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‘Frontier is a Black Hole’ – Customers Left With Unreliable Service for Weeks in Rochester

Phillip Dampier March 28, 2019 Consumer News, Frontier, Video 3 Comments

One of Frontier Communication’s largest legacy service areas is suffering from some of the same bad service reported by rural communities in states like California, Minnesota, and Florida.

News10NBC reports that some customers in Rochester, N.Y. have spent “weeks without reliable telephone service and very few answers.”

Frontier landline customer Andy Melnyk says the problems with his phone service began six weeks ago. The line frequently goes dead with no dial tone, and customers calling the Rochester family get nothing but a busy signal.

“I thought okay, they fixed it, let it go and then it happened again,” Melnyk reports. Despite the service problems, Frontier has not offered any bill credits, or a satisfactory explanation for the problem.

“[It’s] just like a black hole, you can’t find anything out,” Melnyk’s wife Kay told the station. “They’re not being very transparent about what the problem is, [and] what they’re doing to solve it.”

The Melnyk family is not alone. Other Frontier customers in the neighborhood are dealing with the same issue.

It took News10NBC to get involved to get a statement from Frontier, claiming the problem is a wet copper cable.

“Frontier technicians are working to repair a large-diameter copper cable damaged when recent rainstorms flooded an underground vault,” Frontier said in a statement. “Services were restored for affected customers by March 7, however, the permanent repair process needed to splice new cable is complex and takes time. We expect to finish the work this weekend. We thank our customers and the communities we serve for their patience as Frontier crews work safely and diligently to maintain our network and keep communities connected.”

Maintaining deteriorating copper wire infrastructure that other phone companies discarded years ago in favor of fiber optics can be complex and time-consuming. But other companies have found upgrading to fiber has given their networks more reliability and happier customers. But Frontier has shown no signs of launching fiber upgrades for customers in their legacy copper wire service areas.

Meanwhile, when asked if Frontier customers will receive bill credits for the problems, a Frontier spokesperson told the station they will consider that on a “case by case basis.”

WHEC in Rochester reports Frontier customers in parts of Rochester, N.Y. have experienced weeks of bad service and are not getting any answers why. (2:36)

Frontier: Losing Customers While Raising Prices; Company Loses $643 Million in 2018

Phillip Dampier February 28, 2019 Competition, Consumer News, Frontier No Comments

In the last three months of 2018, Frontier Communications reported it said goodbye to 67,000 broadband customers, lost $643 million in revenue year-over-year, and had to write down the value of its assets and business by $241 million, as the company struggles with a deteriorating copper wire network in many states where it operates.

But Wall Street was pleased the company’s latest quarterly results were not worse, and helped lift Frontier’s stock from $2.42 to $2.96 this afternoon, still down considerably from the $125 a share price the company commanded just four years ago.

Frontier’s fourth quarter 2018 financial results arrived the same week Windstream, another independent telephone company, declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization. Life is rough for the nation’s legacy telephone companies, especially those that have continued to depend on copper wire infrastructure that, in some cases, was attached to poles during the Johnson or Nixon Administrations.

Frontier Communications CEO Dan McCarthy is the telephone company’s version of Sears’ former CEO Edward Lampert. Perpetually optimistic, McCarthy has been embarked on a long-term ‘transformation’ strategy at Frontier, to wring additional profit out of the business that provides service to customers in 29 states. Much of that effort has been focused on cost-cutting measures, including layoffs of 1,560 workers last year, a sale of wireless towers, and various plans to make business operations more efficient, delivering mixed results.

McCarthy

Frontier’s efforts to improve customer service have been hampered by the quality and pricing of its services, which can bring complaints from customers, many who eventually depart. Frontier’s overall health continues to decline, financially gaining mostly through rate increases and new hidden fees and surcharges. In fact, much of Frontier’s latest revenue improvements come almost entirely from charging customers more for the same service.

McCarthy calls it ‘cost recovery’ and ‘steady-state pricing.’

“One of the things that we’ve been focused on really for the better part of two years is …. taking advantage of pricing opportunities [and] recovering content costs — really dealing with customers moving from promotional pricing to steady-state pricing, and then offering different opportunities for customers both from a speed and package perspective,” McCarthy said Tuesday. “The quarter really was about us targeting customers very selectively and really trying to improve customer lifetime value.”

By “selectively,” McCarthy means being willing to let promotion-seeking customers go and being less amenable to customers trying to negotiate for a lower bill. The result, so far, is 103,000 service disconnects over the past three months and 379,000 fewer customers over the past year. A good number of those customers were subscribed to Frontier FiOS fiber to the home service, but still left for a cable company or competing fiber provider, often because Frontier kept raising their bill.

