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The Final Frontier: Phone Company Plans Bankruptcy Reorganization by March

Phillip Dampier January 20, 2020 Consumer News, Frontier 2 Comments

Frontier Communications will file Chapter 11 bankruptcy by March, according to a report by Bloomberg News citing unnamed sources, leading to a major reorganization of a struggling phone company that has been losing customers for years.

Bernie Han, Frontier’s new CEO, reportedly met with creditors and Wall Street advisors late last week to negotiate a bankruptcy filing and proposed turnaround plan to be unveiled before Frontier faces a repayment deadline of $356 million in debt on March 15.

If creditors agree, Frontier would continue operations after filing bankruptcy and renegotiate its debts, while potentially jettisoning retiree pension benefits, stiffing shareholders, and winning the freedom to exit certain long term contractual agreements related to its legacy properties and services.

Frontier serves around 3.5 million broadband customers in 29 states, providing service mostly to rural communities ignored by former Bell Operating Companies and in acquired service areas once controlled by Verizon or AT&T. Frontier’s acquisitions have contributed to the company’s $17+ billion in debt and have ultimately not met expectations. Many Frontier legacy customers have fled to other providers because of poor or inadequate service and a lack of network upgrades to offer acceptable internet service. Frontier has largely avoided undertaking major fiber optic upgrades in its legacy service territories, where the company still sells slow DSL service over a deteriorating copper wire network that is often decades old.

Most of Frontier’s fiber-to-the-home territories were acquired by the company, hoping such acquisitions would deliver a much-needed revenue boost. But some analysts say Frontier overpaid to acquire those service areas, and in several cases botched a conversion to Frontier’s billing and service platform, alienating customers.

The company’s stock has been in free fall for months, starting its steep decline after abandoning a popular dividend payout plan. As of this afternoon, shares are priced below 65 cents.

To stabilize the business, Frontier has entertained selling off portions of its network. In May 2019, Frontier announced it was selling 350,000 of its customers in the Pacific Northwest states of Washington, Oregon, Montana and Idaho to raise $1.35 billion to pay down its debts, but that was not enough to appease investors. Many believe former CEO Dan McCarthy was forced out of the company late last year after failing to improve the business. Frontier’s newest CEO has apparently decided reorganization through bankruptcy is now the best last resort.

Such news pleases activist investment funds including Elliot Management, which have pushed for reorganization for nearly a year. Elliot has been very vocal, demanding better results from several large telecom companies, including AT&T and Windstream. Elliott Management and Franklin Resources now hold nearly 50 percent of Frontier’s bonds. Another group of creditors includes GoldenTree Asset Management. The activist investors have been primarily fighting over the $5.8 billion in high-coupon debt bonds Frontier issued to cover its acquisition of former Verizon customers in California, Texas, and Florida. Frontier met fierce investor objections after considering refinancing that costly debt, because bondholders feared that would put them last in line to recoup their investments if Frontier went bankrupt.

A bankruptcy would not immediately impact Frontier’s customers and operations would continue. But Frontier would likely stall upgrades and future spending until the company exits bankruptcy. Some customers may also have to wait for refunds, at least initially, subject to court approval. Retirees and employees may also eventually face changes to their benefits packages.

For Frontier to be successful, the company will have to shed debt and begin making much larger investments to modernize its network to compete for lucrative broadband customers. It will also have to improve its image with better customer and repair service and fewer “gotcha” billing policies and fine print.

N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo Vetoes Public Rural Broadband Feasibility Study as the Unserved Struggle On

No service.

Despite New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s $500 million, 2015 Broadband for All initiative which guaranteed broadband service for anyone  that wanted home internet access, five years later rural broadband gaps continue to plague the state.

A bill that would set aside funds to complete a feasibility study to launch a state owned broadband provider of last resort was quietly vetoed by Cuomo at the end of 2019. Assembly member Aileen Gunther (D-Monticello) sponsored the bill after hearing scores of complaints about terrible or non-existent internet access from constituents in her district, which covers the parts of the rural Catskills region north of the Pennsylvania border.

Gunther complained that despite the governor’s broadband initiative, private phone and cable companies were still ignoring rural customers, leaving them with slow DSL service or no internet access at all. Gunther’s bill was a first step in potentially allowing the state to step in and provide service to New Yorkers unable to get broadband from any private provider.

New York has spent over $500 million on its Broadband for All program and made Charter Spectrum an integral part of its broadband expansion plans in return for approval of its 2016 acquisition of Time Warner Cable. But a growing number of the governor’s critics claim the program has failed to deliver on its mandate, stranding thousands of New Yorkers without internet service and tens of thousands more with just one option — unpopular satellite internet access.

