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Frontier & Suddenlink Are America’s Worst Phone and Cable Company

Phillip Dampier June 11, 2020 Altice USA, Consumer News, Frontier No Comments

Frontier Communications and Suddenlink are America’s most disliked phone and cable company, ranking dead last in respective categories in the 2020 American Customer Satisfaction Index, cited for bad customer service, confusing billing, and unreliability.

Frontier achieved a satisfaction score of 55 out of 100, achieving last place in categories including in-home Wi-Fi, internet service and, where available, video-on-demand offerings. Frontier notably declared bankruptcy earlier this year and is in the process of reorganizing. The company has also been investigated in several states for poor quality phone and internet service, lengthy repair times, excessive outages for county 911 services, and broadband speeds that fall far short of what the company advertises.

On the cable side, Suddenlink, owned by Altice USA, saw marked declines in its scores in 2020, giving a reprieve to the usual perennial favorite for worst place — Mediacom (which now scores third worst).

“Suddenlink remains in last place and customers find its bills harder to understand than any other pay TV provider,” the ACSI annual report states. The company’s internet service saw a 5% drop in the ACSI ratings, the steepest decline of all providers. Customers point to increasing dissatisfaction with service outages, which have increased in frequency and length. Customers now have more reasons to contact customer service, a category where Suddenlink’s rating drops even further.

“Across all providers, Suddenlink rates worst in class for staff courtesy and helpfulness,” the report indicates.

Overall, the ACSI reports most phone and cable companies are improving their customer service operations and network reliability during the COVID-19 pandemic. Work from home initiatives usually mandate high quality internet access, and providers are responding, according to ACSI. At a time when the economy is under significant stress, telecommunications companies are trying to protect revenue by keeping customers satisfied so they remain loyal subscribers.

Frontier Communications’ Rural Broadband Claims Open to Skepticism

Frontier Communications is seeking to slow or block rural broadband funding for tens of thousands of rural Americans that live inside Frontier service areas but cannot subscribe to broadband service because the company does not offer it.

Frontier is currently embroiled in a controversy over its regulatory filings with the FCC that sought to block or delay public funding of competing broadband projects in its territories by claiming such funding might be unfair and redundant, since Frontier is already supplying (or will supply) service in those communities.

The FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) will eventually spend $20.4 billion on rural broadband expansion, but the Commission is bending over backwards to protect incumbent cable, phone, and wireless companies from possible competition that potentially could be funded with public money. The Commission has invited providers to cross check “census blocks” — small geographic areas it has identified as eligible for rural broadband funding and report back if any should be excluded from the first phase of the program.

Incumbent phone and cable companies can protect their service areas from interlopers by claiming broadband service already exists in areas designated for rural broadband funding. Since the FCC continues to depend on voluntary disclosures of service areas by cable and phone companies, there is no immediate consequence if those providers take a more favorable view of what constitutes “service,” even if it ultimately results in long, further delays in rural broadband coverage for tens of thousands of Americans.

In early April, Frontier filed a lengthy submission objecting to the inclusion of 16,987 census blocks where it claims it already provides suitable broadband service. The majority of RDOF funding — $16 billion of the available $20.4 billion will be spent in the first funding phase, and only on census blocks where no provider offers high speed internet. If Frontier gets the FCC to block potential new entrants from qualifying for Phase One funding, it could spare the company from facing competition and leave a lot of homes with no internet service for years.

Immediate concerns were raised with the FCC regarding Frontier’s filing, including independent research that suggested Frontier was not being entirely honest about providing broadband at speeds at or exceeding 25 Mbps.

NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association:

Simply put, as the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association and the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association noted, “it is difficult to believe that Frontier was able to provide voice and 25/3 Mbps service in each of these 16,000 census blocks in just eight months.” Such incredulity is compounded by the fact that Frontier operated under the specter of a looming bankruptcy during this period, making it difficult to envision deployment to such a large number of locations within just several months’ time after years with little meaningful progress. Indeed, as WISPA and NRECA correctly point out, Frontier just four months ago alerted the Commission to the likelihood that it would be unable to meet its interim deployment milestones to which it was beholden pursuant to broadband commitments made in 2015. Moreover, Frontier’s financial disclosures, again as WIPSA and NRECA reference, showed an operator losing subscribers and working with a financial structure that would appear to have severely limited its ability to invest capital in broadband deployment.