Frontier Launches ‘Reliable Copper Internet’ Ad Campaign to Sell Slow Speed DSL

Frontier Communications is taking its lemon-of-a-legacy-copper-network and attempting to squeeze some lemonade with a new national radio advertising campaign promoting the company’s legacy DSL internet service with a $100 gift card and “free” Amazon Echo Dot.

Get Frontier Copper is Frontier’s latest promotion for customers who do not live in its fiber-to-the-home service areas. Much of Frontier’s legacy network that predates its acquisitions of former Verizon FiOS and AT&T U-verse customers in Indiana, the Pacific Northwest, California, Texas, Florida, and Connecticut is still dependent on copper wiring that may have been on utility poles since the Johnson Administration.

The new promotion is among the first created under the leadership of Robert Curtis, Frontier’s latest senior vice president and chief marketing officer. Curtis is abandoning Frontier’s old marketing policies that eliminated a lot of fine print, sneaky fees/surcharges, and term contracts. The two-year contract with $120 early cancellation fee is the hallmark of Curtis’ commitment to reduce Frontier’s substantial customer churn, as customers abandon Frontier for competitors. A $120 sting in a customer’s wallet may convince many not to switch providers.

Frontier’s latest surcharges are also designed to extract more revenue from customers. A $10 per month compulsory equipment rental fee and recently increased “Internet Infrastructure Surcharge” will be applied to all customers in the future. Frontier previously allowed some customers to avoid the $10 monthly equipment rental fee by buying equipment outright from Frontier for $200. That option may be going away as Frontier gets serious about collecting $14 a month in surcharges from their internet customers.

Most legacy copper customers will be pitched up to three speed tiers ranging from 1, 6, and 12 Mbps, but not all customers will qualify for 6 or 12 Mbps plans if wiring in the neighborhood cannot support those speeds. There are Frontier service areas in metro areas that cannot achieve better than 3 Mbps, and plenty more in rural areas that top out at 1-3 Mbps. Those slower speed customers may not qualify for some promotions now available.

If you try to order faster internet speed not available in your neighborhood, you will likely see this error message.

Current promotions claim to offer up to 12 Mbps internet service for $12 a month for two years when bundled with voice service and/or a choice of packages that bundle internet and DISH satellite TV for $88 a month or a triple play of internet, voice, and satellite TV for $102 a month. Customers ordering online can get a $100 prepaid Visa card. But there are plenty of price-changing fees found in the terms and conditions, including an extra $14 a month in fees for that $12 a month internet offer. Customers that cancel any service in a promotional package automatically forfeit all promotional pricing and will be a charged an early termination fee up to $120.

Frontier charges a number of hidden fees on internet service, which increases the advertised price by at least $14 a month:

  • Broadband router fee ($10/mo.) (Frontier used to allow customers to waive this fee by buying Frontier’s $200 equipment package up front.)
  • Internet Infrastructure Surcharge ($3.99/mo.) (the fee was $1.99 a month)
  • A $9.99 equipment delivery/handling fee.
  • A $9.99 broadband processing fee upon disconnection of service.
  • A $75 installation fee applies to broadband-only service, waived if a customer chooses to bundle another service with internet.

Frontier claims it offers the speeds “you need” on a “reliable” network.

But there is plenty more fine print to consider, the most important we’ve underlined below:

Visa Gift Card: Limit one VISA Reward Card per household. Customer must submit (2) paid bill statements and follow the redemption instructions to receive VISA Reward Card, subject to Frontier verification. Customer agrees to share billing information with Frontier’s fulfillment partners. Limited-time offer for new Internet residential customers. Must subscribe to a qualifying package of new High-Speed Internet. Visit internet.Frontier.com/terms.html for details. VISA Reward Card offer is provided by Internet.frontier.com and is not sponsored by Frontier.

“Free” Amazon Echo Dot: Requires a two-year agreement with $120 maximum early termination fee on new internet and qualifying voice services. Maximum $120 Frontier early termination fee associated with Amazon Echo Dot offer is in addition to DISH early termination fee described below. The Amazon Echo Dot is given away by Frontier Communications. Amazon is not a sponsor of this promotion.

$12 Internet offer: New residential Internet customers only. Must subscribe to a two-year agreement on new High-Speed Internet with maximum speed range of 6.1 Mbps to 12 Mbps download and qualifying Voice service. After 24-month promotional period, promotional discount will end and the then-current everyday monthly price will apply to Internet and voice services and equipment.

$88 Internet and DISH TV offer: Limited-time offer for new residential Internet and new TV customers. Must subscribe to a two-year agreement on new High-Speed Internet with maximum speed range of 6.1 Mbps to 12 Mbps download and new DISH® AT120 service. After 24-month promotional period, promotional discount will end and the then-current everyday monthly price will apply to Internet service and equipment. A $34.99 Frontier video setup fee applies.