Gunther

Gunther was upset to learn that New York was prepared to hand over more than a half billion dollars to large private telecom companies including Frontier Communications and Verizon while not being willing to spend a penny to fund projects to reach New Yorkers for-profit companies could not be dragged kicking and screaming to service.

“We’re all spending millions and millions of dollars on privately owned internet service providers,” said Gunther. “In return for promises, a lot of our communities do not have access to the internet, or if they do have access to the internet, it’s slow and these companies are not, I think, fulfilling the promises made.”

The rural broadband problem is not resolved in the Finger Lakes or Southern Tier regions of New York either. This week, Yates County announced it was joining an effort by Schuyler, Steuben, and Tioga counties, and the Southern Tier Network, to complete a broadband feasibility study to improve internet access in the four counties. Fujitsu Broadband will manage the study and hopes to have results by June. The study will target the pervasive problem of inadequate broadband service in the region, which includes crucial tourist, winery, and agricultural businesses vital to New York’s rural economy.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announcing rural broadband initiatives in New York in 2015.

Gov. Cuomo has called such initiatives “well-intentioned” but was non committal about contributing more state funds to construct new networks or underwrite further expansion of existing ones. New York is about to begin its annual hard-fought budget negotiations in hopes of completing the state budget by April. Finding funding for such projects will probably require a powerful political advocate able to wrestle funding for further broadband improvements.

Even after spending $500 million, New York’s rural broadband problem has not been resolved. That offers insight into the merits of other state broadband programs, which often limit annual broadband expansion funding to under $30 million annually.

Those still without service are likely in high-cost service areas, where each customer could cost over $20,000 to reach. New York’s Broadband for All program relied on a reverse auction that required private companies to bid to service each unserved address. No wireline provider bid on any high-cost service areas, leaving Hughes Satellite as a subsidized satellite provider of last resort. But inadequate broadband mapping left scores of rural New Yorkers behind without even the option of subsidized satellite internet access.

Frontier Communications Warns It May Declare Bankruptcy In Early 2020

Phillip Dampier November 13, 2019 Consumer News, Frontier 146 Comments

After years of customer losses and a stifling debt of $17.5 billion, Frontier Communications was warned investors it may be forced to declare bankruptcy reorganization to protect its assets from creditors that are growing impatient with the phone company.

Analysts suggest Frontier is considering a Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing as early as the first quarter of 2020 as part of a sweeping reorganization of the company that will also include replacing its top management.

Bloomberg News reports corporate advisers have already begun looking for a replacement of CEO Dan McCarthy, a long term Frontier executive that began a career at Rochester Telephone Corporation before it was acquired by Frontier. McCarthy replaced former Frontier CEO Maggie Wilderotter in 2015. Since Wilderotter’s departure, Frontier’s share price has spiraled downwards and customers are leaving in droves.

McCarthy

Over 71,000 Frontier customers disconnected service in the third quarter of 2019 alone, the biggest percentage of customer losses of any major residential telecom company in the United States.

Frontier executives have repeatedly blamed the ongoing disconnection of traditional landline service for its declining results, but other phone companies have curtailed losses by upgrading their networks to attract new broadband customers. Frontier has only grudgingly invested in network upgrades over the last decade, particularly in its legacy copper service areas. The company’s fiber assets were primarily acquired from service territories formerly owned by Verizon and AT&T. Frontier, like CenturyLink and Windstream, attracted shareholders a decade ago by paying out a significant amount of revenue in shareholder dividends. After Frontier made further acquisitions of former Verizon landline territories putting itself deeper into debt, the company suspended its dividend in 2018.

Frontier’s reluctance to invest adequately in its network has been noticed by many of its customers. So have the company’s ongoing billing and service problems. Frontier has been under investigation over its service performance in several states and has left some customers out of service for weeks.

A possible bankruptcy filing would allow the company to renegotiate its debts and labor agreements. Layoffs and restructuring cost cutting would likely follow. Frontier recently sold off its properties in the Pacific Northwest in an effort to raise cash to reduce its debts. Further asset sales could be forthcoming.

California Governor Vetoes Rural Broadband Development Bills; AT&T and Frontier Benefit the Most

Gov. Newsom

California’s efforts to address the state’s ongoing rural broadband problems made little headway in 2019, as Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom in the past week vetoed (or allowed to expire) the only two broadband measures surviving the treacherous journey through the California legislature.

Assembly Bill 1212 would have made rural broadband a priority for Caltrans — California’s Department of Transportation and the Department of Water Resources, including broadband on recommended lists of projects for funding consideration by two of the state’s largest pension investment funds: the California Public Employees Retirement System and the California State Teachers Retirement System. Current state law only allows pension boards to invest in in-state infrastructure projects that meet certain fiduciary responsibilities. By expanding investment projects to include telecommunications, funding from two major pension funds might have been unlocked and made available to future rural internet projects.

