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New Owner Ziply Fiber Moves Quickly to Overhaul Frontier’s Network in Pacific Northwest

Even with the threat of COVID-19 and a virtual nationwide work-from-home initiative, the new owners of Frontier Communications’ network in Washington, Oregon, Montana and Idaho are moving rapidly to repair persistent network issues, create a backup network, and lay the foundation to bring fiber to the home service to 85% of its customers over the next three years.

Ziply Fiber of Kirkland, Wash., formerly known as Northwest Fiber, acquired the Frontier Communications service areas in the Pacific Northwest just as Frontier itself was on the verge of declaring bankruptcy. It will waste little time upgrading Frontier’s copper wire network to get fiber service to customers fast.

“After Frontier bought Verizon’s landlines and FiOS networks in Washington and Oregon in 2010, it felt like the last decade was a phone company driving in neutral,” said Dale Prescott, a FiOS customer in Washington State. “You could feel Frontier never wanted to spend any money out here. It was like they were a caretaker of Verizon’s network, and while we got some service improvements here and there, Frontier also took away a lot too.”

Service reliability suffered, especially in areas that remained served by copper over the last decade. Customers reported lengthy outages and waiting times for repairs, and DSL speeds were actually reduced in some areas because deteriorating network infrastructure could no longer support earlier, faster speeds. In a decade of service, Frontier only managed to provide fiber connections to about 33% of its customers, the vast majority of it acquired from Verizon.

“Frontier never invested much in its network, and what it did invest seemed mostly to keep the lines from falling off the poles,” Prescott said. “Businesses got slightly better service when Frontier boosted its fiber capacity, primarily to serve commercial customers. But if you lived in the sticks, your service got worse over time, not better.”

Ziply Fiber plans to change that experience with a promise to regulators to spend about $500 million overhauling Frontier’s network in the region. Most of that spending will be devoted to upgrading customers to fiber optics. Just a few weeks after closing on its acquisition of Frontier landlines, Ziply told residents in 13 communities to expect fiber upgrades that began this spring. The majority long suffered with Frontier DSL, often at speeds as low as 3 Mbps.

Among the first towns to get fiber service are Kellogg, Moscow, and Coeur d’Alene — all in Idaho. Work has already commenced and is expected to be finished by fall. Ziply wants to keep construction costs as low as possible, so it intends to do aerial deployment of fiber by wrapping the optical cable around existing copper wire telephone cables already on the pole. This process, known as “overlashing” will simplify installation by not requiring additional space to place fiber cables next to existing telephone wiring or going to the effort of removing the existing copper wiring, which raises costs.

Overlashing has met with some controversy, however. Telephone companies are strongly in favor of allowing the process for optical fiber installation because they rarely need permission or costly permits from utility pole owners, often electric utilities. Opposition comes primarily from some electric companies, which claim overlashing can make existing installations “unsafe” by placing too much weight on existing wiring, which may have been installed decades earlier. Those electric utilities also stand to make money from forcing companies to seek new permits for placing fiber on poles, and that permission does not come free of charge.

Fiber customers will be able to select internet plans up to 1,000 Mbps. Enhanced DSL service in some areas is available at speeds up to 115 Mbps, but most of these service areas will probably be served by fiber to the home service, eventually.

Ziply Fiber Upgrade Projects (May, 2020)

  • Washington—Anacortes, Kennewick, Pullman, Richland and Snohomish
  • Oregon—Coquille, Coos Bay, La Grande, North Bend
  • Idaho—Coeur d’Alene, Kellogg, Moscow
  • Montana—Libby

To further speed fiber upgrades, Ziply acquired Wholesail Networks, already contracted to manage fiber network design for Ziply. Company officials quickly identified multiple weak spots in Frontier’s network, particularly relating to its resiliency when fiber cables were cut or copper wiring was stolen. Ziply is building in network redundancy, with each portion of its network served by at least two sets of fiber cabling and identical equipment in each of more than 130 central switching offices. In many markets, Ziply will maintain at least three redundant fiber connections to make certain if one (or two) networks go down, customers can still be served by a third with no interruption in service.

Ziply is also avoiding the usual nightmares customers experience when switching between one company’s systems to another. Frontier’s customers suffered significantly from a cutover from Verizon’s operations and billing systems, which often left them disconnected or mis-billed. To prevent that from happening again, Ziply literally cloned Frontier’s existing back office systems, so customers won’t experience any “cutover” problems.

Ziply executives have been candid about the network they are acquiring. They told regulators the network was in reasonably good condition in some places, but not all. Ziply promised to fix the network weak spots, resolve customer repair orders at least two-thirds faster than Frontier did, and make comparatively broader investments in network operations. Analysts predict Ziply has a better chance of success than Frontier did, primarily because Frontier’s operations were mired in debt, making new investment in network upkeep and upgrades difficult.

Spectrum Upgrades Standard Speed Plan to 200/10 Mbps in Central Florida and South Texas

Spectrum internet customers in parts of Central Florida and South Texas are getting twice the download speed they used to receive thanks to a series of quiet service upgrades still in progress.

