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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.

Frontier Admits Its Rural Phone Business is Now “Unsustainable”

Frontier Communications has publicly admitted its residential telephone service in rural and “high-cost” service areas is “unsustainable,” resulting in an increasing number of lengthy service outages and unreliable service.

Javier Mendoza, vice president of Frontier Communications, made the admission in response to a growing chorus of complaints about rapidly deteriorating landline service in the state of West Virginia. Service has gotten so bad it prompted the senior senator from West Virginia to complain directly to Frontier CEO Dan McCarthy.

“In times of crisis, no one should ever have to think twice about whether he or she will be able to call for help,” Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) wrote in a letter directed to McCarthy. “Unfortunately, I have been alerted of several instances where my constituents who utilize Frontier’s landline service have not been able to complete calls due to service outages.”

The West Virginia Public Service Commission is currently auditing Frontier’s operations in the state after seeing “a large increase” in complaints about Frontier’s service. Frontier has been the state’s largest telecom company since 2010, when it acquired Verizon’s wireline network in West Virginia.

According to some customers, service has been going downhill ever since.

“I don’t always depend on it to work because I know it is probably not going to do that,” Frontier customer Lawrence Gray told WSAZ-TV. “So it used to be a real shock when you picked it up and it didn’t work. The other day when I picked it up and you couldn’t get a dial tone, I was like well here we are again. It is the way it is.”

Frontier is the dominant phone company in West Virginia.

Lawrence’s wife Patrecia notes they are both in their 70s and are anxious about being able to reach 911 in an emergency. Frontier has experienced several 911 outages in West Virginia as well.

“If we ever want to call 911 and it is not working, what do you do because we have no call phone service here,” Patrecia said.

The Gray family reports that it typically takes Frontier five to seven days to restore their phone service after an outage. That is unacceptable to Sen. Manchin.

“The safety of my constituents is my highest priority and the fact that so many of them are unable to do something as basic as calling 911 for assistance is unacceptable,” Manchin wrote Frontier. “Access to phone service is not a luxury; it is a critical lifeline that could mean the difference between life and death and I implore you to resolve this problem within your company immediately.”

Frontier’s response, through Mendoza, is to blame the situation on the unprofitability of Frontier’s landline network in rural West Virginia, after choosing to buy it nine years ago.

“Frontier serves only about ten percent of the state voice lines in its service area—and falling—but has 100 percent of the universal service obligation to serve the most rural and high-cost areas,” Mendoza said in a statement. “Our customer base continues to decline, while the cost of service per line has increased dramatically. This has resulted in an unsustainable model for providing service in rural and high-cost areas, manifesting in increased numbers of service complaints. We plan to reach out to the state’s leaders to collaboratively find solutions to this difficult challenge.”

Those challenges may be more difficult than imagined, considering the frequent complaints received by the Public Service Commission about the ongoing service problems experienced by customers.

Doug and Patricia Stowers represent a case in point. The Stowers family lives in Griffithsville, an unincorporated community in eastern Lincoln County. The nearest cell phone coverage in this part of West Virginia is a 14-mile drive into the town of West Hamlin. A landline is essential in Griffithsville and many other parts of West Virginia where cell service is spotty at best. The only choice of provider is often Frontier Communications.

This branch was left hanging on Frontier’s phone line… after a service call reporting branches on Frontier’s cable was finished. (Image courtesy of the Stowers family)

The Stowers family installed their landline in 2012. A single Frontier technician laid nearly one-quarter of a mile of phone cable, sections of which were laid on the ground next to the roadway.

“Since 2012, coverage has been sporadic. It took us a few service interruptions before we noticed a connection of when the county mowed [along the roadway] and the phone going out,” wrote Patricia Stowers. “When we found a long section of main line had been laid along the edge of the road, we walked the road, and made sure the line was thrown over edge out of the reach of the mowers.”

That is where Frontier’s phone cable stayed, for years. In areas where the phone cable was hung above ground, tree limbs and brush often cover the line, even after Frontier dispatches repair crews to address the latest service outage. At one point, the family discovered parts of their phone cable were now exposed to the core. A Frontier technician temporarily “patched” the cable and then placed it back on the ground, this time at the bottom of a dry creek bed.

When the family reports service outages to Frontier, having patience is a virtue.

“When we call for repairs, we are scheduled three to seven days out. To me this is unacceptable,” writes Patricia. “If we had a choice, trust me, we would not have phone service from Frontier, however, we are at their mercy.”

An attorney for Frontier Communications in Charleston disputed parts of the Stowers family complaint, noting that each time the family reported an outage, the company dispatched a technician to repair the trouble and the family was given credit on their bill.

