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The Final Frontier: Phone Company Plans Bankruptcy Reorganization by March

Phillip Dampier January 20, 2020 Consumer News, Frontier 2 Comments

Frontier Communications will file Chapter 11 bankruptcy by March, according to a report by Bloomberg News citing unnamed sources, leading to a major reorganization of a struggling phone company that has been losing customers for years.

Bernie Han, Frontier’s new CEO, reportedly met with creditors and Wall Street advisors late last week to negotiate a bankruptcy filing and proposed turnaround plan to be unveiled before Frontier faces a repayment deadline of $356 million in debt on March 15.

If creditors agree, Frontier would continue operations after filing bankruptcy and renegotiate its debts, while potentially jettisoning retiree pension benefits, stiffing shareholders, and winning the freedom to exit certain long term contractual agreements related to its legacy properties and services.

Frontier serves around 3.5 million broadband customers in 29 states, providing service mostly to rural communities ignored by former Bell Operating Companies and in acquired service areas once controlled by Verizon or AT&T. Frontier’s acquisitions have contributed to the company’s $17+ billion in debt and have ultimately not met expectations. Many Frontier legacy customers have fled to other providers because of poor or inadequate service and a lack of network upgrades to offer acceptable internet service. Frontier has largely avoided undertaking major fiber optic upgrades in its legacy service territories, where the company still sells slow DSL service over a deteriorating copper wire network that is often decades old.

Most of Frontier’s fiber-to-the-home territories were acquired by the company, hoping such acquisitions would deliver a much-needed revenue boost. But some analysts say Frontier overpaid to acquire those service areas, and in several cases botched a conversion to Frontier’s billing and service platform, alienating customers.

The company’s stock has been in free fall for months, starting its steep decline after abandoning a popular dividend payout plan. As of this afternoon, shares are priced below 65 cents.

To stabilize the business, Frontier has entertained selling off portions of its network. In May 2019, Frontier announced it was selling 350,000 of its customers in the Pacific Northwest states of Washington, Oregon, Montana and Idaho to raise $1.35 billion to pay down its debts, but that was not enough to appease investors. Many believe former CEO Dan McCarthy was forced out of the company late last year after failing to improve the business. Frontier’s newest CEO has apparently decided reorganization through bankruptcy is now the best last resort.

Such news pleases activist investment funds including Elliot Management, which have pushed for reorganization for nearly a year. Elliot has been very vocal, demanding better results from several large telecom companies, including AT&T and Windstream. Elliott Management and Franklin Resources now hold nearly 50 percent of Frontier’s bonds. Another group of creditors includes GoldenTree Asset Management. The activist investors have been primarily fighting over the $5.8 billion in high-coupon debt bonds Frontier issued to cover its acquisition of former Verizon customers in California, Texas, and Florida. Frontier met fierce investor objections after considering refinancing that costly debt, because bondholders feared that would put them last in line to recoup their investments if Frontier went bankrupt.

A bankruptcy would not immediately impact Frontier’s customers and operations would continue. But Frontier would likely stall upgrades and future spending until the company exits bankruptcy. Some customers may also have to wait for refunds, at least initially, subject to court approval. Retirees and employees may also eventually face changes to their benefits packages.

For Frontier to be successful, the company will have to shed debt and begin making much larger investments to modernize its network to compete for lucrative broadband customers. It will also have to improve its image with better customer and repair service and fewer “gotcha” billing policies and fine print.

N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo Vetoes Public Rural Broadband Feasibility Study as the Unserved Struggle On

No service.

Despite New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s $500 million, 2015 Broadband for All initiative which guaranteed broadband service for anyone  that wanted home internet access, five years later rural broadband gaps continue to plague the state.

A bill that would set aside funds to complete a feasibility study to launch a state owned broadband provider of last resort was quietly vetoed by Cuomo at the end of 2019. Assembly member Aileen Gunther (D-Monticello) sponsored the bill after hearing scores of complaints about terrible or non-existent internet access from constituents in her district, which covers the parts of the rural Catskills region north of the Pennsylvania border.

Gunther complained that despite the governor’s broadband initiative, private phone and cable companies were still ignoring rural customers, leaving them with slow DSL service or no internet access at all. Gunther’s bill was a first step in potentially allowing the state to step in and provide service to New Yorkers unable to get broadband from any private provider.

New York has spent over $500 million on its Broadband for All program and made Charter Spectrum an integral part of its broadband expansion plans in return for approval of its 2016 acquisition of Time Warner Cable. But a growing number of the governor’s critics claim the program has failed to deliver on its mandate, stranding thousands of New Yorkers without internet service and tens of thousands more with just one option — unpopular satellite internet access.

Gunther

Gunther was upset to learn that New York was prepared to hand over more than a half billion dollars to large private telecom companies including Frontier Communications and Verizon while not being willing to spend a penny to fund projects to reach New Yorkers for-profit companies could not be dragged kicking and screaming to service.

