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Only Co-Ops Can Fix West Virginia’s Dismal Broadband Desert

West Virginia still ranks 43rd in the nation for having the worst broadband availability, despite claims from providers like Frontier Communications that rural broadband expansion has been ongoing and have cost the company tens of millions of dollars.

The state’s two senators are working to get more attention on broadband issues in one of the country’s most rural and mountainous states, despite the fact the free market is not likely to solve West Virginia’s broadband woes.

“Broadband high-speed is tremendously needed,” said Senator Joe Manchin (D-W.V.). “We have over 18 to 20 percent of West Virginians not connected whatsoever.”

“I’m working everyday on this in a bipartisan way,” said Senator Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.V.). “It’s essential for our economy, our health care, our education. All of the things that are in a new economy.”

The federal government has distributed broadband grant funds to help address rural broadband unavailability, but after a decade of assistance, rural residents often remain without service. Charlie Dennie believes taking charge of broadband issues on the local level is the only way broadband problems will finally be resolved. Dennie is a big believer in public broadband co-ops, where local communities manage their own internet access affairs without waiting around for big phone and cable companies or the federal government. Dennie runs a business in the state that depends on broadband, and if he waited for incumbent providers like Frontier to deliver 21st century broadband service, his business is likely to go out of business.

That prompted him to write this commentary:

Dennie

Much of West Virginia is a broadband desert, and we have been foolishly pleading with the major carriers for water.

Recently, we seem to be coming to terms with reality. The reality is, they’re not coming, broadband is not a utility. The international, modern-day, robber barons dominating internet delivery have no obligation or incentive to meet our needs. Their aggressive return on investment models can’t be met in the small markets. Still, they attempt to roadblock appropriately scaled providers from entering the market and meeting our needs.

Since internet and cable TV are not utilities, the carriers are free to pick the low hanging fruit of our more densely populated communities and move on, leaving smaller markets stranded on the wrong side of the digital divide. The major carriers’ only obligations or concerns are with Wall Street. Main Street and all that term implies is not a consideration.

If we’re going to see our desert watered and blooming, we’ll be digging our own wells, meaning, building our own networks. The incumbent telephone companies and the cable TV providers bristle at this idea. The major providers spent over $66 million last year to lobby the states and Congress. Twenty-one states have now roadblocked or outlawed municipal or community-owned fiber. Municipal or community owned fiber is a serious threat to the status quo.

In years past, no one would have been surprised if West Virginia lawmakers had sat on their hands and done nothing or, enacted more protectionist legislation. That didn’t happen with this Legislature. Paraphrasing Bob Dylan, “The times they are a-changing.”

During the 2017 legislative session, I witnessed the boldest and most fearless leadership in my memory. The House of Delegates Judiciary Committee led by its chairman, Del. John Shott (R-Mercer), and Vice-Chairman, Del. Roger Hanshaw (R-Clay), introduced HB-3093. It was a sweeping piece of legislation sending a strong message to the incumbent internet providers to provide better service or make room for someone who will.

Carmichael

HB-3093 created the West Virginia Broadband Enhancement Council, streamlined the process for attaching fiber to utility poles, cleared the way for new construction methods, authorized the West Virginia Economic Development Authority to make loan guarantees for broadband construction and authorized the creation of cooperative associations for internet. As a proponent of the legislation, I requested a public hearing. Gathering in the House chamber only hours before the vote, industry lobbyists voiced strenuous objections. The strongest objections to the bill were the provisions streamlining attachments to utility poles and authorizing cooperative associations to provide broadband.

HB-3093 passed the house with 97 votes. I spoke to Senate President Mitch Carmichael (R-Jackson), just before the bill was introduced in the Senate. Sen. Carmichael had the power to keep the bill from advancing and Frontier, his employer at the time, was out in force to stop it. Before the bill went to the floor Sen. Carmichael said to me, “They’ll fire me, but I have to do what I think is right.” HB-3093 passed the Senate with Sen. Mike Romano (D-Harrison), casting the single, dissenting vote. A few days later, Frontier Communications fired Sen. Carmichael. Today, there are some who want to “Ditch Mitch,” but I will always remember the day he was called to choose between his economic self-interest and what was best for his constituency. Mitch fell on his sword. He did what he thought was right.