Frontier’s new marketing chief is returning the company to gotcha fees, surcharges, and contracts.

$102 Internet, DISH TV and Voice offer: Limited-time offer for new TV, new Internet and new Voice customers. Must subscribe to a two-year agreement on new High-Speed Internet with maximum speed range of 6.1 Mbps to 12 Mbps download, new qualifying Voice service and new DISH® AT120 service. After 24-month promotional period, promotional discount will end and the then-current everyday monthly price will apply to Internet and voice services and equipment. A $34.99 Frontier video setup fee applies. Unlimited calling is based on normal residential, personal, noncommercial use. Calls to 411 incur an additional charge.

Important DISH Terms and Conditions. Qualification: Advertised price requires credit qualification and 24-month commitment. Upfront activation and/or receiver upgrade fees may apply based on credit qualification. Offer ends 7/10/19. Early termination fee of $20/mo. remaining applies if you cancel early. America’s Top 120 programming package, local channels, HD service fees, and Hopper Duo Smart DVR for 1 TV. Programming package upgrades ($79.99 for AT120+, $89.99 for AT200, $99.99 for AT250), monthly fees for upgraded or additional receivers ($5-$7 per additional TV, receivers with additional functionality may be $10-$15). Taxes & surcharges, add-on programming (including premium channels), DISH Protect, and transactional fees. 3 Mos. Free: After 3 mos., you will be billed $20/mo. for Showtime and DISH Movie Pack unless you call or go online to cancel. All packages, programming, features, and functionality and all prices and fees not included in price lock are subject to change without notice. After 6 mos., if selected, you will be billed $9.99/mo. for DISH Protect Silver unless you call to cancel. After 2 years, then-current everyday prices for all services apply.

All Offers: Offer not valid in select areas of CT, NC, SC, MN, IL, OH, NY. Check promotion availability for your address. Maximum service speed is not available to all locations and the maximum speed for service at your location may be lower than the maximum speed in this range. Service speed is not guaranteed and will depend on many factors. Your ability to stream may be limited by speeds available in your area. Cannot be combined with other promotional offers on the same services. Equipment, taxes, governmental surcharges, and fees including broadband router fee ($10/mo.), Internet Infrastructure Surcharge ($3.99/mo.), and other applicable charges extra, and subject to change during and after the promotional period. A $9.99 equipment delivery/handling fee applies. A $9.99 broadband processing fee upon disconnection of service applies. Service and promotion subject to availability. $75 Installation fee waived on new Frontier Double and Triple plays. Standard charges apply for jack installation, wiring and other additional services. Frontier reserves the right to withdraw this offer at any time. Other restrictions apply. Subject to Frontier’s fair use policy and terms of service.

North Carolina’s Goal to be the First Giga State is Improbable With Current State Legislature

Solving America’s rural broadband crisis will take a lot more than demonstration projects, token grants, and press releases.

Since 2008, Stop the Cap! has witnessed media coverage that breathlessly promises rural broadband is right around the corner, evidenced by a new state or federal grant to build what later turns out to be a middle mile or institutional fiber optic network that is strictly off-limits to homes and businesses. Politicians who participate in these press events tend to favor publicity over performance, often misleading reporters and constituents about just how significant a particular project will be towards resolving a community’s broadband challenges. Much of the time, these projects turn out to serve a very limited number of people or only fund part of a broadband initiative.

Officials last week said they are hoping to make North Carolina “the first ‘giga-state,’ with broadband access for all its residents.” But to realistically achieve that goal, nothing short of an expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars will be required to realistically achieve that goal statewide.

A decade ago, rural broadband progressed in North Carolina, as communities transitioned away from traditional tobacco and textile businesses to the information and technology economy. To assure a foundation for that economic shift, several communities identified their local substandard (or lacking) broadband as a major problem. The state’s phone and cable companies at the time — notably Time Warner Cable, AT&T, and CenturyLink, often proved to be obstacles by refusing to upgrade networks in the state’s smaller communities. Some cities decided to stop relying on what the broadband companies were willing to offer and chose to construct their own modern, publicly owned broadband network alternatives, open to residents and businesses. A handful of cities in North Carolina went a different direction and acquired a dilapidated and bankrupt cable system and invested in upgrades, hoping cable broadband improvements would help protect their communities’ competitiveness to attract digital economy jobs.

That progress largely stalled after Republicans took control of the state legislature in 2011 and passed a draconian municipal broadband law that effectively banned public broadband expansion. Most of those backing the measure took lucrative campaign contributions from the state’s dominant phone and cable companies. One, Sen. Marilyn Avila, worked so closely with Time Warner Cable’s lobbyists, the resulting bill was effectively drafted by the state’s largest cable company. For that effort, she was later wined and dined by cable lobbyists at a celebration dinner in Asheville.

