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Californians Complained More About Telecom Companies Than Wildfire Outages Caused by PG&E

More Californians are complaining to state officials about their cable television, internet, and phone service than the energy utilities implicated in causing deadly wildfires that left customers without power for days or weeks.

California’s Office of Senate Floor Analyses prepared a report for elected officials contemplating extending deregulation of the state’s top telecommunications companies. It found deregulation has not always benefited California consumers, noting that several companies have been fined for allowing traditional phone service to fall below required service quality standards. As service deteriorates, lawmakers have tied the hands of state officials trying to enforce what service standards still exist. The report found that the telecom industry has been especially good at covering itself through lobbying and litigation to isolate and disempower consumers seeking redress.

“Many companies, including telecommunications providers, include arbitration clauses in their contracts that limit a consumer’s ability to form a class with other consumers to seek remedies for unfair business practices related to contracts,” the report notes. “These clauses frequently limit consumers to a specified arbitration process that limits the types of remedies consumers can obtain for unfair business practices.”

Customers with unreliable phone service pursuing complaints on the federal level with the Federal Communications Commission have also been dealt a blow by the Trump Administration and its Republican majority control of the FCC.

“It is unclear what kind of remedies consumers can obtain since the FCC has adopted an order limiting its own ability to establish requirements for these services,” the report found.

Deregulation has not stopped Californians from trying to get help from the California Public Utility Commission (CPUC), however. The CPUC’s Customer Affairs Branch recorded 1,087 complaints about the state’s phone and cable companies in January 2019, compared with 677 complaints against the state’s energy utilities and 53 lodged against water utilities.

The CPUC’s Customer Affairs Branch reported communications-related complaints were significantly higher than other utilities. (Image: California Office of Senate Floor Analyses)

“Despite the occurrence of wildfires in which utility infrastructure was implicated, complaints regarding energy utilities remained largely consistent between November 2018 and January 2019,” the report found. “The data indicates that the communications sector generates a greater number of complaints to the CPUC than other utility sectors on average, and a much greater percentage of those complaints are for customer issues over which the CPUC has no regulatory jurisdiction.”

Earlier this year, California’s largest investor-owned utility, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), filed for bankruptcy protection after estimating it was liable for more than $30 billion in damages from recent wildfires. An investigation found equipment owned by PG&E was responsible for starting the worst wildfire in California history. The November 2018 Camp Fire killed 85 people and destroyed the town of Paradise. Yet the Customer Affairs Branch received fewer complaints about PG&E than it received regarding AT&T, Charter Spectrum, Frontier, Cox, and Comcast XFINITY.

Unintended consequences of deregulation have also caused several high profile scandals among telecom companies in the state. Some of the worst offenses were committed by cable and phone companies that further traumatized victims of catastrophic wildfires. An effort to implement new consumer protections for fire victims forced to relocate met fierce resistance from cable and telephone industry lobbyists. Some of those same telecom companies continued to bill wildfire victims for months for service at addresses that no longer existed. AT&T even billed customers that died in the fires.

A recent San Francisco Superior Court decision (Gruber v. Yelp) also found another consequence of deregulation. A judge ruled The California Invasion of Privacy Act (CIPA) does not apply to calls made or received on “digital” phone lines better known as Voice over IP (VoIP). The judge found that since the CPUC does not regulate VoIP calls, and such calls are not legally defined as a traditional phone call, CIPA cannot apply.

More than six months after devastating wildfires swept across the North Bay in 2017, AT&T was still billing customers that died in that fire. KGO-TV reports. (3:31)

After promising to never again erroneously bill wildfire victims, AT&T did it again to those traumatized by the 2018 Camp Fire that killed 85 people and wiped the town of Paradise off the map. KOVR in Sacramento reports on one family pleading with AT&T to stop billing them for landline service at an address that no longer exists. (2:15)

Ohio Files Formal Complaint Citing Frontier’s “Troubling” Deterioration

A broken Frontier telephone pole (left). Frontier phone cables left stretched against a tree (right) Images: PUCO

The Public Utilties Commission of Ohio (PUCO) has filed a formal complaint against Frontier North, Inc. (d/b/a Frontier Communications), citing a spike in customer complaints and evidence the company’s landline services have dramatically deteriorated in the state.

The PUCO is concerned Frontier’s alleged poor service may result in safety concerns, such as a customers’ inability to contact emergency services, doctors, and family and friends.

“Customer complaints indicating extensive telecommunication outages are troubling and deserve to be examined,” stated PUCO Chairman Sam Randazzo. “Today the PUCO is taking steps to investigate allegations of poor service quality.”