It’s important to know where you have been to understand where you are going, and this is only a chapter of our emerging broadband story. Changing the rules that protect the powerful to move us forward requires courageous leadership. If you believe broadband isn’t a political issue, I can give you 66 million reasons why you couldn’t be more wrong.

Ironically, community owned networks will be good for the current providers. The community owned networks provide the “last mile” to the home or business that enables delivery of high-speed internet. The community networks still need the content provided by current carriers. The communities will have choices and can negotiate with providers. Everybody wins.

I’ll have more for you later. Meanwhile, visit the broadband council at https://broadband.wv.gov. Take the speed test, then look under the “Resources Tab” about co-ops. Ignore the naysayers. I’ll show you how co-ops will change everything.

Frontier’s New Ad Campaign Criticizes Slow Broadband, Like What It Offers Its Own Customers

With friends like these…

In an effort to attract new business, Frontier Communications has launched a new nationwide brand platform it claims will help customers “facing challenges and frustrations navigating today’s internet services market.”

The “Don’t Go it Alone” campaign advertises Frontier as your friend on the digital frontier.

In one ad, a balladeer laments customers trying to use a home internet connection that is too slow and unreliable to depend on for working from home. The ad shows customers flocking to nearby coffee shops “looking for bandwidth” they do not have at home.

While the ads claim Frontier’s FiOS network is faster than its competitor — Charter Spectrum, many Frontier customers living outside of a FiOS service area will likely find Frontier’s ads ironic. That is because Frontier has a poor track record achieving the promised speeds it advertises to its large base of DSL customers. The 2016 FCC Report, “Measuring Fixed Broadband” (the annual reports were discontinued by the Trump Administration’s FCC in early 2017), found Frontier a poor performer. Even its fiber network Frontier FiOS was measured losing ground in delivering advertised speeds and performance.

Minnesota Public Radio reports hundreds of complaints about Frontier Communications have prompted statewide public hearings about the company’s alleged poor performance. MPR shares the stories of two frustrated Frontier DSL customers paying for service they do not get. (3:28)

“Our internet here is horrible, our provider is Frontier,” Monica King Von Holtum of Worthington in southwest Minnesota, told Minnesota Public Radio. “It’s infuriating.”

Her service is so bad, she can tell if a neighbor starts using the internet or another family member starts browsing.

“If I’m literally the only person using the internet, it’s fine,” said King Von Holtum. “As soon as we have one or more people using different devices it just tanks and we can’t get anything done.”

She is hardly alone. In Minnesota, the Public Utility Commission has received more than 400 complaints and comments about Frontier’s frustrating performance. Customers report service interruptions lasting up to a week and internet speeds slower than dial-up.

One customer said Frontier lacks “common decency” because of the way it treats its customers, often stuck with only one choice for internet access in their rural service areas.

A speed test showing 0.4 Mbps from 2013 shows this is an ongoing problem.

King Von Houltum showed MPR the results of a speed test while being interviewed.

“We have 0.4 megabits per second,” said King Von Holtum, who pays Frontier for 6 Mbps service. “And our upload is pretty much nonexistent.”

Melody Webster’s family makes regular 5-mile trips into the town of Cannon Falls to use their local library’s Wi-Fi service. It is the only way her children can complete their school assignments, because Frontier’s DSL struggles to open web pages. Webster has called Frontier again and again about the speed problems, but told the public radio station she gets “lied to or pretty much laughed at.”

That’s a story Frontier’s balladeer is not likely to put to song.

Frontier spent an undisclosed amount hiring the ad agency responsible for the new advertising.

