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CenturyLink Considering Dumping Its Consumer Landline/Broadband Services

CenturyLink is considering getting out of the consumer landline and broadband business and instead focusing on its profitable corporate-targeted enterprise and wholesale businesses.

CenturyLink CEO Jeff Storey told investors on a quarterly conference call that the phone company had hired advisors that will conduct a strategic review of all CenturyLink products and services targeting the consumer market and is “very open” to the possibility to selling or spinning off its residential business, assuming it can find an interested buyer.

“Let me be clear, we’re early in what I expect to be a lengthy and complex process,” Storey told investors, noting the company’s first priority is to take care of its shareholders. “During our review, we will not modify our normal operations or our investment patterns. I can’t predict the outcome or the timing of this work or if any transactions will come from it at all. Our focus, though, is value maximization for shareholders. If there are better paths to create more value with these assets, we will pursue them.”

CenturyLink’s landline network is similar to those of other independent telephone companies. There are significant markets where extensive upgrades have introduced fiber broadband service and high-speed DSL, but most of CenturyLink’s network remains reliant on copper wire infrastructure that is not capable of supplying high speed internet to customers.

Like most large independent telephone companies, the majority of CenturyLink’s residential customers can only purchase slow speed DSL service offering less than 20 Mbps. A growing number of customers have canceled service after running out of patience waiting for upgrades. CenturyLink executives told investors last week the company is abandoning investments in bonded or vectored DSL upgrades, claiming anything other than fiber optics is not “competitive infrastructure.”

CenturyLink also admitted it is losing customers after deciding to shelve its unprofitable, competing Prism TV product. The only growth on the consumer side of CenturyLink is coming from significant broadband upgrades.

“In the first quarter, we saw a net loss of 6,000 total broadband subscribers. This quarter’s total was made up of declines of 83,000 in speeds below 20 Mbps and growth of 77,000 in speeds of 20 Mbps and above,” reported CenturyLink chief financial officer Neel Dev. “Within those gains, we added 47,000 in speeds of 100 Mbps and above. Voice revenue declined 12% this quarter. Going forward, we expect similar declines in voice revenue. As a reminder, the decline in other revenue was driven by our decision to de-emphasize our linear video product.”

Dev reported that 55% of CenturyLink’s customers have access to speeds of 20 Mbps or less, and the company has ceased spending marketing dollars advertising slow speed DSL. Instead, it “microtargets” service areas where customers can sign up for service faster than 20 Mbps.

Observers note CenturyLink’s interest in its landline business has been waning for some time. The change in attitude can be traced back to CenturyLink’s merger with Level 3, a very profitable provider of connectivity to the enterprise and wholesale markets. CenturyLink’s commercial services are consistently earning most of the revenue the company reports to shareholders every quarter, with residential services declining in importance.

A sale of CenturyLink’s local landline and consumer-focused internet businesses could be hampered because of the likely lack of buyers. Frontier Communications had been an aggressive player in acquiring landline networks cast off by Verizon and AT&T, but that company is now in financial trouble and faces major debt issues. It would be an unlikely bidder. Windstream is still in bankruptcy reorganization and an acquisition is out of the question. Smaller independent phone companies like Consolidated Communications (owner of former FairPoint Communications), also likely lack financing to achieve such a deal, especially as interest rates continue to rise. CenturyLink also has the option of spinning off its residential business into a new corporate entity, but would likely result in a financially hobbled enterprise that may have trouble attracting capital to continue funding further expansion.

Verizon’s Leaky Power Blamed for Damaging Copper Water Pipes, Costing Homeowners Thousands

Some residents in eastern Queens, N.Y. have paid tens of thousands of dollars to replace copper water pipes, some damaged beyond repair just three months after being installed, after mysterious stray electric current traced back to Verizon caused the pipes to prematurely deteriorate.

In April, without admitting liability, Verizon reached out to homeowners on 188th Street in the Fresh Meadows area, offering to reimburse costs incurred dealing with leaking, corroded copper water pipes.

The problems began nearly four years ago, affecting residents of Jamaica Estates, Rosedale, Flushing, and other nearby neighborhoods. An epidemic of water leaks originating in copper pipes that connect homes to the municipal water supply resulted in waterlogged front lawns and small rivers of water running down streets with no rain in sight. Copper water pipes rated for 60 years of service began failing after as little as three months. Inspection found premature corrosion and leaks.

Joe Concannon on 188th Street in Queens demonstrates how quickly water lines in the neighborhood deteriorate as a result of corrosion. (2:00)

What caused the pipes to deteriorate so rapidly, forcing some homeowners to replace their feed lines four times over the course of a few years? An investigation conducted by the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), which is responsible for supplying water service in the area, discovered the culprit was stray direct current electricity traveling underground. When DC voltage reaches copper pipes, electrolytic corrosion begins. True electrolysis is rare and had not been seen in most cities for decades, primarily because of the retirement of high amperage DC current-fed trolley cars our grandparents and great-grandparents once rode.