To be fair, some North Carolina cities are experiencing a broadband renaissance. Charlotte, Raleigh, Greensboro, Cary, Durham, Winston-Salem, and Chapel Hill will have a choice of providers for gigabit service. Google has installed fiber in some of these cities while AT&T and Charter lay down more fiber optics and introduce upgrades to support gigabit speeds.

Things are considerably worse outside of large cities.

In North Carolina, 585,000 people live in areas where their wired connections cannot reach the FCC’s speed definition of broadband — 25 Mbps, and another 145,000 live without any notion of broadband at all.

Bringing all of North Carolina up to at least the nation’s minimum standard for broadband will not be cheap, and politicians and public policy groups must be realistic about the real cost to once and for all resolve North Carolina’s rural broadband challenges. Where the money comes from is a question that will be left to state and local officials and their constituents. Some advocate only tax credit-inspired private funding, others support a public-private partnership to share costs, while still others believe public money should be only spent on publicly owned, locally developed broadband networks. Regardless of which model is proposed, without a specific and realistic budget proposal to move forward, the public will likely be disappointed with the results.

The Facts of Broadband Life

There is a reason rural areas are underserved or unserved. America’s broadband providers are primarily for-profit, investor-owned companies. They are not public servants and they respond first to the interests of their shareholders. Customers might come in second. When a publicly owned utility or co-op is created, in most cases it is the result of years of frustration trying to get a commercial provider to serve a rural or high cost area. Public projects are usually designed to serve almost everyone, even though it will likely take years for construction costs to be recovered. Investor-owned companies are not nearly as patient, and usually demand a Return On Investment formula that offers a much shorter window to recover costs. For broadband, adequately populated areas that can be reached affordably and attract enough new customers to recover the initial investment will get service, while those areas that cannot are left behind. The two populations most likely to fail the ROI test are the urban poor that may not be able to afford to subscribe and rural residents a company claims it cannot afford to serve. Many early cable TV franchise agreements insisted on ROI formulas that allowed companies only to skip areas with inadequate population density, not inadequate income, which explains why cable service is available in even the poorest city neighborhoods, while a wealthy resident in a rural area goes unserved.

Today, most cable and phone companies install fiber optic infrastructure most commonly in new housing developments or previously unwired business parks, while allowing existing copper wire infrastructure already in place elsewhere to remain in service. Some companies, including AT&T and Verizon, have made an effort in some areas to replace copper infrastructure with fiber optics, but in most cases, their rural service areas remain served by copper wiring installed decades ago. As a result, most rural residents end up with DSL internet from the phone company, often at speeds of 5 Mbps or less, or no internet service at all. Neither of these phone companies, much less independent telcos like CenturyLink and Frontier, have shown much interest in scrapping copper wiring for fiber optics in rural service areas. There is simply no economic case that shareholders will accept for costly upgrades that will deliver little, if any, short-term benefits to a company’s bottom line. That reality has led some communities to try incentivizing commercial providers to make an investment anyway, usually with a package of tax breaks and cost sharing. But many communities have achieved better results even faster by launching their own fiber broadband services that the public can access.

Some states with large rural areas have recognized that solving the rural broadband problem will be costly — almost always more costly than first thought. Such projects often take longer than one hoped, and will require some form of taxpayer matching funds, municipal bonds, public buy-in, or a miraculous sudden investment from a generous cable or phone company. In states with municipal broadband bans, like North Carolina, politicians who support such restrictions believe the cable and phone companies will spontaneously solve the rural internet problem on their own. Such beliefs have stalled rural broadband improvements in many of the states ensnared by such laws, usually tailored to protect a duopoly of the same phone and cable companies that have historically refused to offer adequate broadband service to their rural customers.

Challenges for North Carolina

(Courtesy: North Carolina League of Municipalities – Click image for more information)

North Carolina is a growing state, so a small part of the rural broadband problem may work itself out as population densities increase to a level that crosses that critical ROI threshold. But most rural communities will be waiting years for that to happen. Intransigent phone and cable companies are unlikely to respond positively to local officials seeking better service if it requires a substantial investment. As industry lobbyists will tell you, it is not the job of government to dictate the services of privately owned companies. The Republican majority in North Carolina’s legislature underlines that principle regularly in the form of legislation that reduces regulation and oversight. Many, but not all of those Republicans have also taken a strong strand against the idea of municipalities stepping up to resolve their local broadband challenges by working around problematic cable and phone companies. The ideology that government should never be in the business of competing against private businesses usually takes precedence.

Almost a decade ago, the cable and phone companies of North Carolina made three failed attempts to enshrine this principle in a new statewide law that would limit municipal broadband encroachment to such an extent it made future projects unviable. They succeeded in passing a law on their fourth attempt in 2011, the same year Republicans took control in the state legislature.