The Institute for Local Self-Reliance also shared its concerns with the FCC, reminding the agency of Frontier’s lengthy track record of misrepresenting its service performance:

Frontier’s record in recent years offers numerous warning flags that the Commission should consider before accepting its nearly 17,000 challenges. The company has been the subject of numerous official complaints and investigations in the states in which it operates and has settled investigations in several states after extremely lengthy records were compiled showing its inability to regularly provide basic services. Consider this nonexhaustive list in just recent years:

California
CPUC investigating Frontier outages after transfer from Verizon in 2016 (2020)
Connecticut
AG and Dept. of Consumer Protection investigating Frontier for bad quality and billing (2019)
Florida
AG sent letter to Frontier after hearing complaints after transfer from Verizon (2016) and collected complaints (2016)
Ohio
PUC filed complaint that Frontier didn’t maintain service quality (2019)
Minnesota
PUC organized public hearings (2018) and settled with Commerce Department (2019)
Commerce launched a second investigation into billing and customer service (2019)
New York
PSC requested review after complaints of poor quality and outages (2019)
Nevada
Cited by AG’s Bureau of Consumer protection for misrepresenting speeds and service quality (2019)
North Carolina
AG issued civil investigative demand (2019)
Pennsylvania
AG Bureau of Consumer Protection settled with Frontier after investigation into poor quality and speeds (2020)
Utah
PSC investigated telephone outages (2019)
West Virginia
Settlement with AG for misrepresenting speeds (2015)
PSC ordered independent audit after complaints of poor quality and outages (2018)

The Commission faces a crisis of credibility on matters of broadband and telecommunications data collection, with two significant scandals in just the past 6 months.

Frontier’s claimed DSL speeds compared with actual average speeds (Courtesy: Smith Bagley, Inc.)

One company, Smith Bagley, Inc., went even further, building a spreadsheet of several disputed census blocks in an independent investigation. The company called Frontier repeatedly, posing as potential new broadband customers to test Frontier’s claims it supplied 25/3 Mbps service in several rural census blocks in New Mexico and Arizona. It found no instance where Frontier was ready to sell 25 Mbps service to any of the locations requested.

“Frontier either does not offer broadband service, or offers service at below 25/3 Mbps, in every one of the 1,300 census blocks it challenged in Arizona and New Mexico,” Smith Bagely noted in its letter to the FCC, citing another third party broadband availability database.

In a haughty response to the FCC dated May 26, Frontier waved off the criticism, claiming it was based on “a scattershot challenge to one-off census blocks, ad hominem attacks, and irrelevant sources.”

But the company also made a crucial admission about the broadband speeds it claims to offer that is worthy of a closer look:

“Frontier does not claim it serves every location in each census block at 25/3 Mbps. Under the Commission’s rules, carriers report the fastest speed available for sale in that census block, even if it is only available in one or a handful of locations.”

In other words, if Frontier found in its own internal testing, unverified by an independent third party, that it managed to provide 25 Mbps to even one out of hundreds of households, it can ignore the rest of the area’s much slower DSL speeds and petition the FCC to exclude funding for a new, more capable service provider. In fact, it need not disclose the abysmal speeds other homes might be enduring from Frontier and declare that census block to be adequately served by broadband and unworthy of additional funding, at least during Phase One.

Frontier also suddenly announced on May 23 it was now open to RDOF Phase One funding in its contested census blocks, which appeared to be a significant concession. But the company also noted the FCC’s established rules are the rules, regardless of what Frontier thinks:

“But to the extent the Commission decides to maintain its decision to include partially served census blocks in RDOF Phase II, SBI, Frontier, and any other company will be able to bid on those locations after mapping is complete and Phase II is implemented.”

Rosenworcel

The end impact of that could be a concession without any meaningful change.

Frontier also asked the FCC to dismiss concerned public interest groups and consumer complaints about its service because they are anecdotal. Besides, Frontier argued, companies seeking to enter Frontier-served areas can always apply for Phase Two funding, which will only be a small fraction of the funding available in Phase One. Because Phase Two is designed to help providers pay for improving existing service, sizeable portions of that funding will likely be awarded to companies like Frontier.

That the FCC plans to spend billions on broadband improvements based on flawed broadband availability data and imprecise census block criteria has infuriated Democratic FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel.

