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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.

This Internet Provider Earned a 94% Customer Satisfaction Score, and It Isn’t Comcast or Spectrum

One of America’s internet service providers managed to achieve a customer satisfaction score of 94%, an unprecedented vote of approval from consumers that typically loathe their cable or phone company.

What also makes this provider different is that it is owned by the public, and administered by the City of Fairlawn, Ohio. Fairlawn is a suburb of Akron, with a population of around 7,400 people. Akron is dominated by Charter Spectrum for cable and AT&T for telephone service. But the suburbs have been underserved by both companies for decades. As with many northeastern cities, the economic shift away from manufacturing towards high-tech businesses requires robust connectivity. But many communities are stuck with a cable company that will not service less populated areas in town and a phone company that is willing to leave many customers with low-speed DSL and nothing better.

When a community finds it cannot get gigabit fiber optic service for residents, it can either live with what is on offer instead or decide to do something about it. Fairlawn decided it was time to establish FairlawnGig, a municipal broadband utility that would provide gigabit fiber service to every resident in town, if they wanted it.

Broadband Communities reports local residents love the service they are getting:

The online survey results reveal overall satisfaction with FairlawnGig at an astoundingly high number of 94% with more than 3 out of 4 (77%) saying they are “very satisfied.”

Additionally, FairlawnGig 94% of residential customers rated the service they receive from FairlawnGig as “excellent” or “very good.”

FairlawnGig offers two plans to residents: 300/300 Mbps service for $55 a month or 1,000/1,000 Mbps service for $75. Landline phone service is an extra $25 a month, and the municipal provider has pointed its customers to online cable TV alternatives like Hulu and YouTube TV for television service. Incumbent cable and phone companies usually respond to this kind of competition with cut-rate promotions to keep the customers they have and lure others back. Spectrum has countered with promotions offering 400 Mbps internet for as little as $30/mo for two years. Despite the potential savings, most people in Fairlawn won’t go back to Spectrum regardless of the price. FairlawnGig’s loyalty score is 80, with 85% of those not only sticking with FairlawnGig but also actively recommending it to others.

Residents appreciate the service, deemed very reliable, and that technicians are local and accessible. The City says it works hard to ensure that customer appointments are kept and on time and representatives are available to assist customers with their questions and technical support needs. FairlawnGig claims its technicians spend extra time teaching customers about their services.

City officials candidly admit they were willing to build and launch the municipal fiber service even if it did not recoup its original investment for years to come. That is because the municipal fiber network has benefited the city in other ways:

  • It has attracted new residents to town and kept them there.
  • Several businesses launched or moved to be within FairlawnGig’s service area. Most are white collar businesses, such as IT firms, software and hardware engineers, and consultants.
  • A new orthopaedic hospital is being developed in the town, in part because FairlawnGig can provide connectivity up to 100 Gbps for things like medical imaging and video conferencing.
  • As businesses move in, so do workers looking for a shorter commute. Property values in the town have increased and realtors make a point to alert would-be buyers when a property is within FairlawnGig’s service area.

In short, Fairlawn officials see providing internet access as more than just a profit center. It is a public service initiative that is paying back dividends that will eventually exceed the $10 million investment taken from the city’s general fund to build the network. Taxes did not increase as a result of FairlawnGig either. Now other towns around Fairlawn and the city of Akron itself are showing interest in how to join forces to expand the public service well beyond Fairlawn’s town borders.

WOIO in Akron covered FairlawnGig back in January 2019 in this report explaining how a publicly owned fiber to the home service was delivering gig speed to this northeastern Ohio community. (2:31)

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 in 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 these acquisitions is a huge amount of unpaid debt.

Frontier’s notorious customer service problems are now legendary. Frontier’s new CEO Bernie Han promises that 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 another.

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 instead of building their own.

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, a 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. The remaining eight million copper customers would be stuck relying 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.

DSL is Failing Rural America – Service Rarely Achieves FCC’s 25 Mbps Broadband Minimum

With the average speed of DSL service under 10 Mbps in rural counties across the United States, this legacy technology is disenfranchising a growing number of rural Americans and is largely responsible for dragging down overall U.S. internet speed scores. Only satellite internet offers overall lower speed and poor customer satisfaction, according to consumer surveys.

In some areas, customers cannot even get bad DSL service, despite the fact the Federal Communications Commission marks many of those addresses as well-served. According to a new report by the company Broadband Now, the FCC could be claiming at least 20 million Americans have access to robust internet service that, in fact, does not exist, especially in rural counties.