Today, Republicans still control the legislature with a Democratic governor providing some checks and balances. Why is this important? Because for North Carolina to achieve its goal, it will realistically need a combination of bipartisan support for rural broadband funding and an end to the municipal broadband ban.

Where is the money?

Although North Carolina wants to be America’s first “gigabit” state, New York is the first to at least claim full broadband coverage across the entire state. That did not and could not happen without a multi-year spending program. Recently, North Carolina’s Department of Information Technology launched a $10 million GREAT Grant program to provide last-mile connectivity to the most economically distressed counties in the state. While a noble effort, and one no doubt limited by the availability of funds to spend on broadband expansion, it is a drop in a bucket of water thrown into a barely filled pool.

To put this problem in better context, New York’s goal of full broadband coverage (which in our view remains incomplete) required not only $500 million acquired from settlement proceeds won by the state after suing Wall Street banks for causing the Great Recession, but another $170 million in federal broadband expansion funds that were expected to be forfeited because Verizon — the state’s largest phone company — was not interested in the money or upgrading their DSL service upstate.

Big Money: New York’s rural broadband funding initiative spent hundreds of millions to attack the rural broadband problem. Gov. Andrew Cuomo outlines funding for just one of several rounds of broadband funding.

Last year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo detailed success for his Broadband for All program by pointing out the state spent $670 million to upgrade or introduce broadband service to 2.42 million locations in rural New York, giving the state 99.9% coverage. That amounts to an average grant of $277 per household or business. In turn, award recipients — largely incumbent phone and cable companies, had to commit to matching private investments. For that state money, the provider had to typically offer at least 100 Mbps service, except in the most rural parts of the state, where a lower speed was acceptable.

North Carolina has 585,000 underserved or unserved locations. Just by using New York’s average $277 grant, North Carolina will have to spend approximately $202 million with similar matching funds from private companies to reach those locations. In fact, it is assuredly more than that because North Carolina’s goal is gigabit speed, not 100 Mbps. Also, New York declared ‘mission accomplished’ while stranding tens of thousands of expensive or difficult to reach residents with subsidized satellite internet access. That offers nothing close to gigabit speed. A more realistic figure for North Carolina in 2019 could be as high as $250-300 million in taxpayer dollars — combined with similar private matching funds to convince AT&T, Charter, CenturyLink and others that the time is right to expand into more rural areas. But as New York discovered, there will be areas in the state no company will bid to serve because the money provided is inadequate.

If the thought of handing over tax dollars to big phone and cable companies bothers you, the alternative is helping communities start and run their own networks in the public interest. Except private providers routinely retaliate with well-funded campaigns of fear, uncertainty and doubt over those projects, and they become political footballs to everyone except their customers, who generally appreciate the service and local accountability.

If North Carolina’s state government relies on a series of $10 million appropriations for grants, it will likely take at least 20 years to wire the state. Stop the Cap! agrees with the goals North Carolina has set to deliver ubiquitous, gigabit-fast broadband. But those goals will be difficult to reach in the present political climate. Republicans in the state legislature approved reductions in the corporate income tax rate to 2.5 percent, down from 3 percent last year, and the personal income tax rate drops to 5.25 percent from 5.499 percent. North Carolina’s latest budget sets aside $13.8 billion for education, $3.8 billion for Medicaid, $3 billion in new debt for road maintenance, and $31 million in grants to attract the film industry to shoot their projects in the state.

It is likely any appropriation significant enough to actually deliver on the commitment to provide total broadband coverage will have to be spread out over several years, unless another funding mechanism can be identified. That assumes the Republicans in the state legislature will be receptive to the idea, which remains an open question.

Minnesota Regulators: Frontier is a Shoddy, Criminally Rogue Phone Company

(Image courtesy: Minnesota Public Radio)

Minnesota regulators slammed the performance of Frontier Communications in a highly critical 133-page report released Friday, describing a rogue phone company that appears to have knowingly violated at least 35 state laws and operating rules, while jeopardizing the lives and wellbeing of 100,000 Frontier customers in parts of northeastern and southern Minnesota and the Twin Cities metro area.

“Many of the issues reported by consumers show direct violations of Minnesota law and Commission rules, and indicate broad, systemic problems with Frontier’s service quality, recordkeeping and business operations,” the report concluded.

A year-long investigation by the Minnesota Commerce Department found ample evidence of Frontier’s terrible customer service, fraudulent billing, and its rapidly deteriorating and often decrepit landline network, sometimes left in disrepair for months or years with little regard for the safety of customers, workers, or the public.

As part of the investigation, seven public hearings were held last fall in Frontier’s Minnesota service area. The resulting report is based on more than 1,000 consumer complaints and statements, as well as Frontier’s responses to information requests by the Commerce Department.