“Time and again this agency has acknowledged the grave limitations of the data we collect to assess broadband deployment. If a service provider claims that they serve a single customer in a census block, our existing data practices assume that there is service throughout the census block. This is not right. It means the claim in this report that there are only 21 million people in the United States without broadband is fundamentally flawed. Consider that another recent analysis concluded that as many as 162 million people across the country do not use internet service at broadband speeds,” Rosenworcel said in 2019. “Adding insult to injury, the same flawed data we rely on here is used to populate FCC broadband maps. For those keeping track, one cabinet official has described those maps as ‘fake news’ and one Senator has suggested they be shredded and thrown into a lake.”

This year, her Democratic colleague Commissioner Geoffrey Starks added his own concerns.

“I have zero tolerance for continuing to spend precious universal service funds based on bad data,” Starks said. “There is bipartisan—and nearly universal—agreement that our existing broadband deployment data contains fundamental flaws. And yet today’s order presses ahead with funding decisions based on mapping data that doesn’t reflect reality.”

New Owner Ziply Fiber Moves Quickly to Overhaul Frontier’s Network in Pacific Northwest

Even with the threat of COVID-19 and a virtual nationwide work-from-home initiative, the new owners of Frontier Communications’ network in Washington, Oregon, Montana and Idaho are moving rapidly to repair persistent network issues, create a backup network, and lay the foundation to bring fiber to the home service to 85% of its customers over the next three years.

Ziply Fiber of Kirkland, Wash., formerly known as Northwest Fiber, acquired the Frontier Communications service areas in the Pacific Northwest just as Frontier itself was on the verge of declaring bankruptcy. It will waste little time upgrading Frontier’s copper wire network to get fiber service to customers fast.

“After Frontier bought Verizon’s landlines and FiOS networks in Washington and Oregon in 2010, it felt like the last decade was a phone company driving in neutral,” said Dale Prescott, a FiOS customer in Washington State. “You could feel Frontier never wanted to spend any money out here. It was like they were a caretaker of Verizon’s network, and while we got some service improvements here and there, Frontier also took away a lot too.”

Service reliability suffered, especially in areas that remained served by copper over the last decade. Customers reported lengthy outages and waiting times for repairs, and DSL speeds were actually reduced in some areas because deteriorating network infrastructure could no longer support earlier, faster speeds. In a decade of service, Frontier only managed to provide fiber connections to about 33% of its customers, the vast majority of it acquired from Verizon.

“Frontier never invested much in its network, and what it did invest seemed mostly to keep the lines from falling off the poles,” Prescott said. “Businesses got slightly better service when Frontier boosted its fiber capacity, primarily to serve commercial customers. But if you lived in the sticks, your service got worse over time, not better.”

Ziply Fiber plans to change that experience with a promise to regulators to spend about $500 million overhauling Frontier’s network in the region. Most of that spending will be devoted to upgrading customers to fiber optics. Just a few weeks after closing on its acquisition of Frontier landlines, Ziply told residents in 13 communities to expect fiber upgrades that began this spring. The majority long suffered with Frontier DSL, often at speeds as low as 3 Mbps.

Among the first towns to get fiber service are Kellogg, Moscow, and Coeur d’Alene — all in Idaho. Work has already commenced and is expected to be finished by fall. Ziply wants to keep construction costs as low as possible, so it intends to do aerial deployment of fiber by wrapping the optical cable around existing copper wire telephone cables already on the pole. This process, known as “overlashing” will simplify installation by not requiring additional space to place fiber cables next to existing telephone wiring or going to the effort of removing the existing copper wiring, which raises costs.

Overlashing has met with some controversy, however. Telephone companies are strongly in favor of allowing the process for optical fiber installation because they rarely need permission or costly permits from utility pole owners, often electric utilities. Opposition comes primarily from some electric companies, which claim overlashing can make existing installations “unsafe” by placing too much weight on existing wiring, which may have been installed decades earlier. Those electric utilities also stand to make money from forcing companies to seek new permits for placing fiber on poles, and that permission does not come free of charge.

Fiber customers will be able to select internet plans up to 1,000 Mbps. Enhanced DSL service in some areas is available at speeds up to 115 Mbps, but most of these service areas will probably be served by fiber to the home service, eventually.

Ziply Fiber Upgrade Projects (May, 2020)

  • Washington—Anacortes, Kennewick, Pullman, Richland and Snohomish
  • Oregon—Coquille, Coos Bay, La Grande, North Bend
  • Idaho—Coeur d’Alene, Kellogg, Moscow
  • Montana—Libby

To further speed fiber upgrades, Ziply acquired Wholesail Networks, already contracted to manage fiber network design for Ziply. Company officials quickly identified multiple weak spots in Frontier’s network, particularly relating to its resiliency when fiber cables were cut or copper wiring was stolen. Ziply is building in network redundancy, with each portion of its network served by at least two sets of fiber cabling and identical equipment in each of more than 130 central switching offices. In many markets, Ziply will maintain at least three redundant fiber connections to make certain if one (or two) networks go down, customers can still be served by a third with no interruption in service.