Assembly Bill 417, also known as the Agriculture and Rural Prosperity Act, included several measures targeting rural farming. Two passages in the bill would have included broadband expansion as a new priority for the California Department of Food and Agriculture (DFA):

Due to the central role of agriculture in rural California, it is necessary to achieve a detailed understanding of the economic value that agriculture brings to rural communities and to identify opportunities to improve agricultural productivity, including by increasing broadband access, advancing agricultural innovation, technology, and education, and supporting a well-trained, productive rural workforce, to benefit rural communities.

[…] Making recommendations to the secretary on actions to further the development of rural agricultural economies, including, but not limited to, increasing broadband access, providing technical, resource, and regulatory compliance assistance, advancing agricultural innovation and technology, establishing programs for education and workforce development, and evaluating recreation and tourism opportunities.

Several other proposed measures, including AB 1409 which would have created a fund for providing wireless hotspots for students and Wi-Fi service on school buses was killed last spring behind closed doors in the California Assembly’s Appropriations Committee. The annual attempt by AT&T and other telecom companies to write their own laws to deregulate themselves (this time AB 1366), was suddenly pulled from committee consideration by its author back in September.

That the two mild measures made it through the legislature to the governor’s desk was not surprising considering the sheer number of minor bills that pile up on Newsom’s desk. But for both to suffer quiet deaths through veto or expiration despite almost no public opposition speaks to the power of Sacramento insider politics.

Newsom’s explanation for killing AB 1212 was hardly compelling, as he explained he felt the measure was “unnecessary” because “existing law already encourages public retirement systems to invest in state infrastructure.” But that explanation ignores decades of state government bureaucracy, where agencies zealously guard their funding and protect their own existing project priorities to the hilt. AB 417 would have expanded the mission of the DFA, something the governor argued should only be done in the state budget and only within the specific context of the broader mission of the department, whatever that means. The head of the DFA was likely thrilled anyway.

Telecom consultant Steve Blum notes Caltrans and other state agencies were unlikely to ever consider rural broadband a funding priority, unless it was intended for their own use. Blum also believes the most likely suspects responsible for convincing the governor to kill both bills were the heads of the departments themselves.

“The simplest explanation for Newsom’s vetoes is that Caltrans, DWR and/or DFA staff asked him to do it, because those are jobs they don’t want to do,” Blum wrote on his blog. “That sort of opposition was why a Caltrans dig once policy bill was watered down in 2016.”

Blum believes the state’s largest phone companies will benefit the most from the outcome of the 2019 legislative session.

“Newsom’s vetoes bolster AT&T’s and Frontier’s rural monopoly business model, which redlines poorer and less densely populated communities and leaves them with low speed DSL service, if they’re lucky enough to get anything at all,” he wrote.

The loss of AB 1212 and 417 won’t change much for Californians waiting for rural broadband. Neither measure would have led to any immediate improvement in internet access in the less populated areas of the state. But the measures would have set a foundation to bring two more state agencies into the fight to tackle rural broadband issues.

Ultimately, just as in other states, a large amount of money will have to be found to wire those still without internet access. Governments and regulators can either make rural internet expansion a contingency of future merger deals or other business-government transactions or find suitable funding to subsidize the cost of internet expansion by for-profit companies, rural co-ops, or local governments willing to tackle the problem on the local level.

Nevada’s Attorney General Finds Frontier Internet Lacking, Wins Refunds and Upgrades

Frontier residential customers in Nevada could receive a refund and improved service after a court filing from the Nevada Attorney General’s Bureau of Consumer Protection (BCP) found Frontier’s internet services lacking.

Since 2017, BCP has collected scores of complaints about Frontier’s internet service and its performance, mostly regarding slow service, frequent outages, and ongoing billing problems.

The BCP found Frontier liable under NRS Chapter 598 which forbids providers from misleading consumers about internet speed and service performance in marketing and advertising. An Assurance of Discontinuance filed with the court allowed Frontier to settle while avoiding admitting any wrongdoing and agreeing to correct service deficiencies.

The state found Frontier repeatedly did not disclose limitations of broadband service availability and knowingly marketed its DSL service at speeds the company could not provide customers.

According to the court document:

  • Frontier is required to “clearly and conspicuously” disclose in its print and broadcast advertising the actual internet speeds available to customers in terms of minimum and maximum speed.
  • Customers that sign up for a high-speed plan that Frontier cannot provide may switch to a lower speed plan or discontinue service incurring no penalties or early cancellation fees.
  • Existing customers that do not receive at least 90% of the highest speed their current plan advertises will receive a service credit of 50% of the internet charge for each month Frontier did not provide such speed. Credits will begin in 2020 and end three years after the date the court accepts the Assurance.
  • Frontier has also agreed to invest at least $1 million to improve internet service in Elko County.

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