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Frontier’s Inner Secrets Revealed: ‘We Underinvested for Years’

Frontier Communications has revealed to investors what many probably realized long ago — the independent phone company chronically underinvested in network upgrades and repairs for years, giving customers an excuse to switch providers.

Remarkably, the phone company did not just underperform for its remaining voice and DSL internet customers. In a sprawling confidential “Presentation to Unsecured Bondholders” report produced by Frontier’s top executives, the company admits it was even unable to achieve significant growth in its fiber territories, where Frontier-acquired high-speed FiOS and U-verse fiber networks held out a promise to deliver urgently needed revenue.

Frontier’s bondholders were told the company’s ongoing losses and poor overall performance were unsustainable, despite years of executive “happy talk” about Frontier’s various rescue and upgrade plans. In sobering language, Frontier admitted its capital structure and efforts to deleverage the company’s massive debts were likely to cut the company off from future borrowing opportunities and deter future investment.

The presentation found multiple points of weakness in Frontier’s current business plan:

Voice landline service remains in perpetual decline. Like other companies, Frontier’s residential landline customers left first, but now business customers are also increasingly disconnecting traditional phone service.

About 51% of Frontier’s revenue comes from its residential customers. That number has been declining about 5% annually, year over year as customers leave. Frontier’s internet products are now crucial to the company’s ability to stay in business. Less than 30% of Frontier’s revenue comes from selling home phone lines. For Frontier to remain viable, the company must attract and keep internet customers. For the last several years, it has failed to do either.

Frontier customers are disconnecting the company’s low-speed DSL service in growing numbers, usually leaving for its biggest residential competitor: Charter Spectrum. Frontier remains saddled with a massive and rapidly deteriorating copper wire network. The company disclosed that 79% of its footprint is still served with copper-based DSL. Only 21% of Frontier’s service area is served by fiber optics, after more than a decade of promised upgrades. Frontier’s own numbers prove that where the company still relies on selling DSL, it is losing ground fast. Only its fiber service areas stand a chance. Just consider these numbers:

  • Out of 11 million homes is Frontier’s DSL service area, only 1.5 million customers subscribe. That’s a market share of just 13 percent, and that number declines every quarter.
  • Where Frontier customers can sign up for fiber to the home service, 1.2 million customers have done so, delivering Frontier a respectable 40 percent market share.

Frontier has been promising DSL speed upgrades for over a decade, but the company’s own numbers show a consistent failure to deliver speeds that can meet the FCC’s definition of “broadband,” currently 25 Mbps.

At least 30% of Frontier DSL customers receive between 0-12 Mbps download speed. Another 35% receive between 13-24 Mbps. Only 6% of Frontier customers get the “fast” DSL capable of exceeding 24 Mbps that is touted repeatedly by Frontier executives on quarterly conference calls.

Despite the obvious case for fiber to the home service, Frontier systematically “under-invested in fiber upgrades” in copper service areas at the same time consumers were upgrading broadband to acquire more download speed. Frontier’s report discloses that nearly 40% of consumers in its service area subscribe to internet plans offering 100 Mbps or faster service. Another 40% subscribe to plans offering 25-100 Mbps. In copper service areas, Frontier is speed-competitive in just 6% of its footprint. That leaves most speed-craving customers with only one path to faster speed: switching to another provider, typically the local cable company.

So why would a company like Frontier not immediately hit the upgrade button and start a massive copper retirement-fiber upgrade plan to keep the company in the black? In short, Frontier has survived chronic underinvestment because of a lack of broadband competition. Nearly two million Frontier customers have only one choice for internet access: Frontier. For another 11.3 million, there is only one other choice – a cable company that many detest. Frontier has enjoyed its broadband monopoly/duopoly for at least two decades. So long as its customers have fewer options, Frontier is under less pressure to invest in upgrades.

For years Frontier’s stock was primarily known for its generous dividend payouts to shareholders — money that could have been spent on network upgrades. But what hurt Frontier even more was an aggressive merger and acquisition strategy that acquired castoff landline customers from Verizon and AT&T in several states. In its most recent multi-billion dollar acquisition of Verizon customers in California, Texas, and Florida, Frontier did not achieve the desired financial results after alienating customers with persistent service and billing problems. The longer term legacy of this acquisition is a huge amount of unpaid debt.

Frontier’s notorious customer service problems are now legendary. Frontier’s new CEO Bernie Han promises customer service improvements are among his top four priorities. Improving the morale of employees that have been forced to disappoint customers on an ongoing basis is also a priority.