This is only the latest in a series of actions the state regulator has taken against Frontier for poor performance. The company previously promised to prioritize service outage repairs over new installations, but the regulator reports it received an unprecedented 2,802 consumer contacts regarding Frontier between January 1, 2018 and July 31, 2019.

Most of the problems are occurring in service areas that Frontier acquired from Verizon Communications in 2010, primarily in southern and eastern Ohio. The regulator’s complaint includes 33 citations against Frontier for extended service outages, some that have lasted for months, as well as allegations the company has failed to provide adequate and reliable phone service in its Ohio service areas. The complaint recommends the Commission “conduct a thorough investigation” on the matter.

The complaint:

Frontier’s alleged efforts to repair [reported issues] within 24 hours or Frontier reporting that the issue had been repaired within 72 hours, often times customers’ service would not work within days of Frontier reporting it has repaired the issue.

For example, a [residential] consumer contacted the PUCO Call Center on March 4, 2019 stating her telephone line had been out of service since January 20, 2019. The consumer stated that she contacted Frontier on February 7 or 8, 2019 and that Frontier had committed to making repairs no later than February 26, 2019. When repairs did not occur by February 26, 2019, the consumer stated that she contacted Frontier again and was informed the repairs would occur by March 19, 2019. During Staff’s investigation, Frontier informed Staff that it was notified of the service issue regarding no dial tone on this [residential] account on February 14, 2019 and that service was repaired on March 7, 2019. Repairing an issue on March 7, 2019 is 21 days after it was reported on February 14, 2019, thus 18 days in violation of the 72-hour repair requirement times for instances of failure.

Damaged pedestal (left); Large tree limb left on Frontier phone cables (right). Images: PUCO

From July 11, 2019 to July 23, 2019, PUCO staff conducted field inspections which revealed facilities that appear to lack the proper maintenance, including damaged aerial terminals and splice cases, excessive vegetation, damaged pedestals, and unstable and damaged poles.

The PUCO telephone service areas map shows that Frontier North covers parts of 64 of Ohio’s 88 counties, including Marion, Crawford, Richland, Ashland, Morrow, Sandusky, Ottawa, Coshocton, Muskingum, Fairfield, Pike, and Ross. Verizon itself acquired those service areas from GTE (General Telephone) in 2000.

Nationally, Frontier Communications is in financial distress. The company now serves 4.3 million customers, down 200,000 from the same time last year. Across all divisions, Frontier is losing customers, particularly those subscribed to residential and commercial landline service and its resold satellite TV service. Frontier is also losing large numbers of TV customers in its FiOS fiber to the home service areas. The company has accumulated $17 billion in debt with a decreasing likelihood it will repay that debt on time.

Pedestal Damage. Images: PUCO

Despite the financial difficulties, Frontier is still obligated by law to meet basic service standards. Utility regulators in multiple states are now questioning whether Frontier is still achieving this. For a second time, Frontier spokesman Javier Mendoza signaled the company is burdened with an uncompetitive, high cost business model.

“Frontier takes service quality very seriously. While we disagree with the report’s assertions, we look forward to respectfully and directly addressing the issues raised by staff with the Public Utilities Commission,” Mendoza wrote in an email to the Marion Star. “Issues raised in the report focus on complaints in rural and high cost service areas; yet while Frontier only serves some 10% of Ohio’s wireline phone lines, Frontier bears 100% of the obligation to provide phone service to customers in the most rural, remote, and high-cost parts of its service area. This model creates costly operational burdens that Frontier’s competitors do not bear and is inconsistent with a competitive market.”

“Providing reliable telecommunications and broadband service to our customers is our highest priority. Frontier is dedicated to safety and takes seriously its commitment to serve Ohio customers and support 911 services,” Mendoza added.

Wisconsin DoT: ‘Frontier Ignored Requests and Violated State Code,’ Wiping Out Phone Service in Rhinelander

Phillip Dampier July 31, 2019 Consumer News, Frontier, Public Policy & Gov't, Video 1 Comment

Frontier Communications customers across Rhinelander, Wis. were left without phone and internet service for a day after a construction crew cut fiber optic and copper cables that Frontier earlier promised to move, but never did.

In early July, service across parts of the city of 8,000 was knocked out as construction crews worked on a new roundabout, severing communications cables thought to be inactive. As a result, area businesses could not process credit card transactions, the local airport was disrupted, and medical clinics had to resort to cell phones to manage information about their patients.

Frontier later aggravated state officials by putting the blame for the outage on the construction crew.

“Frontier notified the contractor the cable was still in place and that its location was properly marked. It appears, the backhoe operator did not verify the depth of the cable, resulting in the cut,” said Frontier spokesman Javier Mendoza in an email at the time.

