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W.V. Orders Frontier to Improve Service to Address Over 1,300 Complaints in Last 12 Months

Phillip Dampier September 30, 2020 Consumer News, Frontier, Public Policy & Gov't, Rural Broadband 1 Comment

Frontier is the dominant phone company in West Virginia.

The West Virginia Public Service Commission has ordered Frontier Communications to make significant improvements in its aging copper wire telephone network after a comprehensive investigation found the company’s landline phone service and broadband to be lacking.

The order comes two years after the state began investigating the phone company and six months after a service audit was completed. In the last year, 1,342 complaints about poor service were filed with the state’s Public Service Commission.

“Frontier customers in this state remain plagued with service problems even as the customer base – and the corresponding revenue – declines. The Focused Management Audit was designed to find the underlying service quality problems, and possible solutions, in the hopes of placing Frontier on a better path,” the report concluded.

Over the past two years, Frontier gradually implemented some of the recommendations made by the state, particularly a more robust tree-trimming program to pre-emptively reduce tree-related outages and an automated system that can detect service issues and outages before customers call to complain. But Frontier’s larger problem is its lack of investment in network upgrades, particularly related to replacing old copper wire infrastructure with fiber optics. The study identified the 25 worst exchanges in the state most plagued by service outages and complaints and demanded that Frontier rehabilitate or upgrade those areas to improve service. But the company has refused the Commission’s request to deploy fiber optic connections to every cross-box in the state, which connects Frontier’s network to neighborhood phone lines. Such an upgrade would dramatically reduce Frontier’s reliance on copper wiring and improve phone and internet service.

Frontier rejected the idea as “unfeasible,” claiming it would cost $100 million to complete fiber connections to each of Frontier’s 3,255 existing cross box locations. If the company moved to digital phone service across those fiber lines, the cost would rise to $200 million, according to Frontier, adding it would have no choice but to pass these costs onto customers in the state.

“Given the exorbitant expense associated with such a comprehensive endeavor, the cost of voice service would consequently increase to unsustainable levels,” the company claimed.

Yet earlier this spring, at the height of the pandemic and after declaring bankruptcy, Frontier paid out $38 million in retention bonuses to its top executives, urging the same people who presided over the company as it went bankrupt to remain on the payroll at least until the bankruptcy was discharged.

The state was given an early warning about Frontier’s decreasing performance in July 2019 after an auditing firm found the company financially troubled and had cut back dramatically on ongoing maintenance spending. The auditor also reported Frontier was likely losing customers fast and would soon feel the financial pressure of lost revenue. Just as bad, the auditor reported Frontier’s ability to stay ahead of its service problems could be compromised further by the likely retirement of more than half of the company’s most experienced service technicians in the next five years.

The auditor correctly predicted Frontier’s financial health. The company declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy in April and is reorganizing. The company claims it will exit bankruptcy in much better financial shape, with much of its debt discharged or renegotiated by creditors. In turn, Frontier has promised to boost investment in network fiber upgrades, but has not been specific about what areas it will target. A hearing to discuss some of these matters is scheduled for Oct. 28.

Even with Frontier’s imminent exit from bankruptcy, West Virginia officials remain concerned about the phone company’s commitments and whether the new management will continue to honor earlier agreements with state officials.

 

Fiber to the Home Customers Only Cancel “If They Move or Die”

Customer satisfaction with fiber to the home internet service is so high, one industry leader says the only time customers cancel service is if they move or die.

Carl Russo, CEO of internet equipment vendor Calix, says phone companies are relying on fiber optic networks to turn their struggling businesses around except in the most rural areas of the country.

“Fixed wireless will sometimes be the right choice and Calix’s software supports it. But our telco customers with fiber will lose very few customers. If they provide strong, customer-focused service, no one will have a reason to switch,” Russo told Dave Burstein’s Fast Net News. “It’s only a slight exaggeration to say customers only churn if they move or die. This is provided the service provider chooses to ‘own’ the subscriber experience. A service provider that invests in fiber but doesn’t further invest in an excellent subscriber experience is still vulnerable.”