This copper pipe survived five months underground before deteriorating with a substantial corrosion hole. (Image courtesy: Joe Concannon)

As some homeowners continued to face thousands in repair bills, a classic game of finger-pointing ensued over where the excess leaking voltage was coming from. Con Ed was a natural suspect, except for the fact it supplies alternating current (AC) voltage, which was not responsible for the corrosion problem. Con Ed blamed Verizon, claiming the source of the stray electricity was coming from Verizon equipment on a pole in Rosedale. Verizon called Con Ed’s investigation flawed because that particular pole carried fiber optic FiOS cables. Besides, it was highly unlikely leaking voltage traced to a single overhead pole could cause the kind of damage being found in Queens.

In 2017, the DEP commissioned Corr-Tech, an independent consultant, to find the source of the stray voltage, and verify if city infrastructure was responsible. In a 2018 report, the consultant stated that the leaks were not caused by city infrastructure but rather by a private utility, namely Verizon.

Corr-Tech found that although Verizon had commissioned FiOS fiber optic service in Queens years earlier, its older network remained in service. Verizon’s copper infrastructure is powered by DC voltage and if allowed to fall into disrepair, could leak DC voltage from buried phone cables. In this part of Queens, Verizon used lead-sheathed communications cable in terracotta ducts in the immediate vicinity of the deteriorated copper piping. Terracotta is the same material used to make clay flower pots, and is relatively fragile and subject to cracking and breaking.

After the 2018 report was issued, Verizon announced some results of its own investigation, concluding “when homeowners disconnect traditional copper telephone wires, by either going to FiOS or removing phone service altogether, Verizon continues to emit a current through those lines.”

But Verizon did not accept direct responsibility, and for the rest of 2018 into 2019, copper pipe failures persisted. At least 32 private water service lines along the east side of 188th Street and between 73rd Avenue and the Grand Central Parkway have failed since 2017.

“We’re not talking about one or two or five or ten, were talking about dozens,” said City Councilmember Barry Grodenchik. “Let me do the math for you, one person having a broken water main into their house is bad luck on one block, two of them is a coincidence, 32 in such a short stretch of 188th Street is a statistical impossibility unless there is an intervening force.”

In January, fed up residents were joined by members of the City Council and New York Assembly at a press conference calling on Verizon and the DEP to resolve the situation and reimburse homeowners. Assemblyman David Weprin proposed a bill in the New York State legislature that would put the onus on DEP to replace damaged water pipes at their expense, and then chase Verizon for reimbursement.

“The homeowners should not be responsible,” Weprin said in January. “I will be introducing a bill tomorrow in Albany, hopefully with the support of my Assembly member colleagues, to not require the homeowners to lay out the money. DEP is in a better position to layout the money, in the thousands of dollars, and then go after the third-party, in this case Verizon, rather than the homeowners.”

Because Verizon may ultimately be found financially liable, the company is now disconnecting line voltage from unused landlines, but despite reducing stray DC current, it remains present underground. Verizon will likely have to decommission its copper landline network or replace it to fully eliminate the excess voltage. In the meantime, Verizon recently sent letters to all affected homeowners stating it hired Sedgwick Claim Management Services “to evaluate claims for reimbursement for monetary expenses incurred as a direct result of the leak of your corroded copper water pipes.”

In return for signing a release of all claims against Verizon for damage, the phone company says it will begin reimbursing valid claim holders. Some neighborhood activists have little trust in Verizon or its motives, and questioned whether that signed release would prevent future claims from being processed. Verizon denied that would be the case and said it would continue to reimburse impacted homeowners in the future. Many would prefer not having to cover the costly repairs out-of-pocket and then wait for reimbursement. Some have proposed a fund paid for by utility companies to cover replacement costs directly.

A few lawmakers wonder if Verizon’s deteriorating underground infrastructure could be a ticking time bomb waiting to go off in other neighborhoods and in other states.

“Homeowners have been affected, and yet again we’ve seen a huge corporation just shirk their responsibility for doing the right thing by each and every homeowner,” said Assemblywoman Nily Rozic. “It is incumbent upon the city it’s incumbent on the state the Public Service Commission, to make Verizon step up and really deliver for homeowners.”

WABC-TV’s consumer reporter visited Queens to report on the sudden deterioration of copper water pipes in the neighborhood in July, 2018. Impacted homeowners endured flooded basements and thousands of dollars in unreimbursed expenses. (2:54)

‘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)

Questions Grow Over CenturyLink’s Massive 2-Day December Outage

Phillip Dampier January 22, 2019 CenturyLink, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't, Video 1 Comment

What do an emergency operations center in Cochise County, Ariz., Colorado hospitals, the Idaho Bureau of Corrections, and many 911 call centers across Massachusetts have in common? They were all brought down by a two-day nationwide CenturyLink outage from Dec. 27-28 that also resulted in internet outages for tens of thousands of CenturyLink’s residential customers. The cause? CenturyLink blamed a single, faulty third-party network management card in Denver for disrupting services for CenturyLink and other phone companies, notably Verizon, from Alaska to Florida.

Hours after outage began, two days after Christmas, CenturyLink issued a general statement:

“CenturyLink experienced a network event on one of our six transport networks beginning on December 27 that impacted voice, IP, and transport services for some of our customers. The event also impacted CenturyLink’s visibility into our network management system, impairing our ability to troubleshoot and prolonging the duration of the outage.”

