCO

The Public Utilties Commission of Ohio (PUCO) has filed a formal complaint against Frontier North, Inc. (d/b/a Frontier Communications), citing a spike in customer complaints and evidence the company’s landline services have dramatically deteriorated in the state.

The PUCO is concerned Frontier’s alleged poor service may result in safety concerns, such as a customers’ inability to contact emergency services, doctors, and family and friends.

“Customer complaints indicating extensive telecommunication outages are troubling and deserve to be examined,” stated PUCO Chairman Sam Randazzo. “Today the PUCO is taking steps to investigate allegations of poor service quality.”

This is only the latest in a series of actions the state regulator has taken against Frontier for poor performance. The company previously promised to prioritize service outage repairs over new installations, but the regulator reports it received an unprecedented 2,802 consumer contacts regarding Frontier between January 1, 2018 and July 31, 2019.

Most of the problems are occurring in service areas that Frontier acquired from Verizon Communications in 2010, primarily in southern and eastern Ohio. The regulator’s complaint includes 33 citations against Frontier for extended service outages, some that have lasted for months, as well as allegations the company has failed to provide adequate and reliable phone service in its Ohio service areas. The complaint recommends the Commission “conduct a thorough investigation” on the matter.

The complaint:

Frontier’s alleged efforts to repair [reported issues] within 24 hours or Frontier reporting that the issue had been repaired within 72 hours, often times customers’ service would not work within days of Frontier reporting it has repaired the issue.

For example, a [residential] consumer contacted the PUCO Call Center on March 4, 2019 stating her telephone line had been out of service since January 20, 2019. The consumer stated that she contacted Frontier on February 7 or 8, 2019 and that Frontier had committed to making repairs no later than February 26, 2019. When repairs did not occur by February 26, 2019, the consumer stated that she contacted Frontier again and was informed the repairs would occur by March 19, 2019. During Staff’s investigation, Frontier informed Staff that it was notified of the service issue regarding no dial tone on this [residential] account on February 14, 2019 and that service was repaired on March 7, 2019. Repairing an issue on March 7, 2019 is 21 days after it was reported on February 14, 2019, thus 18 days in violation of the 72-hour repair requirement times for instances of failure.

Damaged pedestal (left); Large tree limb left on Frontier phone cables (right). Images: PUCO

From July 11, 2019 to July 23, 2019, PUCO staff conducted field inspections which revealed facilities that appear to lack the proper maintenance, including damaged aerial terminals and splice cases, excessive vegetation, damaged pedestals, and unstable and damaged poles.

The PUCO telephone service areas map shows that Frontier North covers parts of 64 of Ohio’s 88 counties, including Marion, Crawford, Richland, Ashland, Morrow, Sandusky, Ottawa, Coshocton, Muskingum, Fairfield, Pike, and Ross. Verizon itself acquired those service areas from GTE (General Telephone) in 2000.

Nationally, Frontier Communications is in financial distress. The company now serves 4.3 million customers, down 200,000 from the same time last year. Across all divisions, Frontier is losing customers, particularly those subscribed to residential and commercial landline service and its resold satellite TV service. Frontier is also losing large numbers of TV customers in its FiOS fiber to the home service areas. The company has accumulated $17 billion in debt with a decreasing likelihood it will repay that debt on time.

Pedestal Damage. Images: PUCO

Despite the financial difficulties, Frontier is still obligated by law to meet basic service standards. Utility regulators in multiple states are now questioning whether Frontier is still achieving this. For a second time, Frontier spokesman Javier Mendoza signaled the company is burdened with an uncompetitive, high cost business model.

“Frontier takes service quality very seriously. While we disagree with the report’s assertions, we look forward to respectfully and directly addressing the issues raised by staff with the Public Utilities Commission,” Mendoza wrote in an email to the Marion Star. “Issues raised in the report focus on complaints in rural and high cost service areas; yet while Frontier only serves some 10% of Ohio’s wireline phone lines, Frontier bears 100% of the obligation to provide phone service to customers in the most rural, remote, and high-cost parts of its service area. This model creates costly operational burdens that Frontier’s competitors do not bear and is inconsistent with a competitive market.”

“Providing reliable telecommunications and broadband service to our customers is our highest priority. Frontier is dedicated to safety and takes seriously its commitment to serve Ohio customers and support 911 services,” Mendoza added.

