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

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

Frontier is the dominant phone company in West Virginia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Frontier Communications Declares Bankruptcy; Documents Show Company Spent Millions to Retain Customers

Phillip Dampier April 16, 2020 Consumer News, Frontier 2 Comments

Frontier Communications filed for bankruptcy reorganization protection this week with more than $10 billion in debts and departing customers, despite retention efforts that cost the company more than $5 million a month.

The company had warned investors it was considering restructuring and failed to make a timely bond payment to cover a portion of its debts. Frontier had been in negotiations with debt holders for several months, attempting to secure a Restructuring Support Agreement that would reduce debt in return for an equity stake in the company. At least 75% of unsecured bondholders are reportedly on board with a deal that would free up money to spend on fiber optic upgrades.

Most of Frontier’s legacy customers are served by a deteriorating copper wire network designed for basic landline phone service. The company’s DSL internet service has been roundly criticized for being slow and unreliable. Instead of upgrading copper customers to fiber service, Frontier instead spent billions acquiring new territories from other phone companies, notably Verizon Communications and AT&T. The acquisitions did not deliver the financial returns the company expected, and customers canceled service after Frontier botched billing and service transitions that left some without service for weeks.

Today, Frontier has about four million customers, 3.5 million broadband subscribers and 18,300 employees operating in 29 states. The company has arranged a debtor-in-possession loan of $460 million from Goldman Sachs Bank to continue operating during the bankruptcy reorganization. It also expects to receive an additional $1.35 billion in cash later this month from the sale of its territories in Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington to Northwest Fiber.

Frontier also divulged new details about its deteriorating business to the Bankruptcy Court:

  • Frontier estimates it spends approximately $1,000 for each new residential customer and $2,500 for each new commercial customer.
  • Almost all of its new customers sign up for service under a sales promotion. “On average, [Frontier] spends approximately $1.3 million per month on marketing campaigns.”
  • Customer retention efforts are crucial for Frontier, which has been losing customers at an alarming rate. Frontier uses three enticements to convince customers to stay: “Save Offers,” “Roll-Off Offers,” and “Discretionary Credits.”
  • “Save Offers” are a classic retention tool, offering enticements to customers threatening to cancel. Frontier offers free premium channels, reduced rates, and/or discounted service upgrades to convince customers not to leave. Frontier disclosed it pitches approximately 24,000 Save Offers each month, a sign many customers are prepared to cancel their accounts.
  • “Roll-Off Offers” are made to customers calling to complain about their bill after their new customer promotion ends. Frontier regularly offers complaining, bill-shocked customers a new, less generous promotion going forward. For example, an expiring new customer discount of $60/month might be replaced with a $30/month discount if the customer agrees to stay. These offers typically last six months to a year and still leave the customer eventually paying regular prices. Frontier disclosed that it loses many more complaining customers than it keeps after promotions expire. About 16,000 customers per month (or roughly one-fourth of customers complaining about an expiring promotion) are retained as customers because of a roll-off offer.
  • “Discretionary Credits” are one-time bill credits given when customers call with service complaints, reports of damage done to private property by Frontier, or missed time guarantees for service calls. Frontier admitted it is currently paying out an average of $3.9 million a month in Discretionary Credits to upset customers.

Post bankruptcy, Frontier has proposed undertaking a modest fiber upgrade program in its more profitable territories where a significant return on investment for fiber upgrades can be demonstrated. That is unlikely to include many of Frontier’s rural service areas.

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.

Waiting More Than Nine Weeks for Frontier to Repair Broken Landlines in Wisconsin

In Wausau, Wis., one local woman is speaking out about Frontier’s dismal performance as she passes nine weeks without a working landline. Frontier is in no hurry to fix the problem. WAOW-TV reports. (2:24)

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