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Frontier Urgently Trying to Restructure $17 Billion Debt as Chapter 11 Looms

Frontier Communications is preparing a detailed plan for bondholders explaining how the company hopes to cut its $17 billion in debt before it faces the possibility of bankruptcy.

The Wall Street Journal reports Frontier is ready to begin formal negotiations with those holding its debt to create a new payback plan before it faces the first of several repayment deadlines for bonds running into the billions, starting in 2022. But the strategy is risky because if any of the company’s major bondholders disagree, it could put Frontier on a fast track to Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization.

Frontier’s debt problems are a consequence of its decision to expand its wireline footprint through acquisitions of castoff copper landline networks being sold primarily by Verizon Communications and AT&T. Critics have repeatedly called out Frontier for bungling network transitions with extended service outages, billing problems, and other customer service-related failures that left customers and some state regulators frustrated and alienated. The company is still facing regulatory review in states like Connecticut, where it failed to properly manage a customer cutover from AT&T’s systems to its own, and in Utah, West Virginia, California, and Florida where similar cutovers from Verizon Communications left more than a few customers without service and months of billing problems.

As a result, Frontier lost many of the customers it acquired, with many unwilling to consider doing business with the phone company ever again.

Although Frontier’s latest acquisitions of Verizon landline customers in California, Texas, and Florida included large Verizon FiOS fiber to the home territories, Frontier customers continue to disconnect service at a greater pace than the phone company’s chief cable competitors — Comcast and Charter Spectrum. Customer defections are even worse in large sections of Frontier’s stagnant “legacy” markets — service areas that have been managed by Frontier or its predecessor Citizens Communications for decades. That is because almost all of those legacy markets are still serviced by decades-old copper wire networks, many capable only of providing low speed DSL internet access.

Frontier’s large debt load is cited as the principal reason the company cannot embark on upgrade efforts to replace existing copper wiring with optical fiber. In fact, virtually all of Frontier’s fiber service areas have been acquired from AT&T or Verizon. Frontier executives have attempted to placate shareholders by promising to aggressively manage costs. But promises of dramatic savings have proved elusive and frequent media reports have emerged covering extensive service outages, poor network maintenance, ongoing billing and customer service issues, and inadequate staffing to address a growing number of service outages and problems. In several states, repeated 911 outages have triggered regulator investigations with the prospect of stiff fines.

Three Frontier insiders have privately shared their insights with Stop the Cap! about ongoing frustrations with the company and the most recent developments.

“Upper management has no comprehension that in many of our markets, customers have choices and they abandon us when all we can sell is DSL service at speeds often less than 12 Mbps,” one senior regional executive told us. “Our retention efforts are so poor these days, representatives are not really expected to rescue accounts because in most cases there is no legitimate reason to do business with us. In some states where there are high mandated surcharges, we cost more than our cable competitors.”

Another mid-level executive in one of Frontier’s largest legacy markets — Rochester, N.Y., said morale is low and a growing number of colleagues believe the days to bankruptcy are short.

Frontier Communications debt load.

“Our loyal customers are literally dying off, as their adult children disconnect decades-old landline accounts,” said an executive who wished to remain anonymous because they were not authorized to speak with the media. “The customer numbers have been ugly for a long time and are getting worse. Our recently retired customers who have had DSL and voice service with us since the 1990s are disconnecting because some have gone with Spectrum and others are moving out of the area. Some of these customers hate Spectrum and won’t do business with them no matter the price, but we are losing their business anyway when they move out of state.”

The Rochester executive noted Frontier has an impossible job trying to sell its internet and voice products against Charter Spectrum.

“Their offers are $40 a month for 100 Mbps internet and $10 for unlimited local and long-distance calls,” the executive noted. “Ours costs nearly $30 just for the phone line after taxes and fees, and how can you sell someone DSL that delivers less than 6 Mbps to many parts of a market still served by copper trunk lines to a central office several miles away? They also find out they have to lease our modem at an additional fee and there are other fees in the contract many customers have learned to look for. Answer: you can’t.”

A Frontier executive in Ohio shared a similar story.

“We hold our own in our rural markets where we can offer a customer better than dial-up internet, and our service is very good if you live in an area where we expanded broadband thanks to FCC subsidies. Some of these new areas are even served by fiber,” the executive explained. “The problem with this is fewer people live in rural areas and these places cost a lot more to maintain when we dispatch service crews or have to run new cable. For Frontier to be truly successful, we have to get better internet service into our larger older markets, but that means pulling copper off poles and putting up fiber and there is just no interest from the higher ups to spend the money to do this. So instead the company bought new territories to keep revenue numbers up, but we are also quickly losing many of those customers to cable too. I really don’t know what we will do when wireless companies offer 5G internet.”

Some Frontier bondholders recognize Frontier must reduce its debt to have the financial resources to expand fiber service. Others want the company to shed its legacy copper service areas (while keeping FiOS/U-verse enabled markets) either to regional companies willing to invest in upgrades or to hedge funds that would likely ring whatever remaining value still exists out of these abandoned service areas. Some suspect these hedge funds would also load up the spinoff companies with even greater debt to facilitate dividend payouts and other investor-friendly rewards.