Russo argues that fiber to the home service has been the right choice for most of the developed world for several years now, at least where there is hearty competition between providers.

Where competition is lacking, phone companies often still rely on archaic DSL service, which is increasingly incapable of competing with even smaller cable operators. Phone companies are now up against the wall, forced to recognize that existing, decades-old copper wire infrastructure cannot sustain their future in the broadband business. Companies that drag their feet on fiber upgrades are bleeding customers, and some companies are even in bankruptcy reorganization.

Russo

Fiber networks are future-proof, with most offering up to gigabit speed to consumers and businesses. But upgrading to 10 Gbps will “add little to the cost” once demand for such faster speed appears, Russo said.

Fast Net News notes that France Telecom, Telefonica Spain, Bell Canada, and Telus have all proven successful using fiber to the home service to compete with cable companies to market internet access. Companies that approved less costly fiber to the neighborhood projects that relied on keeping a portion of a company’s legacy copper network, including AT&T, BT in the United Kingdom, and Deutsche Telekom in Germany, have had to bring back construction equipment to further extend fiber optic cables to individual customer homes — a costly expense.

Even public broadband projects like Australia’s National Broadband Network (NBN) paid dearly for a political decision to downsize the NBN’s original fiber optic design to save money. The NBN was hobbled by a more conservative government that came to power just as the network was being built. Many NBN customers ended up with a more advanced form of DSL supplied from oversubscribed remote terminals, which delivered just 50 Mbps to some subscribers. For-profit companies have also been pressured to keep costs down and limit fiber rollouts by Wall Street and investors. Verizon FiOS is the best known American example, with further network expansion of the fiber optic service essentially shelved in 2010 at the behest of investors that claimed the upgrades cost too much.

Underfunded upgrades often bring customer dissatisfaction as speeds cannot achieve expectations, and many hybrid fiber-copper networks are less robust and more subject to breakdowns. In the United Kingdom, BT’s “super fast” broadband initiative has been a political problem for years, and communities frequently compete to argue who has the worst service in the country. BT’s fiber-to-the-village approach supplies fiber internet service to street cabinets in smaller communities that link to existing BT copper phone lines that are often in poor shape. Customers often get less than 50 Mbps service from BT’s “super fast” service while a few UK cable companies are constructing all-fiber networks in larger cities capable of supplying gigabit internet speed to every customer.

Calix is positioned to earn heavily by selling the equipment and infrastructure that will power future fiber network upgrades that are inevitable if companies want to attract and keep customers. A new round of federal rural broadband funding will help phone companies pay for the upgrades, which means many rural Americans will find fiber to the home service in their future.

Wilson, N.C.’s Fight for Better Internet Found Lots of Opposition from Big Telecom and Republicans

If you’ve ever lived in small-town America, you know how bad the internet can sometimes be. So one town in North Carolina decided: If we can’t make fast internet come to us, we’ll build it ourselves. And they did, despite laughter and disbelief from Time Warner Cable (today known as Spectrum).

When the city started installing fiber optics, the incumbent cable and phone companies did not like the competition and fought back, hiring an army of 40 lobbyists. The telecom companies enlisted the support of the now Republican-controlled state legislature, often with the help of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and other conservative groups. Together, they hammered home scare stories with suspect studies critical of municipal broadband written by not-so-independent researchers ghost-funded by many of the same big cable and phone companies.

National Public Radio’s “Planet Money” looks at what happened when the City of Wilson decided to try and start its own internet provider, and how it started a fight that eventually spread to dozens of states, a fight about whether cities should even be allowed to compete with big internet providers, and what the effect the outcome might have on working remotely. But the citizens of Wilson seem to love Greenlight Community Broadband, right down to its well-regarded customer service, which includes dropping by elderly customers’ homes during lunch to troubleshoot set-top boxes and nefarious remote control confusion. (22:47)

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.

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