Frontier executives are proposing to fix the company by deleveraging the company’s debt and restructuring it, freeing up capital that can be spent on long overdue network upgrades. Executives claim the first priority will be to scrap more of Frontier’s copper wire network in favor of fiber upgrades. That would be measurable progress for Frontier, which has traditionally relied on acquiring fiber networks from other companies.

But the company will also continue to benefit from a chronic lack of competition and Wall Street’s inherent dislike of large capital spending projects. The proposal does not come close to advocating the scrapping of all of Frontier’s copper service in favor of fiber. In fact, the rebooted Frontier would only incrementally spend $1.4 billion on fiber upgrades until 2024, $1.9 billion in all over the next decade. That would bring fiber to only three million additional Frontier customers, those the company is confident would bring the highest revenue returns. Another eight million customers would continue to rely on Frontier’s existing DSL or potentially be sold off to another company. Frontier seems more attracted to the prospect of introducing or upgrading service to approximately one million unserved or underserved rural customers where it can leverage broadband subsidy funding from the U.S. government. To quote from the presentation: Frontier plans to “invest in areas that are most appropriate and profitable and limit or cease investments in areas that are not.”

Another chronic problem for Frontier’s current business is its cable TV product, sold to fiber customers.

“High content/acquisition costs have made adding new customers to the Company’s video product no longer a profitable exercise,” the company presentation admits. If the company cannot raise prices on its video packages or successfully renegotiate expensive video contracts to a lower price, customers can expect a slimmed down video package, likely dispensing with regional sports networks and other high cost channels. Frontier may even eventually scrap its video packages altogether.

To successfully achieve its goals, Frontier is likely to put itself into Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization no later than April 14, 2020. The company’s earlier plans may have been impacted by the current economic crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic, so the exact date of a bankruptcy declaration is not yet known.

Cable Industry Upgrade Investments Cratered in 2019; Lack of Competition Removes Incentives

Heynen

Equipment vendors serving the cable industry had one of the worst years in recent memory, with cable industry investment in upgrades dropping like a stone in 2019.

Companies supplying cable broadband equipment that powers internet service saw steep revenue declines to just over $1 billion, compared to $1.6 billion in 2018 and $1.7 billion in 2017. One vendor reported a 30% drop to just $255 million last year, according to Jeff Heynen, Dell’Oro Group’s senior research director for broadband access and home networking. Providers spend this money on DOCSIS broadband upgrades, cable modems and routers, and laying the foundation for next generation cable broadband and fiber networks.

Heynen blamed a reduction in capacity upgrades, an ongoing debate about where cable operators will take the DOCSIS standard next, and an overall lack of broadband competition.

Light Reading reports that a general decline in broadband investment by Charter and Comcast were hard-hitting on vendors. Both companies have been profit-taking after completing DOCSIS 3.1 upgrades and believe that gigabit download-capable broadband networks will suffice for several years to come. Phone company broadband competition growth has also waned as AT&T ends its large-scale fiber to the home expansion and as other phone companies refuse to undertake widespread upgrades; most will continue to rely on DSL technology in non-fiber-upgraded markets. The overall lack of competition from phone company broadband speed upgrades has given the cable industry no reason to undertake more upgrades, except in competitive service areas.

Still, the cable industry is planning to deploy two relatively low cost upgrades starting this year: increasing upstream broadband speeds and growing adoption of routers supporting Wi-Fi 6, a new Wi-Fi standard.

Light Reading:

[Heynen expects] moves to expand upstream bandwidth to help lead the next network investment cycle as cable operators deploy mid-splits or high-splits that expand the amount of bandwidth used for upstream traffic. In most legacy North American DOCSIS networks, the spectrum dedicated to the upstream is in the range of 5MHz to 42MHz. Mid-splits will raise that to 85MHz and high-splits could elevate it to around 200MHz.

Those upstream-impacting network decisions will also help to drive a new generation of DOCSIS consumer premises equipment (CPE) that can tune to these updated upstream/downstream bandwidth splits.

Heynen also notes the business picture is brighter in Europe, where phone companies are moving at a much faster pace to ditch DSL in favor of fiber to the home service. As a result, competing cable and wireless providers are investing in fiber networks of their own to remain competitive.

Spectrum Salesperson Lies to Customers About the Competition: “We Bought Them”

Phillip Dampier January 21, 2020 Charter Spectrum, Competition, Consumer News, Video No Comments

This Spectrum door-to-door salesperson tells a Bath, N.Y. customer the cable company bought the competition.

A Spectrum door-to-door sales representative has a new trick up his sleeve to win back customers who switched to a competitor: lie and tell them Spectrum bought out the competition and sooner or later customers will once again be dealing with the cable company.