“A brand campaign must be creative and memorable. It also has to drive a client’s business forward,” said Lance Jensen, chief creative officer of Hill Holliday, which created the campaign. “The Balladeer is a fun and accessible character who brings humanity and humor to the frustrating experience of dealing with internet and TV service. We can’t wait to put him to work for the Frontier brand.”

The campaign launches this week in Frontier markets nationally and includes broadcast, radio, online video, out of home, digital and social components.

An “affable balladeer” sings about the frustrations of internet users who do not get the internet service they paid for, in this new 30-second ad from Frontier Communications. Ironically, slow speed is the most common complaint about Frontier’s own DSL service. (0:30)

Frontier’s Latest Salvation Plan Doesn’t Include Significant Broadband Upgrades

While celebrating its success at cutting $350 million in expenses, Frontier’s newest plan to keep the company from drifting towards bankruptcy is a $500 million increase in revenue (and hopefully profits) with a series of “revenue enhancements” and cost cutting.

Significant broadband upgrades in legacy DSL service areas are not on the table, as Frontier continues to spend most of its capital on matching Connect America Funds (CAF) and state grants to expand broadband into unserved and underserved rural areas.

“Approximately 80% of our capital program continues to focus on revenue generating and productivity enhancing projects,” said R. Perley McBride, Frontier’s outgoing chief financial officer. “The focus of our capital spending remains consistent. We continue to focus on our CAF builds, using both wired and wireless technologies.”

Frontier has been criticized by some for spending too much on its network and acquisitions and not enough on shareholder return. The company suspended its dividend in February, and the share price has remained below $6 a share since July. After announcing its latest quarterly results and a new $500 million EBITDA initiative on July 31, the average share price posted only modest gains of around $0.25 a share.

Frontier’s business remains troubled, with looming debt repayments in its future. The date to remember is Sept. 15, 2022 — the day Frontier needs to repay $2 billion in unsecured bonds to maintain its credibility in the credit markets. If it fails to pay, the company could find future financing difficult, which is often what triggers a trip to bankruptcy court.

The year 2022 is also very important to Californians. Frontier disclosed it planned to expand rural broadband service to 847,000 unserved/underserved rural residents by the end of 2022, with specific commitments in the next few years to upgrade 77,402 locations, in part with CAF funding, increase broadband speed for 250,000 households, and deploy newly available service to 100,000 homes.

Frontier’s own deployment goals in California — goals the company may not be honoring. (Image courtesy of: Steve Blum’s blog)

According to the California Emerging Technology Fund (CETF), Frontier has no intention of meeting its rural broadband commitments. In effect, similar to Charter Communications, it merely made the commitments to win approval of its acquisition of Verizon’s wireline and FiOS business in California.

A day of reckoning for the company’s alleged failure to meet its obligations is likely forthcoming. Steve Blum’s blog notes Frontier isn’t saying much:

In its formal response to CETF’s allegations, Frontier never actually says that it kept to that timetable. All it says is that “Frontier sent a letter to the Communication Division dated March 8, 2018 on its commitments that includes a confidential attachment reflecting completed locations through December 31, 2017”. It sent a letter, but doesn’t say what’s in the letter or even claim that the letter documents fulfillment of its obligations.

CETF told California regulators a disturbing story about Frontier’s failure to perform and other allegations in its filing with the California Public Utilities Commission, alleging Frontier is reneging on the deal it made with the state and various stakeholders in return for getting its acquisition approved. The group also accused Frontier of failing to deliver on its affordable broadband offering, because the company made signing up difficult and bundled extra fees and surcharges onto the bill.

“Frontier launched its existing affordable broadband offer in late August 2016 and to date only 9,173 adoptions have been achieved, a mere 4.5% of the 200,000 household adoption goal,” the CETF wrote. “Due to the initial Frontier eligibility requirement that Frontier customers be a telephone landline Lifeline subscriber and the total bundled cost, the affordable broadband offer has only attracted 7,452 low-income subscribers, which is 190,827 households short of the agreed-upon goal.”