Citylab:

To get its estimate, the Broadband Now team manually ran 11,663 randomly selected addresses through the “check availability” tool of nine large internet service providers that claim to serve those areas. All in all, the team analyzed 20,000 provider-address combinations. A fifth of them indicated that no service was available, suggesting to the researchers that companies may be overstating their availability by 20%, said John Busby, the managing director of Broadband Now. The results also show that 13% of the addresses served by multiple providers didn’t actually have available service through any of them. They then applied these rates across the country to get their final estimate of 42 million people without broadband.

The disparity between their estimate and the FCC’s largely comes from the agency’s reliance on Form 477 reports, in which internet providers self-report the locations they serve. Providers can claim to serve the population of an entire census block if service is provided to just one household in that block. After the release of FCC’s May report, the agency’s Democratic commissioners dismissed the report, berating their colleagues for “blindly accepting incorrect data” and using the numbers to “clap its hands and pronounce our broadband job done.”

Across DSL-heavy rural Ohio, weary residents have nothing to clap about as they desperately look for something better than slow speed DSL from the local phone company.

“It’s a good day when Frontier DSL breaks 2 Mbps, although they advertise (and we pay for) 10 Mbps,” said Fred Phelps, a Frontier DSL customer for more than a decade. “In rural Ohio, it is take it or leave it internet access and we have no choice other than Frontier.”

Phelps has longed for Charter Spectrum to wire his area, next to a large farm operation, but the nearest Spectrum-connected home is a half-mile down the road. Phelps was lucky to get DSL at all. That aforementioned farm paid Frontier a handsome sum to extend its commercial DSL service to the farm’s office, putting Phelps in range for a residential DSL connection.

“It is always slow and frequently goes offline on rainy and snowy days because water is getting into the phone cable somewhere,” Phelps told Stop the Cap! “Service calls are a waste of time because the problem always disappears by the time the repair crew shows up.”

Cindy B (last name withheld at request) is in a similar situation in Ohio. She has a CenturyLink DSL line that averages 1 Mbps, although some of her relatives have managed to get almost 12 Mbps from CenturyLink closer to town.

Warren County, Ky.

“CenturyLink treats you like they are doing you a favor even offering DSL service in this part of Ohio. There is no cable TV service for at least 20 miles, so cable internet is out of the question,” Cindy tells us. “They have also made it crystal clear there are no plans to upgrade service in our area.”

She used to be a Viasat satellite internet customer but quickly canceled service.

“Satellite internet should be considered torture and banned as illegal,” Cindy said. “You can spend five minutes just trying to open an email, and the only time we could download a file was overnight, but even that failed all the time.”

Cindy and Fred are collateral damage of the country’s broadband dilemma. They are stuck with DSL, a service that often wildly over-claims advertised speed that it actually cannot deliver in rural areas. In much of rural Ohio, DSL speeds are usually under 6 Mbps, although companies often claim much faster speed on reports sent to the FCC.

“According to the FCC website, we should be getting 24 Mbps internet from Frontier and two other companies, but that simply does not exist,” said Phelps. “I really don’t understand how the FCC can rely on its own database for broadband speed that is not available and never has been.”

Cindy said her children cannot depend on their DSL line and have to do their homework at school or in the library, where a more dependable Wi-Fi connection exists.

“The problem is getting worse because websites are becoming more elaborate and are designed for people who have real internet connections, so often they won’t even load for us,” she said.

Warren Rural Electric Co-Op’s service area.

But according to the FCC, neither Cindy nor Fred live in a broadband-deprived area. For this reason, public funding to improve internet access is hard to come by because the FCC deems both areas well-served.

South of Ohio, in Warren County, Ky., a local rural electric co-op is not waiting for the State of Kentucky or the federal government to fix inaccurate data about broadband service in the rural exurbs around Bowling Green, usually stuck with slow DSL or no internet access at all. Warren Rural Electric Cooperative and Lafayette, Tenn.-based North Central Telephone Co-Op are working together to lay fiber optic cables to bring fiber to the home internet service to some broadband-deprived communities in the county. Warren RECC serves eight counties in south central Kentucky with over 5,700 miles of electric transmission and distribution lines, mostly in rural parts of the state. Two communities chosen for service as part of a pilot project — Boyce and September Lakes, are more than a little excited to get connected.

The Bowling Green Daily News reports that an informational meeting held in early February drew 300 residents (out of nearly 800) ready to hear more information about the project. Almost 150 signed up for future fiber service on the spot. Many more have subsequently signed up online. The new service will charge $64.95/mo for 100 Mbps service or $94.95 for 1,000 Mbps service. That is about $5 less than what Charter Spectrum charges city folks and is many times faster than what most phone companies are offering in rural Kentucky.

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