Frontier is Experiencing Multiple Service Outages in Western New York Today

Phillip Dampier August 14, 2019 Consumer News, Frontier, Public Policy & Gov't, Video 1 Comment

Some Frontier Communications customers in Rochester were left without service early today in a “widespread” outage that impacted local governments, commercial customers, and medical care facilities.

Medical facilities are relying on backup plans to maintain communications after service failed this morning, just days after the New York Public Service Commission warned Frontier Communications it must improve service after receiving a growing number of service complaints impacting service across the state.

The outage is just the latest in a growing series of outages that have left some customers without service for as long as five weeks. Last week, state regulators released results of their 2018 survey on the service quality of telephone companies serving New York and found service from four Frontier-owned affiliates lacking:

  • Citizens Telecommunications Company of New York, Inc. (Citizens)
  • Frontier Telephone of Rochester, Inc. (Frontier Rochester)
  • Frontier Communications of New York, Inc. (Frontier New York)
  • Frontier Communications of Ausable Valley, Inc. (Ausable Valley)

“The rate of consumer complaints received by the Department of Public Service (PSC Complaints) has significantly increased in the last several years for these companies,” the PSC report concludes. “In addition, a review of company-provided initial data shows poor performance regarding repair duration for customers who lose service. Further, Staff has received an increasing number of complaints from local, county, and State government representatives and officials from first-responder organizations regarding network reliability and timeliness of repairs in the service areas of these companies.”

Frontier was a clear standout among problematic service providers serving New York. The company currently serves 221,000 access lines from 211 central offices and is the largest independent telephone company in New York outside of Verizon. Frontier is the incumbent landline provider for 7.9% of the state’s total access lines, with its largest service area centered on Rochester and the 585 area code. The PSC notes Frontier has been rapidly losing customers, with 30,000 access lines disconnected in 2018 alone.

But not every Frontier division in New York has operated below the PSC’s standards. Former Rochester Telephone-owned entities including Frontier Ogden Telephone Company and Frontier Communications of Seneca-Gorham, as well as Frontier Communications of Sylvan Lake experienced no significant outages or complaints in 2018. Frontier often allows its divisions to be managed somewhat autonomously, with local managers keeping watch over operations in their area. Frontier offers little residential fiber optic service in its New York markets, except in selected new housing developments and in areas where the existing copper network has deteriorated or been damaged beyond practical repair. Most customers are offered copper-based DSL service over telephone lines installed decades ago.

Frontier’s ongoing and increasing financial problems may be responsible for the spike in service complaints and lengthening repair times. Employees have repeatedly told Stop the Cap! resources to deal with service issues are increasingly scarce and cost management is among the highest priorities inside the company. Frontier’s service repairs often take days, if not weeks. Company officials have told employees that since most people have cell phones, landline repairs are no longer as critical as they once were years ago. But spotty internet service can significantly damage local businesses, and outages are becoming more frequent and taking longer to repair.

“The PSC Complaint rate has significantly increased in the last several years for these Frontier companies,” the PSC found. “In addition, Staff has responded to a significant number of network reliability complaints and inquiries from local, county, and State government representatives, including emergency response entities. These complaints include long repair durations and repeated out-of-service conditions, as well as internet access and speed issues.”

Stop the Cap! has learned the New York State Attorney General’s office has also opened an informal inquiry into the increasing number of internet service complaints filed with the AG’s office.

To learn why Frontier is experiencing an increasing number of problems, the PSC has requested more granular trouble reports and will interview Frontier’s local supervisors and technicians to get a candid assessment of Frontier’s wireline facilities and what exactly is contributing to a deterioration of service. If Frontier is unwilling or unable to improve service, the PSC has warned it may take formal action against the company.

WHAM-TV in Rochester reports some Frontier customers in Mount Morris, N.Y., south of Rochester, have been without internet service for five weeks, causing frustration. (2:05)

WROC-TV in Rochester reports on another multi-day Frontier service outage, this one affecting residential and business customers in the Sea Breeze and Point Pleasant areas along Lake Ontario. (1:58)

Frontier Customers in Exeter, Calif. Lose Phone Service for a Week, Some Banks Close

Frontier Communications customers in Exeter, Calif. experienced intermittent phone and internet service last week after the phone company’s network deteriorated to the point of failure on Friday, Aug. 2, when the entire Exeter telephone exchange was apparently affected.

