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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.

New York PSC Approves Settlement Deal With Charter Communications

The New York Public Service Commission on Thursday approved its final settlement proposal with Charter Communications in a 3-1 vote, allowing Spectrum to continue as the dominant cable operator in New York State.

The Commission rejected all recommended changes from consumer groups (including Stop the Cap!), industry trade associations, and service providers, preferring its own Settlement Agreement.

In July 2018, the PSC voted to rescind approval of the 2016 Merger Order that allowed Charter to assume control of Time Warner Cable franchise areas in New York. The Commission found that Charter had violated a key merger condition requiring the cable operator to expand its service area on a timely basis to reach 145,000 rural homes and businesses that lack broadband service. The Commission found Charter was attempting to count newly constructed condos and multi-dwelling units in the New York City area towards that commitment, which the Commission claimed violated the terms of the agreement. After Charter argued it had the legal standing to define its network buildout more broadly and on its own terms, the Commission held an emergency meeting where it took the unprecedented step of voting to de-certify the merger and throw the cable company out of New York.

The Commission and Charter’s lawyers began private negotiations almost immediately after the vote, signaling the Commission was amenable to settlement talks.

The final settlement approved last week, nearly one year after the vote, narrowly focuses on Charter’s rural broadband commitment, reaffirms and expands it with a new $12 million rural broadband fund paid for by Charter. The cable company also agreed to stop counting addresses in the New York City area towards it broadband expansion commitment, and will deposit a $2,800 payment to escrow for each address where Charter misses its target construction deadline.

“We’re pleased the PSC has approved the agreement, and we look forward to continuing to serve our customers and expanding the availability of high-speed broadband in New York State,” Andrew Russell, Charter spokesman told the (Albany) Times-Union. “We thank the PSC, Chairman Rhodes, the commissioners and staff for working with us throughout this process.”

The settlement details:

  • Charter will complete the expansion of its existing network to pass 145,000 addresses entirely in Upstate New York. This expansion will not include New York City addresses, which the company had previously planned to include in an earlier buildout plan. To date, Charter has passed approximately 65,000 of the required 145,000 addresses. To comply with the settlement, the Department estimates that the company will invest more than $600 million, more than double the public benefit value estimated by the Commission in its 2016 merger approval.
  • Charter’s expansion will be completed by September 30, 2021, in accordance with a schedule providing frequent interim enforceable milestone requirements, with corresponding reporting and accountability.
  • Charter will also pay $12 million for additional broadband expansion projects at locations to be selected by the Department of Public Service and the New York State Broadband Program Office. Of the $12 million payments, $6 million will be administered by the New York State Broadband Program Office and $6 million will be paid into an escrow fund for work that will be completed by Charter at the State’s direction.

In Rochester, Stop the Cap! was disappointed to learn the PSC had rejected recommendations on improving the settlement.

“We feel all New Yorkers have paid a price for this bad merger, including skyrocketing cable bills and a yet to be determined number of rural residents that will fall through the cracks and end up serviced by no one,” said Phillip Dampier, the group’s founder and president. “We applaud the PSC requiring Charter to serve additional rural households, but every customer should get better service from Charter, including the 200 Mbps download speed that customers in many other states receive, and there must be a better solution for low-income residents that don’t qualify for Spectrum’s restrictive Internet Assist program and cannot afford $65 a month for internet access.”

Stop the Cap! today also filed a clarification request with the PSC about Charter’s internet speed commitment.

“There seems to be confusion about exactly what internet speed Spectrum should be offering its New York customers,” Dampier added. “The PSC seems to imply Charter has not yet met its obligation to increase internet speed to 300 Mbps by the end of 2019, while Charter considers the fact it offers gigabit service as evidence it has completed all of its speed obligations to New York State regulators. We want the PSC to clarify if it still expects Charter to offer 300 Mbps as a base speed to customers by the end of this year or whether the mere availability of speeds at or above 300 Mbps (which Time Warner Cable was already offering a significant part of New York a year before the Charter merger) has satisfied this merger condition.”

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)

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