In many cases, Frontier left health-compromised customers using landline-based health/safety monitoring services without phone service for over a month, putting cost-saving measures ahead of the safety of customers that need reliable phone service the most. The investigation also found “that orders for new telephone or internet access service, being a new source of revenue for Frontier, and a sales commission for the customer service representative, take priority over repairs of internet or phone.”

The report also blasted Frontier’s shoddy customer service department, described as “shocking” in the report. In dozens of complaints, customers reported correcting service problems was often a nightmare.

Decrepit Network Facilities Falling Off Poles and Drowned in Ditches

Frontier wireline pedestal in Kelsey, Minn., knocked over and submersed in ice water. (Image courtesy of: Mr. and Ms. Ulshafer)

Waterville, Minn. residents that have experienced frequent outages for years were given every excuse in the book by Frontier officials, at one point blaming a mouse in a central office for chewing through their phone lines. Frontier customer Harry Tolzman chronicled years of Frontier’s apparent ineptness in providing reliable phone and internet service to his rural part of Minnesota. His testimony to Minnesota regulators, reproduced in part below, explains a lot of what the report found wrong at Frontier Communications these days:

“[One day, Frontier] decided that they needed to rebury the telephone cable that was — that ran from Elysian to our rural route Waterville, so they contract[ed] with an outfit out of Indiana, Direct Line Communications Underground Burying, who in turn sublets to another company called Premier Underground. So one day these guys show up from Indiana and they needed to bore underneath State Highway 60 to get the cable from across the highway to our residence, which was on the north side of the highway. So they came out and they bored underneath the highway and they ran the cable and then they got into a big argument with the local technician as to where the cable was to run and so they got mad and left.

The next day another outfit, same, Premier Underground out of Indiana, shows up, and they were supposed to connect the cable from the highway down to the closest junction box, which is about 100 yards from my place to the road and it’s another 100 yards from the road to the nearest junction box. So they started in with their plow and they plowed up to the house and they hit some tree trunks and the plow would jump out of the ground.

Finally they got up to the house where I had decorative rock and they say, well, we can’t dig here so we’ll just lay it on top of the rock. And then wherever it jumped out of the ground because of a root, it’s buried about one inch below the ground, in other places it’s 8 or 10 inches, where it should be. So anyhow, they said that’s the best we can do. Then they went across the road to make the connection to the nearest junction box, and they went right down the shoulder of the road about three feet off the blacktop and they were going down the road with their plow. And lo and behold, the state highway department drove by and happened to see them going right down the shoulder of the road. And so they questioned them, and lo and behold they didn’t have a permit to bury this cable.

So the next day a guy shows up and he hooks up his pickup to the cable and he pulls it all out. And the local technician comes out and he lays a temporary line on top of the ground over to where they had plowed underneath the road, and he made the connection so we could get our telephone service back. And they said they would be back to re-bury it in the proper right-of-way position as soon as they had the proper permits. That was two and a half years ago. And this cable is laying in the road ditch, and meanwhile the state highway department came along and they mowed the road ditch and they cut the cable. So they replaced the cable again. And then another time a snowmobile took the cable out. So that cable still lies there strung between the sumac bushes so that they can’t mow it when they mow the road ditch.

And I keep calling these people to get this fixed and they keep telling me, well, they don’t have the permit yet. So I called the highway department in Mankato and they say there’s been no application for a permit to re-bury your cable. In the interim, I had opened up a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission, which is located in Washington, D.C., and they in turn responded to me. And Frontier had the gall to tell them that they had investigated the above statements and offered the following resolution. Upon the investigation, Frontier showed that the line was repaired as of August 11, 2017, Frontier will be burying the line on August 31, 2017. Frontier spoke with Mr. Tolzman and advised him of the above information. They had the gall to tell them it was fixed and that same problem is still there, the cable lies between the bushes. So whenever we have moisture or rain, we’ll be out of service for our landline phone. And it’s just very frustrating to have to call and get a customer service rep many states away that runs his routine check and tells you, well, the problem is not on their end, it’s in your house, and yet it’s never been a problem within the house.”

A Frontier installer draped a new line across this customer’s residential propane tank, and then left. (Image courtesy: (Image courtesy: Mark Steil, MPR News)

As Stop the Cap! reported in 2018, Frontier’s network infrastructure in Minnesota was literally falling off utility poles. Customers reported Frontier technicians used trees as makeshift utility poles, strung phone cables across yards and fields, unburied, and in one case, draped a phone cable over the customer’s propane tank. Despite months or years of complaints, Frontier repeatedly failed to repair infrastructure it knew or should have known was in disrepair, and in several documented cases, Frontier technicians dealt with the loudest complaining customers by swapping line pairs with a satisfied customer, silencing the complaining customer while giving their troublesome or failing line to another customer without their knowledge.