“We’re all spending millions and millions of dollars on privately owned internet service providers,” said Gunther. “In return for promises, a lot of our communities do not have access to the internet, or if they do have access to the internet, it’s slow and these companies are not, I think, fulfilling the promises made.”

The rural broadband problem is not resolved in the Finger Lakes or Southern Tier regions of New York either. This week, Yates County announced it was joining an effort by Schuyler, Steuben, and Tioga counties, and the Southern Tier Network, to complete a broadband feasibility study to improve internet access in the four counties. Fujitsu Broadband will manage the study and hopes to have results by June. The study will target the pervasive problem of inadequate broadband service in the region, which includes crucial tourist, winery, and agricultural businesses vital to New York’s rural economy.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announcing rural broadband initiatives in New York in 2015.

Gov. Cuomo has called such initiatives “well-intentioned” but was non committal about contributing more state funds to construct new networks or underwrite further expansion of existing ones. New York is about to begin its annual hard-fought budget negotiations in hopes of completing the state budget by April. Finding funding for such projects will probably require a powerful political advocate able to wrestle funding for further broadband improvements.

Even after spending $500 million, New York’s rural broadband problem has not been resolved. That offers insight into the merits of other state broadband programs, which often limit annual broadband expansion funding to under $30 million annually.

Those still without service are likely in high-cost service areas, where each customer could cost over $20,000 to reach. New York’s Broadband for All program relied on a reverse auction that required private companies to bid to service each unserved address. No wireline provider bid on any high-cost service areas, leaving Hughes Satellite as a subsidized satellite provider of last resort. But inadequate broadband mapping left scores of rural New Yorkers behind without even the option of subsidized satellite internet access.

FCC Awards Viasat $87.1 Million to Connect 121,700 Rural Homes to Satellite Internet

More than 121,000 homes and businesses in 17 states will receive subsidized satellite internet service from Viasat, after the Federal Communications Commission awarded $87.1 million to connect customers at those locations at a cost of just over $715 per customer.

The money is part of the ongoing Connect America Fund (CAF) program, designed to subsidize the costs of delivering internet access in high-cost, typically rural areas. The current iteration of the program is dispensing funding over 10 years to 45 states. Viasat won the funding through an auction procedure that makes it easy for satellite providers to win funding because of low infrastructure costs to service rural areas that lack a wired internet service provider.

An additional $2.1 million was awarded to some other providers:

  • Fixed wireless provider LTD Broadband, which relies on 1,500 wireless internet tower sites covering over 40,000 square miles of Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska and South Dakota.
  • Horry Telephone Cooperative, which serves rural customers in Horry County, S.C.
  • Bruce Telephone Company, which won funding for parts of Wisconsin to deliver gigabit internet service.
  • JCWIFI, which provides fixed wireless internet within a 3,000 square mile service area covering parts of Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin.

In addition to the upper Midwest and South Carolina, the biggest states expected to benefit from the latest awards are (northern) California and Wyoming.

At least $2 billion in subsidy funds became available after larger providers — AT&T, CenturyLink and Verizon turned down funding because the companies had no interest in building out their networks in rural service areas.

Cable One’s Costly Internet Service Helps Cable Company Achieve Record Profits

Phillip Dampier November 12, 2019 Cable One, Competition, Consumer News, Data Caps 1 Comment

Using a combination of lack of competition, high-priced service plans, and data caps, Cable One is once again the nation’s most profitable cable broadband provider, charging residential customers a record-breaking average of $72.09 a month.

Late last week, the country’s fifth largest cable company reported excellent results to its shareholders, as the company collected the proceeds from increasing rates on broadband service while shedding unprofitable cable television customers.

Cable One serves small and mid-sized cities, mostly in the mid-south, Rockies, New Mexico and Arizona. It has grown larger with the acquisition of NewWave and Fidelity Communications, and told investors on a quarterly results conference call the company would take some of its recent gains and move towards further acquisitions in the near future. NewWave customers will now face Cable One’s stiff data caps, rolling out across legacy NewWave service areas in November and December. NewWave customers have already found their cable television package pruned back to match the current Cable One package, which omits Viacom-owned networks. The same will hold true for Fidelity’s customers once the two companies merge systems.

 

Laulis

Revenues for the third quarter were $285 million compared to $268.3 million at the same time last year, representing a 6.2% increase. Even with the high cost of service, the number of Cable One internet customers is increasing, primarily because competing phone companies typically offer little beyond DSL. In the last quarter, Cable One added 7,400 new internet customers and boosted broadband revenue by 8.2%.

“Cable One still has one of the industry’s lowest broadband penetration of homes passed at just 32.2% and, with limited fiber-based competition, their ceiling is arguably one of the highest in the industry,” Moffett Nathanson analyst Craig Moffett told investors. “They are at last growing the broadband business at a rate fast enough to drive meaningfully higher penetration.”