The attorney also noted that the service address in question was a “weekend/vacation residence.” The cable lying in the creek bed was “not in service” and was “scheduled to be removed.” Further, despite the Stowers’ claims that branches were left laying on their phone line, the attorney claimed Frontier found only “a small branch lying on the 2-pair cable servicing the weekend/vacation residence” and it would be removed “with a pole saw.”

Frontier routinely responds to service complaints filed with the PSC with this declaration:

Pending final resolution and dismissal of this matter, Frontier respectfully reserves all defenses and objections, including without limitation the right to demand strict proof of each and every allegation of the Complaint not expressly admitted in this Answer.

WSAZ-TV in Huntington, W.V. reports Frontier’s landline service in the state is deteriorating, and Frontier admits its rural phone service is “unsustainable. (2:41)

Frontier Bails on Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington in $1.35 Billion Cash Deal

Frontier Communications is selling its wireline and fiber assets in Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington in a $1.35 billion all-cash deal with two private investment firms.

Frontier will continue operating its FiOS and traditional landline networks in the four states until the transaction closes with regulator approval.

The buyers are WaveDivision Capital, a private investment firm run by the founder of Wave Broadband, an independent broadband provider serving the Pacific Northwest and Searchlight Capital Partners, a Wall Street investment firm seeking to “accelerate value creation” for its investors. The new owners plan to launch a new company to service existing Frontier customers and will honor existing contracts and service commitments.

“The sale of these properties reduces Frontier’s debt and strengthens liquidity,” said Dan McCarthy, Frontier’s president and CEO, in a statement. “We are pleased to have a buyer with extensive experience building and operating advanced fiber-based communications assets in these regions. We will be working very closely with the new owners to ensure a smooth, successful transition for our customers and the communities we serve.”

About 150,000 fiber, 150,000 copper and 35,000 fiber video customers are impacted by the sale in the four affected states. Frontier’s service area in the region is made up of large former Verizon service areas, many upgraded to fiber-to-the-home service, and a significant number of rural telephone exchanges operating with traditional copper wire networks. WaveDivision Capital claims it wants to invest in Frontier’s existing network to upgrade service and potentially retire additional copper infrastructure in favor of fiber.

Frontier service areas in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho.

“We are excited to transition these operations to a local ownership team and to invest in building out the network of next generation fiber throughout our region,” said Steve Weed, CEO of WaveDivision Capital, and founder and former CEO of Wave Broadband. “We are big believers in the Northwest’s future growth opportunities and that future runs on broadband. As the former leaders of another successful Northwest internet provider, Wave Broadband, we know what it takes to bring fiber and other advanced services to residential and business customers, give them choices, and keep them happy.”

Frontier, which has been struggling with a tremendous debt load and underinvestment in its network, sees the sale as a way to improve its balance sheet and cut both debt and expenses. The Pacific Northwest is a difficult region to serve because it is sparsely populated and can be a high cost area because of difficult terrain or long distances between customers. Although Frontier had committed to spending on upgrading its fiber customers, it promised little for its copper wireline customers still relying on low-speed DSL. Weed says his company hopes to change that.

“Our plan is to invest further in our markets, specifically by extending fiber to more homes and businesses, to bring them the high speeds they want,” Weed said in a statement.

Frontier’s Montana operations are in the northwest corner of the state, near the Kootenai National Forest.

The transaction is subject to regulatory approvals by the Federal Communications Commission, the U.S. Department of Justice, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), applicable state regulatory agencies, and certain local video franchise authorities where Frontier FiOS operates. Frontier expects little opposition to the deal.

Weed’s involvement in Wave Broadband is no more, but at the time he left the company, Wave had reached 140 cities and towns in Washington, Oregon, and California. Wave was formed in 2003 with a series of strategic acquisitions of “distressed” independent cable systems and those owned by pre-bankruptcy Charter Communications, Northland Communications, and Cedar Communications. In May 2017, Wave Broadband was sold to TPG Capital for $2.36 billion, and today operates under TPG’s leadership with its close cousins RCN and Grande Communications.

Weed has a reputation for successfully deploying fiber networks in a region where capital can be difficult to find and easy returns on investment are rare, so there is considerable good will he will successfully upgrade Frontier service areas that have been neglected for years.

Although the transaction could deliver temporary fiscal relief for Frontier, shareholders remain displeased with the current leadership team at the company, and there are still significant signs Frontier remains in serious financial and operational distress, especially because of its ongoing customer losses. Frontier is likely to be pressured to find other sales opportunities, assuming it can find willing buyers.

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)

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