But a local TV station unearthed documents with an open records request that now point the finger of responsibility solely at Frontier.

Rhinelander, Wis.

On July 3, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation notified Frontier it was in violation of the Wisconsin Administrative Code because the company had promised to move the communications cables prior to the roundabout construction, but apparently never did.

“Unfortunately, Frontier did not relocate its facilities into this new conduit and never shared that fact with anyone. This caused the existing facility to be cut,” according to DoT utility engineer Chris Peplinski. The project manager, Dan Erva, wrote a frustrated internal email about the debacle that same day.

“At no point did anyone from Frontier or their contractors let us know that they did not relocate and [abandon] the lines as indicated in the work plan and contract special provisions,” Erva wrote.

Frontier could be held financially liable for the contractor delays.

This has not been the first frustrating experience customers and Wisconsin officials have had dealing with Frontier. In April, one outage left more than three dozen Rhinelander customers without service for weeks, and customers accused the company of being unable to give any straight answers about how and when service would be restored. Among those affected, one customer relying on medical monitoring equipment. She reportedly was given the runaround and even hung up on by Frontier customer service.

Frontier blamed April’s outage on a difficult-to-diagnose problem with a damaged high-capacity telecommunications cable. Frontier officials suggested construction crews were responsible for that damage as well.

“The assessment process for isolating damage to such cables generally takes significant time,” a Frontier spokesperson told WJFW-TV.

Some customers told the TV station they now understand what “significant time” means when dealing with Frontier.

“About 10 days [into the outage] a Frontier truck came around and I asked him, and he says ‘Oh about two days,'” said Sonny Paszak, who relies entirely on his landline. “Well, that was 10 days ago and I still haven’t got it.”

WJFW in Rhinelander, Wis. spoke earlier this year with frustrated Frontier landline customers that lost service for weeks. (2:45)

AT&T Exploring Exiting Puerto Rico With Sale of Its Internet, TV, Landline Services

Phillip Dampier July 22, 2019 AT&T, Consumer News 1 Comment

Reuters reports AT&T is exploring the possibility of leaving Puerto Rico, with a possible sale of its assets for around $3 billion.

AT&T is under pressure to reduce its large debt load after acquiring Time Warner (Entertainment) in 2018 for $85 billion, which left the telco with a total debt of $164 billion. CEO Randall Stephenson told shareholders he has made cutting debt at the company a major priority, resulting in job cuts, a sale of AT&T’s stake in Hulu for $1.43 billion, and letting go of WarnerMedia’s Hudson Yards offices in Manhattan for almost $2.2 billion.

AT&T has also indicated it is winding down its fiber broadband expansion program and is expecting to layoff additional workers as projects are finished around the country.

A complete exit from Puerto Rico would require a sale of AT&T’s wireless network, largely acquired after completing a buyout of Centennial Communications in 2009. AT&T has been earning about $300 million a year from its internet, TV, landline, and business service business on the island.

The company has hired a financial adviser to explore such a sale, but a source indicated AT&T may cancel its exit plans if it does not attract adequate bids. Potential acquirers include media companies and private equity firms. Buyers will face running the business in a compromised economy still recovering from 2017’s Hurricane Maria.

Utah Opens Formal Investigation Into Frontier Communications; Poor Service Cited

The Utah Division of Public Utilities (DPU) has launched a formal investigation into the performance of Frontier Communications of Utah after the state received an “abnormal number of complaints” over the past few years about the company’s ability to provide adequate landline phone and internet service in the state.

Frontier only services a small part of Utah, and many of the complaints come from the community of Castle Valley, a small town in Grand County in east-central Utah. The community has a population of just over 300 residents. Frontier is the sole telecommunications provider for much of the area.

“Providing adequate, reliable telecommunications services to the residents of Utah does not happen by chance. It is the result of monitoring a number of factors such as capacity, trouble reporting, and aging of infrastructure,” writes the DPU in a discussion about the investigation. “This monitoring provides support for wise capital investments that prevent outages, such as those being investigated in the current dockets. However, operating conditions can create unique challenges even with optimal investments. The DPU has also observed (through annual reports filed with the DPU) that in recent years Frontier has reported declining levels of annual capital investment. For these reasons the DPU initiated its own investigation into Frontier’s service quality.”

Castle Valley, Utah

The regulator noted Frontier has (so far) ignored a request for information filed with the phone company on June 11, 2019.

The DPU’s primary concern is with Frontier’s lack of investment in its legacy networks, which include those in Utah. Without appropriate investment, service quality deteriorates, particularly in rural areas where long stretches of copper cable have much greater exposure to the elements and have more opportunities for failure. Frontier has already indicated it plans no significant investments in its legacy copper service areas in 2019.

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