Frontier has a employer turnover problem in California, evident from this filing by the CETF. (Courtesy: CETF)

The CETF said Frontier was “shirking” and should face the maximum fine of $50,000 a day retroactive to July 1, 2016 for failure to comply with its obligations. As of the end of July, 2018 that fine would amount to over $39 million.

To comply with existing obligations to California, Frontier could have to spend in excess of $1 billion in the next two years. But Frontier has told investors it planned to spend no more than $1.15 billion on capex in fiscal year 2018 across its entire national service area. This could explain why Frontier may be stalling on upgrades in California.

Also raining on Frontier’s parade is the muted reaction to Frontier’s latest money-raising scheme. Shareholders appear lukewarm, with some openly skeptical that Frontier can deliver what it promises.

The plan’s success depends on:

  • Frontier’s ability to raise rates and find other “revenue enhancements” of $150-200 million. Rate increases drive customers to competitors, reducing revenue.
  • Vague “operational improvements” are expected to bring $150-200 million.
  • Customer care and support savings are anticipated to generate $125-175 million in EBITDA benefit.

Outgoing CFO McBride relies heavily on opaque corporate-speak like this, with few specifics:

“In addition to the dedicated resources, we are utilizing a new approach that will significantly accelerate the benefits of both revenue and expense initiatives. This new approach involves utilization of external expertise to significantly reduce the time to successfully realize our objectives. This will allow us to execute more initiatives in parallel while still managing day to day requirements of the business.”

In short, this suggests Frontier will outsource a lot of initiatives they used to manage in-house. The company also plans to start limiting truck rolls to customer homes if the company determines the problem is likely elsewhere in their network. It also claims it is cutting customer hold times at their call centers, which are still frequently outsourced.

What Frontier has made clear, again, is their determination to keep a cap on spending, which means much of the money Frontier will spend each year will go towards network maintenance, not service upgrades. Therefore, customers can expect incremental upgrades, usually when a construction project requires Frontier to replace existing copper wire infrastructure with fiber optics or at a building site for a new housing development. Most customers in existing neighborhoods served by legacy copper wiring on the poles since the 1960s will continue to be serviced by those lines until they are torn down in a storm or stolen. Frontier has consistently shown no interest in wholesale network upgrades in its legacy service areas.

Frontier’s Troubles Mount: Company Rejects Low-Ball Offers for Assets, Worries About Its Debt

Phillip Dampier June 14, 2018 Consumer News, Frontier No Comments

Frontier’s acquired service area in central Florida is depicted in orange.

Frontier Communications failed to attract any credible bids for its Florida service area it hoped to sell to raise cash to help pay down its massive debts, now reaching 23 times the size of the market value of its outstanding shares of stock.

Frontier’s money problems come largely from its 2016 $10.54 billion acquisition of Verizon Communications’ wireline operations in California, Texas and Florida (CTF). That added to Frontier’s debt, which now amounts to $17.8 billion, racked up mostly through acquisitions and merger activity.

After acquiring the ex-Verizon service areas, customers fled because of Frontier’s poor performance. Customers complained about lengthy service interruptions, inaccurate billing, and poor customer service. Frontier executives originally trumpeted the CTF acquisition as a crown jewel in the company’s portfolio. To some analysts, it now appears to be an albatross around the company’s neck, threatening to create serious financial problems when some of the company’s bond-financed debts mature in 2021 and 2022.

In February, a source told Bloomberg News the company could not expect to sell off its territories in one transaction, because there weren’t likely to be any buyers. Instead, Frontier offered buyers pieces of its network with the hope of attracting regional telecom companies, private equity and hedge fund investors, or local fiber optic service providers. In late May, Frontier revealed it had received multiple bids for pieces of its Florida operation, but no offer was adequately high enough to proceed.