It will be up to state and federal regulators to protect Frontier’s customers as the two emerging groups of conflicting bondholders angle to protect their investments, perhaps at the risk of reliable phone and internet service.

The Wall Street Journal:

One, including Elliott Management and Franklin Resources, pushed for an exchange of their bonds at a discount to their face value for new secured debt that would be paid before unsecured debt in a potential bankruptcy.

Still, bondholders including GoldenTree Asset Management have warned the company against doing such a swap since 2018, arguing it violated the terms of their bonds.

The company this week reached out to Houlihan Lokey, which represents a group of bondholders that includes GoldenTree—as well as JPMorgan Chase & Co., Oaktree Capital Management and Brigade Capital Management—to sign up to view a confidential restructuring proposal, a person familiar with the matter said. That group has yet to gather enough holders to form a majority, people familiar with the matter said.

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.

Frontier’s Repeated 911 Outages Worry West Virginia’s Panhandle Communities

Ohio and Marshall counties are located in West Virginia’s Panhandle region, sandwiched between the states of Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Emergency services officials in West Virginia’s Panhandle region are “scared” about Frontier Communications’ ability to provide reliable access to 911 after four outages in three months, and they are reaching out to the Federal Communications Commission and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) for help.

Public officials in Ohio and Marshall counties, sandwiched between the Ohio and Pennsylvania borders near Wheeling, are increasingly concerned Frontier may be no longer able to provide reliable basic service in the region.

“I’ve got to be honest with you. It scares the heck out of me,” Theresa Russell, Ohio County’s 911 director, told WTRF News. “I worry that after these types of incidents occur, I’m going to find out that somebody needed us and they had no way of getting through.”

Two recent outages occurred around midnight, one of which Frontier later said was a “planned outage.” But local officials claim Frontier never notified affected communities, preventing them from giving the public an alternate number to call in case of an emergency.

The other outages were unplanned, one impacting nine West Virginia counties that lasted well over an hour.

Frontier officials have increasingly responded to these outages by stressing the economic difficulties it faces serving remote areas in states where it is costly to provide service. In a statement, Frontier told the TV station that it “takes its commitment to serve West Virginians and support 911 services seriously.”

Frontier:

“Frontier provides service in the most rural areas of West Virginia where other providers choose not to invest to deliver service and where the challenges of remoteness are greatest. We work to promptly address service interruptions that occur from time-to-time because of severe weather events, vehicle accidents, third party construction damage to our facilities and other causes.

“We continue to evaluate and execute strategies to improve our service and ensure our customers have access to reliable and affordable service.”

WTRF-TV reports West Virginia’s Panhandle region is frightened about Frontier’s repeated 911 service outages. (1:36)

Justice Dept. Ready to Approve T-Mobile/Sprint Merger

The Justice Department has helped engineer an approvable merger deal between T-Mobile and Sprint that will get antitrust regulators’ blessings as early as tomorrow, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal.

The sticking point that held up merger approval for weeks was the divestiture of certain wireless assets to Dish Network, which claims it will temporarily use Sprint and T-Mobile’s wireless networks to offer a new nationwide “fourth option” for cell phone service. Dish’s new cell phone service will come from a $1.4 billion acquisition of prepaid carrier Boost Mobile, which currently relies on reselling Sprint’s 4G network. Dish would inherit Boost’s nine million customers. Dish will also be able to lease access to T-Mobile and Sprint’s existing wireless networks for up to seven years while it builds out its own network of cell towers. The deal also includes a guarantee that Dish can pay $3.6 billion to acquire 800 MHz wireless licenses held by Sprint.

The Justice Department claims that lower frequency spectrum will allow Dish to service rural communities, assuming Dish is willing to invest in cell tower construction in high cost, low return areas.

Regulators in the Trump Administration’s Justice Department claim shaving assets from a super-sized T-Mobile will preserve the competition that will be lost when Sprint becomes a part of T-Mobile. But Dish will emerge as a miniscule player with only a fraction of the 100+ million customers that AT&T and Verizon have, and at least 80 million customers signed with T-Mobile. One of the core arguments T-Mobile and Sprint made in favor of their merger was that each was too small to afford to deploy 5G service quickly and efficiently. Dish will have even less money to build out a basic 4G wireless network.

Another merger requirement for the combined T-Mobile and Sprint will be mandatory support for eSIM, which allows consumers to change wireless carriers quickly without investing in a physical SIM card. But that requirement will not impact AT&T or Verizon Wireless, which both continue to push physical SIM cards on the much larger customer bases.

If the Justice Department does publicly approve the merger, the last hurdle the wireless companies will have to overcome is a multi-state lawsuit filed by attorneys general that argue the merger will impact low-income customers and is anti competitive. That court case is unlikely to be heard until late fall at the earliest.

CNBC’s David Faber reports that T-Mobile and Sprint have settled with the Department of Justice to go through with their merger deal. (6:14)

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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