Company officials also lobbied Minnesota officials hard over the summer of 2018 to limit the scope of the investigation into its business practices in the state, claiming at one point that anything short of a gag order forbidding customers from complaining at public hearings about the performance of Frontier’s DSL service would “violate federal law” and “create false expectations and confusion for customers.”

“Holding public hearings directed to internet access service complaints would not be constructive because the Commission would be precluded from taking action concerning internet service rates or service quality using any information it may collect during the public hearings,” Frontier claimed.

Customer Service Hell

Elizabeth Mohr’s testimony described an experience typical of many Frontier complaints. When Mohr complained about the poor quality of her Frontier DSL service, which came nowhere near the 12 Mbps she was offered, Frontier unilaterally disconnected her service without notice, leaving her without phone service for 12 days. The company “lost” five of the six repair tickets assigned to Mohr’s disconnect complaint. Frontier later refused to reactivate her DSL service, claiming it had “no ports available,” despite the fact taxpayers helped subsidize the expansion of internet access in her neighborhood.

“We found it took us 47 of our hours on the phone with Frontier to get service, even though they sent us a flier that said you should be able to call and get it,” Mohr testified. “So 47 hours on the phone of our time, six tickets, five of which were closed with no answer. They never showed up.”

Frontier’s bad customer service isn’t a new experience for Mohr either.

“You can get better service from them but you have to be willing to put up a fight. I have been hung up on, probably in the last 13 years, probably 200 times,” Mohr said. “When I would call and say, I have an issue with your network, they wouldn’t believe me. Between my husband and myself, we have 20 years of network administration. We could ping to their system and tell them where the problem was failing and they wouldn’t believe us, and they would hang up on us. So clearly, Frontier has a problem.”

Shellie Metzler of Finlayson claimed she has to be placed on a waiting list to have her phone line repaired — something more in common with East Berlin in the 1970s than the United States in 2019. She waited over a year for repairs for her basic Frontier landline and DSL service, repeatedly being told in over 20 hours of phone calls with the company “there were no lines available.”

The wait was not worth it. After service was installed, Ms. Metzler reported, “I could not hear when on the phone because of the static. Also, each time the phone rang, the internet would go offline.”

Like many Minnesotans, Metzler is still paying for broadband internet service she is not receiving. Metzler was sold Frontier’s Broadband Ultra 12 Mbps DSL service.

“I am receiving, if lucky, 1.2 Mbps,” Metzler reported. “Last week within two days the internet dropped over 100 times. Dropped service and slow internet speeds are everyday occurrences. I should not be charged for the 12 Mbps because I have never had it. I should not be charged for the 6 Mbps because I do not get that either.”

The report also had little positive to say about Frontier’s customer service department:

Subscribers received inaccurate information and expressed great frustration when dealing with Frontier’s customer service personnel, even characterizing the service as being rude and/or unhelpful. Customers also said Frontier’s customer service representatives would often refuse to transfer the customer to a supervisor or the supervisor would fail to return their call as requested.

Many customers reported that contacting Frontier was anything but convenient, describing long hold times prior to speaking with a customer service representatives. Also, several consumers reported that they believed Frontier representatives were unqualified, untrained, or otherwise provided them with inaccurate information. In some cases, representatives yelled at customers and accused them of being rude or inappropriate.

Frontier’s Repairs: ‘Like Placing a Band-Aid on a Hemorrhage’

Frontier’s “High Speed” 21st Century Network fantasy claims extend back to 2010 when former CEO Maggie Wilderotter was telling customers Frontier was loaded with fiber.

The state investigation also uncovered evidence that Frontier often “repairs” poor service for a complaining customer by swapping the bad line pair with another customer with good service who is not likely to complain when their service suddenly deteriorates:

Frontier’s practice is that, when one customer is out of service [or is receiving impaired service] and requests repair, in order to restore service to that subscriber, Frontier disconnects, without notice, the service of another subscriber, and “swaps” the other subscriber’s working lines or cards for the non-working line or card of the subscriber whose service is being restored.

A typical example is the public comment of Debra Boldt of Glen, Minn., who lives on a lake with some summer residents. Ms. Boldt reported that to restore service to one neighbor, Frontier switches non-working lines with the working line of a summer resident who may not know their service is disconnected until they next visit; and, when that person complains, Frontier will then switch the working line from a different resident.

Similarly, Tom Grant testified at the Lakeville public hearing that Frontier technicians have told him, “they basically move cards or switches to be able to solve the problem for that individual customer, while knowing full well that that creates havoc for others that reside on that same node.”