Customers in parts of suburban Orlando, including Seminole County, first noticed the speed upgrade in April in towns like Lake Mary. Parts of Kissimmee saw a service upgrade earlier this month. Some neighborhoods in Orlando also began reporting speed upgrades as of mid-May. Some parts of Pasco County, north of Tampa, also received a 200 Mbps upgrade, particularly in planned communities.

Charter Communications is gradually upgrading capacity in the area, formerly served by Bright House Networks. Spectrum traditionally does not announce speed upgrades until an entire service area is complete, which will likely happen in parts of Florida and Texas by early this summer.

In South Texas, San Benito is one of the communities between Brownsville and McAllen seeing Spectrum’s usual download speed doubled from 100 to 200 Mbps.

The speed upgrades come without any additional charges and usually appear automatically. Spectrum has been slowly upgrading its national service footprint to offer the new, higher-speed 200 Mbps Standard service tier. For more than two years, customers in many AT&T landline areas in the midwest and south have had 200/10 Mbps service, designed to help keep the cable company competitive with AT&T’s fiber offering. But service remains stubbornly fixed at 100/10 Mbps in just under half of Spectrum’s service area, particularly in the Northeast, mid-Atlantic, and West regions.

Stop the Cap! expects Spectrum to upgrade all of its service areas to provide 200/10 Mbps service. It remains uncertain exactly when that will happen, however.

Comcast Expanding Fiber Across Its Service Areas in Preparation for DOCSIS 4.0

Some Comcast customers are receiving notifications their service may be briefly interrupted as a result of ongoing network enhancements:

As you can imagine, customers are using our services more than usual, and in certain neighborhoods we are adding capacity to improve our network and your service now. Your area has been identified as a location that will benefit from network improvements, which is why it’s necessary for us to complete the work at this time, so you’ll continue to connect and enjoy the services you expect.

We are installing more fiber throughout our network by replacing some coaxial cable with fiber lines. This will include some construction in your neighborhood and will cause some intermittent interruptions to your service during the day.

In the future, we’ll be able to offer you even more reliable service, greater network capacity and more gig speeds to more homes down the line. This means more downloading, more streaming and more gaming.

Comcast is currently preparing its network for full duplex DOCSIS 4.0 service by adopting “node plus zero” network architecture, which in plainer terms means removing signal amplifiers from existing lines and replacing a significant percentage of its copper coaxial cable infrastructure with fiber optics. The fiber network upgrades are reportedly bringing more consistent and faster internet speed on a more reliable network as soon as the switch is complete. Most customers won’t see fiber cables replacing the current cable line coming into their homes, however. The upgrade is mostly taking place on utility poles and, in some places, underground as Comcast replaces copper wiring with optical fiber cables.

Sometime next year, Comcast is expected to start adopting Full Duplex DOCSIS (FDX) 4.0, the newest cable broadband standard, capable of bringing identical upload and download speeds to customers. It is the only major American cable operator to favor FDX, which will place upstream and downstream traffic on the same block of cable spectrum. Other cable operators including Charter Spectrum, Cox, and Mediacom will support Extended Spectrum DOCSIS (ESD) 4.0, which is expected to be cheaper to deploy and will continue to keep downstream and upstream traffic confined to separate frequency bands, albeit larger ones capable of delivering much faster speeds.

 

10% of Homes Now Exceed Comcast/AT&T/Cox’s 1 TB Usage Cap; Average Use Now 402.5 GB

Note that data usage is slightly higher for users with “flat rate billing (FRB)” plans vs. those stuck with “usage-based billing (UBB).” (Source: OpenVault)

A record 10 percent of U.S. households now exceed 1 TB of data usage per month, putting some customers at risk of overlimit fees for exceeding data allowances that are usually enforced by AT&T, Comcast, Cox, and other telecom companies. Those caps are temporarily suspended because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

OpenVault, which collects average data usage from several service providers, reports a dramatic increase in the number of homes it designates as “power users” that consume at least 1 TB of data each month. In the first quarter of 2019, 4.2% of customers regularly exceeded 1 TB of usage. During the same period this year, that number shot up 138% to 10% of customers. “Extreme power users” that consume 2+ TB of data increased a record 215% from just one year ago, now representing 1.2% of broadband households. Last year it was 0.38%.

Overall total broadband usage across all users increased 47% in the first quarter of 2020, reaching an average of 402.5 GB a month. But that number mostly comprises average usage before the COVID-19 pandemic forced many to work from home. OpenVault originally predicted in January 2020 that monthly usage would reach 425 GB by the end of 2020. But with most Americans sheltering at home, measurements now suggest average broadband usage already exceeds that, reaching a record high of 460 GB in April.

“Nearly all the growth in broadband usage we would have expected for 2020 has now been achieved in the first quarter, with much of it concentrated in the last two weeks of the quarter,” OpenVault reported.