Now that an asset sale appears to be unlikely, Frontier executives are in talks with their bondholders to figure out what will come next. It is a critical moment for the company, which is currently paying over $1.5 billion in interest annually, at an average interest rate of 8.1%. Refinancing debt could prove costly as interest rates have risen. Another option is bankruptcy reorganization, which other telecom companies have done to shed debt.

Frontier’s executives are in a difficult position. If they set the asking price for their assets too high, there will be no buyers. If they adjust prices downwards, it could attract fire sale buyers and signal the marketplace the company is desperate, weakening the value of its remaining assets.

“The Florida sale wasn’t going to de-lever the company meaningfully, but it would have given them a little more flexibility to handle their 2021 and 2022 maturities,” Lindsay Gibbons, an analyst at Creditsights, Inc., told Bloomberg News. “The problem is that they have a weak negotiating position. If they sold Florida for less than what they paid, it wouldn’t look good and it puts a watermark on the other asset values.”

NextGen Fiber: 10 Gbps XGS-PON Heads to Frontier, Greenlight Networks

As gigabit internet becomes more common across the United States, some ISPs are seeking a speed advantage by offering even faster speeds to residential and business customers. On Tuesday, Nokia announced Frontier Communications and Rochester, N.Y.-based Greenlight Networks would be upgrading their fiber networks to the company’s XGS-PON solution, which can handle 10 Gbps upload and download speeds.

“Next Generation PON technologies such as XGS-PON are increasingly being deployed as demand for ultra-broadband applications and services continue to grow,” said Julie Kunstler, principal analyst at Ovum, in a statement. “Providing operators with the ability to use the same passive and active plants, XGS-PON solutions like Nokia’s can be quickly deployed and used to capture 10Gbps service opportunities that help operators to improve the return on their existing fiber network investments.”

Many existing fiber networks currently rely on GPON (gigabit passive optical network) technology — which allows one fiber in a bundle of fibers to service multiple homes and businesses. GPON networks are typically capable of download speeds of 2.488 Gbps and shared upstream speeds of 1.244 Gbps. Many ISPs using GPON technology typically offer fast download speeds, but often slower upload speeds.

Next generation XGS-PON allows up to 10 Gbps in both directions over existing fiber networks. In fact, the technology is future proof, allowing operators to immediately upgrade to faster speeds and later move towards Full TWDM-PON, an even more robust technology, without expensive network upgrades.

Most providers are leveraging XGS-PON technology to deliver symmetrical broadband — same upload and download speeds — to residential customers and to expand network capacity to avoid congestion. XPS-PON technology also supports faster-than-gigabit speeds than can be attractive to commercial customers.

Frontier intends to deploy Nokia’s technology in ex-Verizon markets in California, Texas, and Florida, beginning in Dallas-Fort Worth. It will allow Frontier to beef up its FiOS network and market stronger broadband products to Texas businesses. In Rochester, Greenlight will use the technology to upgrade its fiber service, which competes locally with Frontier DSL and Charter/Spectrum. Spectrum recently introduced gigabit download speed in Rochester. Greenlight can now expand beyond its 1 Gbps offering, but more importantly, increase its maximum upload speed beyond 100 Mbps.

“Greenlight is constantly looking at ways we can deliver new services that fit every customer need. We pride ourselves on offering the fastest internet speeds available in the markets we serve and Nokia’s XGS-PON technology will play a critical part in our ability to deliver these services to our customers,” said Greenlight CEO Mark Murphy. “With Nokia’s next-generation PON fiber solution we will be able to deliver the latest technologies, applications, products and services quickly and reliably to our customers and ensure they have access to the ultra-broadband speeds and capacity they require now and in the future.”

Nokia points out its XGS-PON technology may also be very attractive to wireless companies considering deploying 5G services. Extensive fiber assets available in area neighborhoods will be crucial for the success of millimeter wave 5G technology, which relies on small cells placed around neighborhoods and fed by fiber optics.

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