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Frontier’s Network is Falling Apart in West Virginia; Audit Finds Company Needs to Improve Maintenance

Frontier provides service to all but around a half dozen communities in West Virginia.

A comprehensive independent audit of Frontier Communications operations in West Virginia found the phone company is not keeping up with network maintenance, causing increased service problems for the company’s customers.

The significantly redacted 164-page report produced by Schumaker and Company found plenty of room for improvement for Frontier’s landline and broadband services.

The report was commissioned under order by the West Virginia Public Service Commission after the regulator received almost 2,000 customer complaints about Frontier’s service. The PSC’s demand for an audit also received the support of over 700 Frontier customers in the state.

Despite several redactions, the report offers clues about the quality of Frontier’s infrastructure for landline and internet services in West Virginia.

Frontier provides service for all but a half dozen localities in the state. Because of West Virginia’s mountainous topology, significant portions of the state do not receive adequate cellular service, making wired landlines still an essential safety tool in some areas. Despite that, Frontier’s relatively poor performance has driven away a significant number of its customers. Some subscribe to cable phone service, but most now depend on cell phones.

A Frontier crossbox in use in West Virginia.

The PSC allowed Frontier to offer a redacted public version of the auditor’s report after Frontier cited confidential business information and the Commission’s lack of regulatory oversight over the company’s DSL internet service. The redactions were substantial, blotting out significant information such as the age of Frontier’s network and equipment in different corners of the state, the condition of the company’s large number of utility poles, outage statistics, budgeting and investment numbers, repair programs, and basic information about the company’s employees and its broadband service offerings. The PSC staff filed its own recommendation that such redactions be rejected, noting Frontier is the unique carrier of last resort in West Virginia, with no competitor likely to attempt similar service. Staff members also claimed the telecom industry would find data specific to West Virginia not very useful elsewhere.

Despite the redactions, it is easy to deduce Frontier has a significant problem. Its copper landline network is gradually succumbing to a lack of regular maintenance, which can cause prolonged service degradation and outages. The audit specifically cites Frontier’s growing challenges dealing with a copper wire network that has been on utility poles for decades. Some wiring is likely to have been installed during the Johnson or Nixon Administration. The audit found that previous owner Verizon embarked on two significant copper line replacement programs, one in 1974 and the other in 1983 — 46 and 37 years ago, respectively. No large scale replacements have been undertaken since.

Phone companies like Frontier have been losing landline customers for years. The audit estimated that “more than half (57%) of American homes only have wireless communications. The displacement is even more pronounced when viewed through the prism of demographics. Over three quarters (76.5%) of young adults (aged 25-34) live in homes with only wireless connections.” In 2018, Frontier told the PSC 37 percent of its access lines were permanently disconnected between 2010 and 2017, bringing the number of customers down from 613,443 to 385,832. A 2017 Center for Health Statistics study found that roughly 53 percent of all West Virginia adults use wireless services exclusively, while another 10 percent use wireless services most of the time, with almost 22 percent of West Virginia adults still using landline services exclusively or most of the time. Frontier holds on to a larger percentage of customers than that with the sale of its rural DSL internet service.

Frontier heavily redacted the independent audit about its performance.

Frontier’s largest service problems result from its indefinite reliance on splicing damaged or degraded line pairs servicing individual customers. With fewer customers, the company has more choices of alternative line pairs it can use to restore service for customers affected by service interruptions. The audit found many line splices were decades old and often were responsible for eventual larger scale service outages, especially when repairs were inadequately completed exposing the entire cable to the elements. The audit also found no formal tree trimming operation was in place at the company, which meant trees inevitably overgrew into the company’s lines. In storms, trees can disrupt service by blowing into cables or even tearing wires off utility poles. The report also noted that technicians often drove around and spotted network defects and other problems likely to eventually cause service outages, but there was no formal reporting and mitigation strategy, which often left repairs delayed for months or years.

Frontier is also facing a talent flight, as network engineers that have serviced the lines since they were operated by Verizon are preparing to retire in large numbers. That could create even greater problems as inexperienced new technicians unfamiliar with the state of Frontier’s network gradually replace them.

Despite these problems, the auditors found Frontier was still earning a healthy amount of revenue in West Virginia. Oddly, that assertion was hotly disputed by Frontier itself, claiming that conclusion was “flatly wrong” and it had been losing money in the state every year since 2012.

“The auditors did not properly account for pensions, post-employment healthcare, and other benefits paid by Frontier nor for interest costs on the money Frontier borrowed to invest in West Virginia,” wrote Allison Ellis, Frontier’s senior vice president of regulatory affairs. “When those expenses are taken into account, it is clear that Frontier has invested more in the state than it has recouped.”

Auditors recommend that Frontier establish a more robust network engineering effort, aggressively repairing line issues before they become apparent to customers and improving its reporting systems to track service problems from start to finish. It also recommended increasing the amount of fiber in the network to reduce service issues and maintenance expenses and allow for better internet speeds. Finally, it recommends customers receive additional compensation for repeated service outages.

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.

Frontier Communications Bankruptcy Imminent; Company Will Miss March Bond Payments

Phillip Dampier March 10, 2020 Competition, Consumer News, Frontier 2 Comments

A Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization of Frontier Communications is imminent, as the company is planning to skip a crucial $320 million debt payment to bondholders on March 15, automatically triggering a 30-day grace period before creditors can demand full payment of Frontier’s debt.

Bloomberg News notes this decision comes as Frontier prepares to file for bankruptcy as early as March 16, with a plan that will reduce its owed debts and turn over control of the phone company to creditors. Frontier has more than $17.5 billion in debt, which is becoming unmanageable for a company that has lost customers month after month for years.

A Frontier bankruptcy would jolt the telecom industry because it would be the largest failure of a telecom company since 2002’s bankruptcy of Worldcom, which used to include MCI.

Sources told the news organization Frontier was holding discussions this week with prospective lenders willing to provide a “debtor-in-possession loan” to the company. That loan would be essential to finance a restructuring of the troubled phone company, backed by giving lenders control over Frontier’s operations.

Multiple groups of bondholders will also be involved in the discussions, including activist shareholder Elliott Management Corp., which most recently pressured AT&T to improve its business model by focusing on its core businesses.

News of Frontier’s plan to miss bond payments caused a dramatic drop in Frontier’s stock price today, which was trading as low as 29 cents a share.

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.

West Virginia’s Public Service Commission Documents Over 4,000 Complaints About Frontier Communications

Today we present a roundup of videos from diverse news outlets around the country documenting ongoing, serious lapses in service at Frontier Communications.

MetroNews talks with West Virginia Public Service Commission chair Charlotte Lane about the thousands of service complaints on file regarding Frontier Communications. (4:39)

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