For most of last week, customers reported periodic outages and callers could not reach numbers in the 592 exchange. Some businesses reported calls were met with recordings that their numbers were permanently disconnected.

Frontier has said little about the outage, impacting the Tulare County community of 10,000, located north of Bakersfield. But area customers and businesses had a lot to say.

The local Bank of America branch closed for several days, unable to process banking or ATM transactions because of the outage. That forced residents to drive to Visalia or Lindsay to find ATMs that did not display “Due to circumstances beyond our control, we are temporarily closed. We apologize for the inconvenience.”

The Frontier outage hit local businesses especially hard, because callers were given the impression area businesses had permanently closed. Those still open often could not process credit card transactions, turning away paying customers.

Exeter, Calif.

Paula Marvin, owner of Rosemary and Thyme in Exeter, told the Sun-Gazette the interruption affected her business.

“I remember being able to call out at around 10 a.m. but not in the afternoon,” Marvin said. “And even then I’m not sure who has what service.”

Callers in the 592 exchange could occasionally place calls to other Frontier customers in the same exchange, but not to other exchanges or non-Frontier customers. Incoming calls were usually not completed.

“When you call out, it gives you a busy signal, and when people call in it says the number has been disconnected or is no longer in service,” Marvin said.

Sherri Forcum, owner of Whistle Stop Diner, told the newspaper she lost about half of her business for the day on Aug. 2 because she was unable to process credit cards for walk-in customers and couldn’t receive phone calls for takeout orders. Callers were told the number was permanently disconnected. Some loyal customers drove to the diner to discover it was still open for business, and that was Forcum’s first realization the phone line was not working properly. Forcum intends to switch to Charter Spectrum phone service.

Customers calling Frontier to complain about the outage were initially told there was no outage and no problem with their phone service. The Exeter Chamber of Commerce begged to differ, telling the newspaper it was taking multiple complaints from Exeter businesses, particularly last Friday. Chamber representative Sarah Tyler experienced the outage herself.

“At the Mural Gallery, we’re able to pick up and get a dial tone but the moment you called it told you the number was disconnected,” Tyler said. “A lot of businesses and a lot of residents were really frustrated.”

The outage mysteriously ended on Monday. The newspaper could not get Frontier to comment on the outage at press time.

Frontier’s Repeated 911 Outages Worry West Virginia’s Panhandle Communities

Ohio and Marshall counties are located in West Virginia’s Panhandle region, sandwiched between the states of Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Emergency services officials in West Virginia’s Panhandle region are “scared” about Frontier Communications’ ability to provide reliable access to 911 after four outages in three months, and they are reaching out to the Federal Communications Commission and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) for help.

Public officials in Ohio and Marshall counties, sandwiched between the Ohio and Pennsylvania borders near Wheeling, are increasingly concerned Frontier may be no longer able to provide reliable basic service in the region.

“I’ve got to be honest with you. It scares the heck out of me,” Theresa Russell, Ohio County’s 911 director, told WTRF News. “I worry that after these types of incidents occur, I’m going to find out that somebody needed us and they had no way of getting through.”

Two recent outages occurred around midnight, one of which Frontier later said was a “planned outage.” But local officials claim Frontier never notified affected communities, preventing them from giving the public an alternate number to call in case of an emergency.

The other outages were unplanned, one impacting nine West Virginia counties that lasted well over an hour.

Frontier officials have increasingly responded to these outages by stressing the economic difficulties it faces serving remote areas in states where it is costly to provide service. In a statement, Frontier told the TV station that it “takes its commitment to serve West Virginians and support 911 services seriously.”

Frontier:

“Frontier provides service in the most rural areas of West Virginia where other providers choose not to invest to deliver service and where the challenges of remoteness are greatest. We work to promptly address service interruptions that occur from time-to-time because of severe weather events, vehicle accidents, third party construction damage to our facilities and other causes.

“We continue to evaluate and execute strategies to improve our service and ensure our customers have access to reliable and affordable service.”

WTRF-TV reports West Virginia’s Panhandle region is frightened about Frontier’s repeated 911 service outages. (1:36)

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