Cable One makes no secret it now calls itself a broadband company and has been de-emphasizing cable television service over the last few years. In fact, customers who cut the cord are doing Cable One a favor because broadband-only customers boost their overall profit margins. Unlike cable television, where licensing expenses are growing, the cost to provide and support broadband service is dropping — even as Cable One raises internet pricing and constrains customer usage with industry-low data caps. That forces customers to upgrade to more costly, higher speed service plans to get a larger data allowance. Cable One also offers a $40/mo add-on that restores unlimited service, which is popular with their premium customers. Once a customer uses more than 5 TB, their speed is throttled.

“I think the interesting thing that I took note of is that the higher [the] speed that our consumer takes the higher the percentage of unlimited [plan] selling. So that is to say if you take our gig service the percentage of customers that take unlimited there is the highest of any consumer group,” noted Cable One CEO Julia M. Laulis.

Pricing is expected to rise further unless phone companies compete with fiber broadband, an unlikely scenario in the rural and exurban areas Cable One serves.

T-Mobile Fixed 4G Wireless Home Internet: $50/month With No Data Caps

T-Mobile is gradually expanding its new fixed wireless home broadband service, prioritizing rural areas next to major highways where the mobile provider has strong 4G LTE service.

T-Mobile Home Internet is initially being targeted to rural customers unlikely to have high speed internet access from a cable company or are stuck with low speed DSL from the phone company. It offers “unlimited service” with no data caps, but T-Mobile reserves the right to temporarily throttle speeds of users exceeding 50 GB of usage per month when their local cell tower is congested. Customers can check T-Mobile’s fixed wireless website to see if they qualify for service.

A Stop the Cap! reader in Indiana testing the service over the last month reports speeds averaging around 50/3 Mbps, with ping times often 30 ms or much more, which makes the service problematic for video games. But T-Mobile Home Internet works fine with streaming video services.

(Image: The Gadgeteer)

The service is currently available only in a few areas. T-Mobile is carefully managing the service by registering the customer’s wireless home internet equipment to a specific cell tower. Customers are not allowed to take the service on the road, such as on vacation. Since the service relies on T-Mobile’s existing 4G LTE cell tower network, it is essential to balance capacity between fixed wireless customers and T-Mobile’s existing mobile users. Pricing is comparable to Verizon’s 5G Home Internet and in most cases the price includes taxes and fees.

T-Mobile began marketing the service to its existing customers in qualified service areas over the summer. Among those enrolled, none have reported speed throttling, despite the fine print warning to heavy users.

“I consistently use over 250 GB a month and speeds have never been impacted,” our reader told us. “However, speeds can suffer around rush hour, when I suspect more people are using their cell phones. But they are still 25+ Mbps for downloads.”

Customers signing up for the service will receive:

  • a T-Mobile LTE Wi-Fi Gateway with a pre-installed T-Mobile SIM card;
  • A 5200mAh battery backup, also likely for future portability options;
  • AC Adapter;
  • Quick Setup Manual.

(Image: The Gadgeteer)

There is no charge for the equipment and start-up kit, but it remains the property of T-Mobile and needs to be returned if you cancel, otherwise T-Mobile will charge you $207.

Users plug in the equipment in an area of their home that gets the strongest T-Mobile reception. Once T-Mobile’s LTE network is detected, the service will register and activate service on the T-Mobile cell tower. Customers manage the rest of the service with a smartphone app, which configures Wi-Fi capable devices, sets streaming speeds, and allows customers to check usage. There are two LAN ports on the back of the device for Ethernet connections and a phone jack, presumably to support landline service sometime in the future. Most will be able to configure the service in less than 10 minutes.

Ironically, one service T-Mobile explicitly says won’t work with its fixed wireless offering is T-Mobile’s new TVision live TV service. But customers report no problems using AT&T TV Now and Hulu’s Live TV service.

The included backup battery provides long lasting power to stay connected during a power interruption.

Customers have reported favorable impressions of the service, assuming they have a solid signal from a nearby cell tower. T-Mobile is cautiously marketing the service only to customers where cell towers are not already congested, and only in areas relatively close to a nearby cell tower, to assure good reception. T-Mobile can also self-limit the number of fixed wireless customers signed up for each cell tower. That means most of its fixed wireless customers will be in semi-rural areas, often nearby a major road or highway where a T-Mobile tower provides service. It is not likely T-Mobile will initially market fixed wireless service in dense suburban or urban areas, because cell towers are much more likely to be congested. It also seems unlikely T-Mobile will sell the service in deeply rural areas where it lacks good cell coverage because T-Mobile is relying on its existing network of cell towers to support the fixed wireless service.

An excellent review of the service and its features has been written by The Gadgeteer.

T-Mobile explains how its fixed wireless home internet service works. (1:15)

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