Ziply is also avoiding the usual nightmares customers experience when switching between one company’s systems to another. Frontier’s customers suffered significantly from a cutover from Verizon’s operations and billing systems, which often left them disconnected or mis-billed. To prevent that from happening again, Ziply literally cloned Frontier’s existing back office systems, so customers won’t experience any “cutover” problems.

Ziply executives have been candid about the network they are acquiring. They told regulators the network was in reasonably good condition in some places, but not all. Ziply promised to fix the network weak spots, resolve customer repair orders at least two-thirds faster than Frontier did, and make comparatively broader investments in network operations. Analysts predict Ziply has a better chance of success than Frontier did, primarily because Frontier’s operations were mired in debt, making new investment in network upkeep and upgrades difficult.

Frontier Communications Declares Bankruptcy; Documents Show Company Spent Millions to Retain Customers

Phillip Dampier April 16, 2020 Consumer News, Frontier 2 Comments

Frontier Communications filed for bankruptcy reorganization protection this week with more than $10 billion in debts and departing customers, despite retention efforts that cost the company more than $5 million a month.

The company had warned investors it was considering restructuring and failed to make a timely bond payment to cover a portion of its debts. Frontier had been in negotiations with debt holders for several months, attempting to secure a Restructuring Support Agreement that would reduce debt in return for an equity stake in the company. At least 75% of unsecured bondholders are reportedly on board with a deal that would free up money to spend on fiber optic upgrades.

Most of Frontier’s legacy customers are served by a deteriorating copper wire network designed for basic landline phone service. The company’s DSL internet service has been roundly criticized for being slow and unreliable. Instead of upgrading copper customers to fiber service, Frontier instead spent billions acquiring new territories from other phone companies, notably Verizon Communications and AT&T. The acquisitions did not deliver the financial returns the company expected, and customers canceled service after Frontier botched billing and service transitions that left some without service for weeks.

Today, Frontier has about four million customers, 3.5 million broadband subscribers and 18,300 employees operating in 29 states. The company has arranged a debtor-in-possession loan of $460 million from Goldman Sachs Bank to continue operating during the bankruptcy reorganization. It also expects to receive an additional $1.35 billion in cash later this month from the sale of its territories in Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington to Northwest Fiber.

Frontier also divulged new details about its deteriorating business to the Bankruptcy Court:

  • Frontier estimates it spends approximately $1,000 for each new residential customer and $2,500 for each new commercial customer.
  • Almost all of its new customers sign up for service under a sales promotion. “On average, [Frontier] spends approximately $1.3 million per month on marketing campaigns.”
  • Customer retention efforts are crucial for Frontier, which has been losing customers at an alarming rate. Frontier uses three enticements to convince customers to stay: “Save Offers,” “Roll-Off Offers,” and “Discretionary Credits.”
  • “Save Offers” are a classic retention tool, offering enticements to customers threatening to cancel. Frontier offers free premium channels, reduced rates, and/or discounted service upgrades to convince customers not to leave. Frontier disclosed it pitches approximately 24,000 Save Offers each month, a sign many customers are prepared to cancel their accounts.
  • “Roll-Off Offers” are made to customers calling to complain about their bill after their new customer promotion ends. Frontier regularly offers complaining, bill-shocked customers a new, less generous promotion going forward. For example, an expiring new customer discount of $60/month might be replaced with a $30/month discount if the customer agrees to stay. These offers typically last six months to a year and still leave the customer eventually paying regular prices. Frontier disclosed that it loses many more complaining customers than it keeps after promotions expire. About 16,000 customers per month (or roughly one-fourth of customers complaining about an expiring promotion) are retained as customers because of a roll-off offer.
  • “Discretionary Credits” are one-time bill credits given when customers call with service complaints, reports of damage done to private property by Frontier, or missed time guarantees for service calls. Frontier admitted it is currently paying out an average of $3.9 million a month in Discretionary Credits to upset customers.

Post bankruptcy, Frontier has proposed undertaking a modest fiber upgrade program in its more profitable territories where a significant return on investment for fiber upgrades can be demonstrated. That is unlikely to include many of Frontier’s rural service areas.

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.

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