Spectrum Rep: “To get you guys back on board with our service, we’re going to lock your price in for two years.”

A Bath, N.Y., customer of Empire Access, a competing fiber to the home provider offering service in the Southern Tier of New York: “I’m not interested.”

Spectrum Rep: “We just bought Empire, you know, so sooner or later you’re going to be with us.”

Customer: “So you’re going to raise up your rates?”

Spectrum Rep: “No, we’re just going to get everybody switched over, so whenever you’re ready. The official switchover is in March, so sooner or later you’ll be on board with us or you’ll be on satellite for internet. Right now we’re offering you a deal to get on board early.”

The “deal” was $50 a month for 100 Mbps internet, which is hardly a deal at all considering new Spectrum customers in competitive service areas can often sign up for 400 Mbps service for $29.99 a month for two years. More importantly, the salesperson openly lied to make a sale.

Empire Access marketing director Bob VanDelinder says Empire Access did not sell to Spectrum and has no plans to sell itself to anyone.

“Our company is locally owned and operated, and deeply rooted in the communities we serve,” VanDelinder said. “We can keep our customers based on our service, our price. We’re very competitive and play fair. We think that’s extremely important to play fair and keep it a level playing field and be honest to our customers.”

The customer captured most of the conversation on his Ring video doorbell and shared it with Empire Access. At least one other Empire Access customer said he experienced a similar encounter with the deceptive salesperson.

“The content of the video is not accurate and we’re investigating these apparent comments by the sales representative,” responds a Spectrum spokesperson.

Spectrum typically contracts out its door-to-door marketing to third party companies, with employees typically earning a commission or bonus based on each successful sign-up.

Empire Access is requesting customers who have experienced similar misleading claims to contact the company at: 1-800-338-3300.

Spectrum representative lies about the competition.

WENY-TV in Elmira, N.Y. reports on a Spectrum door-to-door salesperson using dirty tricks to try and fool customers to switch back to the cable operator. (2:32)

Charter, Comcast Start Competing in Each Other’s Territories… But Only For Big Business Accounts

Comcast and Charter Communications have begun to compete outside of their respective cable footprints, potentially competing directly head to head for your business, but only if you are a super-sized corporate client.

Comcast Business has targeted selling large Fortune 1000 companies internet service through contractual partnerships with Charter, Cox, and Cablevision/Altice USA for a few years now. The cable giant recently entered the Canadian market, at least for U.S.-based companies that have satellite offices north of the border. Comcast now directly competes with other cable operators selling enterprise-level broadband service, whether the customer is inside Comcast’s footprint or not, but will not offer a similar service to consumers looking for better options.

The cable industry’s longstanding de facto agreement not to compete head to head for customers will probably remain intact even as Charter this week unveils its own national broadband service called Spectrum Total Connect. It will be available across the country, offering customers up to 940 Mbps broadband service at a highly competitive price, but only if you are running a large business and have an account with Spectrum Business National Accounts, which provides connectivity for large business franchises, national retailers, and companies utilizing a large network of telecommuters scattered around the country. Consumers need not apply here either.

Charter has refused to say who it has partnered with to provide the service, but it is likely a reciprocal agreement with Comcast and other cable companies it already works with to provide enterprise-level service. The new service will be rolled out in the next several weeks.

Cable companies have been successful selling connectivity products to small and medium-sized businesses, but large national companies have traditionally relied on phone companies to provide them with total connectivity packages that can reach all of their locations. Until Comcast began selling service outside of its footprint, cable companies have had to turn down business opportunities outside of their respective service areas. But now Comcast and Charter can reach well beyond their local cable systems to satisfy the needs of corporate clients.

But neither company wants to end their comfortable fiefdoms in the residential marketplace by competing head to head for customers. Companies claim it would not be profitable to install redundant, competing networks, even though independent fiber to the home overbuilders have been doing so in several cities for years. It seems more likely cable operators are deeply concerned about threatening their traditional business model supplying services that face little competition. In the early years, that was cable television. Today it is broadband. Large swaths of the country remain underserved by telephone companies that have decided upgrading their deteriorating copper wire networks to supply residential fiber broadband service is not worth the investment, leaving most internet connectivity in the hands of a single local cable operator. Most cable companies have taken full advantage of this de facto monopoly by regularly raising prices despite the fact that the costs associated with providing internet service have been declining for years.

Cherry-picking lucrative commercial customers while leaving ordinary consumers mired in a monopoly is more evidence that the U.S. broadband marketplace is broken and under regulated. Competition is the best solution to raising speeds while reducing prices — competition regulators should insist on wherever possible.