Wayne Nierenhausen testified that technicians have told him: “[W]hen they get a complaint, there’s some kind of card within that box that’s a quarter-mile from my house that they will change to basically whoever made the complaint to get faster speed, but then when another call is made, they’ll switch that card out, put it to whoever made the complaint, and then put the old card back in.”

Customer service problems particularly affect the elderly and infirm, who are the most likely to still have landline service.

The report also heavily criticized Frontier for covering up problems by miscoding trouble reports and service outages to avoid drawing regulator attention. Outages impacting regulated basic phone service were frequently classified as unregulated internet outages, coded as being the fault of the customer, or trouble tickets were closed before repairs were completed. Closing trouble tickets prematurely also extends an extra benefit to Frontier — the company will not credit customers for extended outages if the original trouble ticket is closed.

As a last resort, if Frontier deems repairs too costly, customers are told to “live with it.”

Medically Necessary Phone Service Repairs Ignored

The report also found Frontier’s unwillingness to expedite repairs for customers with serious medical issues were “shocking” because customers were often not informed service representatives have no authority to request a medical-related expedited repair, and notes placed on customer accounts by those representatives are routinely ignored. The company admitted the only way a customer can be flagged a medical priority customer is if a doctor certifies annually, in writing, there is a medical need to maintain reliable phone service:

A letter/document must be received from the customer’s physician annually certifying that a medical emergency exists and that phone service is essential, and that the letter or document must contain the following:

  • State registration or license number of physician.
  • Name and address of seriously ill person.
  • Name, signature of licensed physician or public health official (nurse or physician’s assistant) certifying illness or medical emergency and date.
  • Optional – Any services beyond local exchange service that may be necessary to reach customer’s doctor and that absence of such services would be a serious risk of inaccessibility of emergency medical assistance.

Customers are instructed to mail or fax the documentation to:

Frontier Correspondence
PO Box 5166
Tampa, FL 33675
Fax: 1- 888-609-9919

Billing Controversies

Frontier used to mail checks refunding credit balances to departing customers. Today they mail gift cards, occasionally with no balance on them.

The report also found many “direct violations” of Minnesota law and rules from the company’s billing practices. Customers reported Frontier misrepresented its “vacation rate,” offering discounted phone service during seasonal disconnects at vacation properties. Instead, many customers report being billed normal rates and were refused credits, even when the company admitted the problem was theirs and would be fixed.

Customers also report steep late fees for online payments made before the due date, because Frontier reserves the right to take at least five days (and sometimes more) to process online payments, and does not always honor the date of payments initiated by customers. Many others reported Frontier continued to bill closed accounts for months despite cancelling service. One customer who refused to pay several hundred dollars in new charges on his closed account had his credit ruined after Frontier reported him delinquent. A subsequent agreement to pay off the outstanding bills on the closed account in return for getting negative information removed from his credit report was later refused by Frontier… after the company cashed his check.

Customers who pass away while being Frontier customers had better share their account passwords with surviving relatives. As Tabitha Odegaard discovered after her father in law passed away in November 2017, Frontier will not cancel service for deceased customers without a proper account password. Odegaard told regulators she was still paying for service on behalf of her father-in-law in 2018.

Customers that plan to cancel service might be better off removing auto-pay from their account and not paying their last bill until a final bill is generated. Receiving refunds for cancelled service is a hit-or-miss affair at Frontier, according to the report. Customers must wait at least 90 days for a refund to arrive. Most customers end up with a gift card covering any credit balances, but some report their gift card arrived with a zero balance, or did not arrive at all. In such cases, customers have to wait an additional two months before a replacement card will be issued. One customer reported his refund took seven months to arrive, after getting a gift card with no balance on it. Other customers report only getting a credit balance on their monthly bill for their closed account, with no refund, gradually depleted by ongoing billing fees, taxes and surcharges that accrue each month. The credit balance runs out while waiting for a refund that never arrives.

Report Recommends Fundamental Changes and Frontier Responds

The report recommends that Frontier be required to refund or credit customers for service outages and unauthorized charges; add staffing to improve customer service; and increase investments in infrastructure and equipment.

Frontier responded with a written statement, reading in part:

“Frontier strongly disagrees with the assertions in the Department of Commerce’s initial comments and is reviewing the Department’s filing with the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission. Frontier and its employees work hard to provide reliable, affordable telecommunications services to approximately 90,000 customers in Minnesota, many in rural communities where no other provider will invest in providing service. Frontier recognizes we experience service issues and delays from time-to-time with some of our customers. We are an ethical company committed to our customers and the Minnesota communities we serve. We take this matter seriously and will respond appropriately before the Public Utilities Commission.”

Minnesota Public Radio reported in October 2018 that Frontier has slashed its technical workforce by 50% in Minnesota over the last five years. (4:08)

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