That “network event” caused serious disruptions to critical services in 37 states, including 911, according to Brian Kyes, president of the Massachusetts Major City Chiefs of Police Association.

“This is affecting 911 (wireline & wireless) delivery to most of Massachusetts,” Kyes said in a statement during the outage to the Boston Herald. “We have heard from MEMA that this issue may also affect some landlines but I have not heard of any specific situations or communities that have been impacted. We are advising all police and fire chiefs to test their local 911 systems and notify their residents of potential issues by reverse 911, social media or any other means that they have at their disposal. The interruption in service may depend on a particular phone carrier and the information that we have is that it may be intermittent.”

CenturyLink outages on Dec. 27, 2018. (Image: Downdetector.com)

The disruptions affected much of Massachusetts — a state served primarily by Verizon Communications, because CenturyLink is a major commercial services vendor inside and outside of its local landline service areas and supplies some connectivity services to Verizon, mostly for wireless customers.

ATM networks also went down in certain parts of the country. CenturyLink is one of many vendors providing data connectivity between the cashpoint machines and several banking institutions.

Also impacted, the Idaho Department of Corrections, including inmate phone systems, and the Idaho Department of Education, which lost the ability to make or receive calls.

Consumers also noticed their internet connections were often down or sporadic in some locations, primarily because CenturyLink’s backbone network became saturated with rogue packets.

The Denver Post presented a more detailed technical explanation about the outage:

CenturyLink said the [defective] card was propagating “invalid frame packets” that were sent out over its secondary network, which controlled the flow of data traffic.

“Once on the secondary communication channel, the invalid frame packets multiplied, forming loops and replicating high volumes of traffic across the network, which congested controller card CPUs (central processing unit) network-wide, causing functionality issues and rendering many nodes unreachable,” the company said in a statement.

Once the syndrome gets going, it can be difficult to trace back to its original source and to stop, a big reason networks are designed to isolate failures early and contain them.

“We have learned through experience about these different types of failure modes. We build our systems to try and localize those failures,” said Craig Partridge, chair of the computer science department at Colorado State University in Fort Collins and a member of the Internet Hall of Fame. “I would hope that what is going on is that CenturyLink is trying to understand why a relatively well-known failure mode has bit them.”

The Federal Communications Commission also expects answers to some questions, opening another investigation of the phone company. In 2015, CenturyLink agreed to pay a $16 million settlement to the federal agency after a seven-state outage in April 2014.

Pai

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said the agency would once again take a look at CenturyLink, focusing on disruptions to emergency services.

“When an emergency strikes, it’s critical that Americans are able to use 911 to reach those who can help,” Pai said in a statement. “This inquiry will include an examination of the effect that CenturyLink’s outage appears to have had on other providers’ 911 services.”

A retired manager at Qwest, a former Baby Bell now owned by CenturyLink, strongly criticized CenturyLink’s lack of communications with customers and an apparent lack of network redundancy.

“For a company in the communication business, they sure failed on this,” said Albuquerque resident Sam Martin. “I participated on the Qwest Disaster Recovery teams, and I do not recall ever having the network down for this kind of time and certainly never the 911 network. The 911 network should never have been down. The lack of this network can contribute to delays in rescue and fire saving lives.”

Martin is dubious about CenturyLink’s explanation for the network outage, suggesting a defective network card may be only a part of the problem.

“The explanations given so far are not valid,” Martin said. “The public may not be aware of it, but the communication network has redundancy and for essential services like inter-office trunking and 911 calls, there are duplicate fiber optic feeds – “rings” that duplicate the main circuit in another path – and switching equipment to these locations so that they may be switched electronically and automatically upon failure to a back-up network ring. When these systems are operating properly, the customer is unaware a failure occurred. If the automatic switching does not take place, employees involved with disaster recovery can intervene and manually switch the affected network to another fiber ring or electronic hub and service is restored until the actual damage is fixed.”

None of those things appeared to happen in this case, and the outage persisted for 48 hours before all services were restored.

“CenturyLink has to have a disaster recovery plan with redundancies in place for electrical, inbound and outbound local and toll-free carriers, as well as network and hardware component redundancies. CenturyLink should be able to switch between multiple fiber optic rings or central offices in case entire networks of phones go down. They would then locate and repair, or replace, defective telecommunication components without the customer ever knowing. The fact that this did not happen is discouraging and scary for the consumer. The fact that it happened nationwide is even more surprising and disturbing. Hopefully the truth will come out soon.”

A critical editorial in the Albuquerque Journal added:

We need answers from CenturyLink beyond the cryptic “a network element” caused the outage. We need to know how many CenturyLink and Verizon customers were affected. And we need to know what they – and other internet and phone providers – are doing to prevent similar outages or worse from happening in the future. Because if the outage showed nothing else, it’s that like an old-time string of Christmas lights, we are living in an interconnected world.

And when one light goes out, they can all go out.

KTVB in Boise, Idaho reported on CenturyLink’s massive outage on Dec. 27-28 and how it impacted local businesses and government services. (3:09)

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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