Sprint Shutting Down Virgin Mobile; Remaining Customers Being Switched to Boost Mobile

Phillip Dampier January 7, 2020 Boost Mobile, Sprint, Virgin Mobile 2 Comments

Sprint’s prepaid mobile division

Sprint will be closing down its prepaid Virgin Mobile service in February and will shift customers to its Boost Mobile brand instead and drop its standalone Mobile Broadband service.

The wireless company has virtually ignored Virgin Mobile at least as long as Sprint has been in negotiations to merge operations with T-Mobile USA. The Virgin Mobile website has also been neglected, with no media releases for almost two years and over two years of unchanged rates. Last October, Sprint dropped its last major retail arrangement with Walmart that allowed Virgin Mobile devices and airtime to be sold in Walmart stores. Best Buy and several grocery chains ended sales of Virgin Mobile devices even earlier. As of late last year, new customers could only sign up for Virgin Mobile through its own website, a sure sign Sprint was prepared to accept customer attrition and was likely to pull support for the prepaid brand.

Sprint inherited Boost Mobile after it acquired Nextel in 2005. Boost Mobile had offered its own prepaid service over Nextel’s push-to-talk network beginning in 2001. After Sprint shuttered Nextel’s network, it operated both Virgin Mobile and Boost Mobile on Sprint’s network as competing prepaid wireless services. In the last two years, Sprint apparently decided it only needed to support a single brand, and quietly began shifting its marketing exclusively towards Boost.

This week, Sprint confirmed it was shutting down the Virgin Mobile brand in the U.S. in a prepared statement.

“We regularly examine our plans to ensure that we’re offering the best services in line with our customer needs. Beginning on the week of Feb. 2, we will be moving Virgin Mobile customer accounts to our sister brand Boost Mobile – consolidating the brands under one cohesive, efficient and effective prepaid team. In most circumstances, customers can keep their current phone and will receive a comparable or better Boost Mobile service plan with no extra cost.”

The transition will strand Virgin Mobile Broadband and Broadband2Go customers that use a standalone device for mobile broadband service, often used by RV-traveling customers or those in rural areas. Sprint has decided that Boost Mobile will not serve those customers, so mobile data service provided over standalone hotspot devices will end next month.

An FAQ on Virgin Mobile’s website provides some other insight:

Customers were notified in early January about the decision to discontinue Virgin Mobile USA service plans. At that time, we informed customers of the transfer to Boost Mobile. In most instances, your existing account will be transferred to Boost Mobile with your device, and a comparable or better Boost Mobile service plan at no extra cost to you. You will keep your phone number, and your monthly payment date will remain the same as long as you continue on time payments until the transfer to Boost Mobile is complete.

At this time, paying for your service through your PayPal account will not be supported on your new Boost Mobile account and therefore, Paypal will be removed as a registered payment vehicle 4-5 days prior to the migration date. Customers enrolled on a payment method or AutoPay with PayPal accounts will need to re-establish payment options and re-enroll in Autopay using a major credit/debit card. Boost Mobile also does not accept 45/90 Day Top Up Payment Option for service payments. Customers enrolled in 45/90 Day Top Up Payment option will need to re-establish payment option and re-enroll in a Low Balance Autopay option using a major credit/debit card prior to transition in order to avoid service interruption. If your account is impacted by either of these payment methods, we will notify you with instructions for how to make changes prior to transfer date in order to avoid service interruption. Please note the Texas LIDA credits will no longer be issued following transfer to Boost Mobile.

  • Taxes and fees will now be INCLUDED in your new Boost Mobile plan.
  • 6,800 Boost Mobile locations nationwide for your convenience.
  • 99% nationwide coverage with voice roaming.
  • Boost Perks, a reward program exclusive to Boost Mobile customers.

If you have a Mobile Broadband (MBB) device, this device and service will not transfer to Boost Mobile.

In order to avoid service interruption for your MBB, you will need to switch your service to a new provider. If you choose to consider Boost Mobile, please visit Boostmobile.com or your nearest Boost Mobile store for information and current promotions.

The wind down of Virgin Mobile may also serve as a bit of housekeeping as Sprint prepares to merge with T-Mobile. A condition of that merger is spinning off Sprint’s prepaid services including Boost Mobile service to DISH Network to create another viable national wireless carrier to protect competition. Dropping Virgin Mobile now is likely to provide an easier transition for DISH, which would launch operations with a combination of Virgin Mobile and Boost Mobile customers.

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