Despite usage growth, broadband providers in the United States are universally confident their networks are more than capable of sustaining the increased traffic. In fact, many providers report a spike in new customers, upgrades to higher speed tiers, and at least one — Spectrum, is confident enough of its network capacity to give away two months of broadband service to households with school-age children for free.

NCTA–The Internet & Television Association reports the biggest increases in broadband traffic are occurring on the upstream side, likely because of video teleconferencing. Although downstream traffic also spiked after the pandemic forced many businesses to close their offices, that traffic has flattened out and most recently has even decreased slightly.

Source: NCTA

Broadband providers may have lost key arguments to support reimposing data allowances and usage caps after the pandemic eases. Not only have broadband networks managed dramatic spikes in traffic with no significant difficulties, there are no signs of any “data tsunamis” in the future, even as broadband usage growth exceeds predictions. NCTA reports that 99.8% of the time broadband providers had “ample” or “excess” capacity available, not only to sustain current traffic levels but also potential future spikes in traffic. Peak traffic usage reaching levels where reduced capacity was available was identified just 0.2% of the time, causing a “minor impact on performance and customer experience.”

The current crisis is likely to bring a flood of new revenue to many broadband companies, even without usage overlimit fees. Since the pandemic began, OpenVault reports a 3.75% growth in premium-priced gigabit speed upgrades, up 97% from the same time last year.  In the New York City area, gigabit service subscriptions at Altice/Optimum increased 56% as many workers began to telecommute.

The biggest challenge the cable broadband industry faces as a result of this year’s usage growth is a need to accelerate plans already under development to increase upload speeds. Much of the recent traffic growth came from upstream traffic, which is cable broadband’s biggest Achilles’ Heel. Cable broadband networks devote most available bandwidth to downloads, with only a small fraction devoted to upload speed. Cable companies are expected to modestly increase upload speeds in a few months and will eventually deploy the next DOCSIS standard, supporting far faster upload speeds, beginning sometime next year.

Frontier’s Network is Falling Apart in West Virginia; Audit Finds Company Needs to Improve Maintenance

Frontier provides service to all but around a half dozen communities in West Virginia.

A comprehensive independent audit of Frontier Communications operations in West Virginia found the phone company is not keeping up with network maintenance, causing increased service problems for the company’s customers.

The significantly redacted 164-page report produced by Schumaker and Company found plenty of room for improvement for Frontier’s landline and broadband services.

The report was commissioned under order by the West Virginia Public Service Commission after the regulator received almost 2,000 customer complaints about Frontier’s service. The PSC’s demand for an audit also received the support of over 700 Frontier customers in the state.

Despite several redactions, the report offers clues about the quality of Frontier’s infrastructure for landline and internet services in West Virginia.

Frontier provides service for all but a half dozen localities in the state. Because of West Virginia’s mountainous topology, significant portions of the state do not receive adequate cellular service, making wired landlines still an essential safety tool in some areas. Despite that, Frontier’s relatively poor performance has driven away a significant number of its customers. Some subscribe to cable phone service, but most now depend on cell phones.

A Frontier crossbox in use in West Virginia.

The PSC allowed Frontier to offer a redacted public version of the auditor’s report after Frontier cited confidential business information and the Commission’s lack of regulatory oversight over the company’s DSL internet service. The redactions were substantial, blotting out significant information such as the age of Frontier’s network and equipment in different corners of the state, the condition of the company’s large number of utility poles, outage statistics, budgeting and investment numbers, repair programs, and basic information about the company’s employees and its broadband service offerings. The PSC staff filed its own recommendation that such redactions be rejected, noting Frontier is the unique carrier of last resort in West Virginia, with no competitor likely to attempt similar service. Staff members also claimed the telecom industry would find data specific to West Virginia not very useful elsewhere.

Despite the redactions, it is easy to deduce Frontier has a significant problem. Its copper landline network is gradually succumbing to a lack of regular maintenance, which can cause prolonged service degradation and outages. The audit specifically cites Frontier’s growing challenges dealing with a copper wire network that has been on utility poles for decades. Some wiring is likely to have been installed during the Johnson or Nixon Administration. The audit found that previous owner Verizon embarked on two significant copper line replacement programs, one in 1974 and the other in 1983 — 46 and 37 years ago, respectively. No large scale replacements have been undertaken since.

Phone companies like Frontier have been losing landline customers for years. The audit estimated that “more than half (57%) of American homes only have wireless communications. The displacement is even more pronounced when viewed through the prism of demographics. Over three quarters (76.5%) of young adults (aged 25-34) live in homes with only wireless connections.” In 2018, Frontier told the PSC 37 percent of its access lines were permanently disconnected between 2010 and 2017, bringing the number of customers down from 613,443 to 385,832. A 2017 Center for Health Statistics study found that roughly 53 percent of all West Virginia adults use wireless services exclusively, while another 10 percent use wireless services most of the time, with almost 22 percent of West Virginia adults still using landline services exclusively or most of the time. Frontier holds on to a larger percentage of customers than that with the sale of its rural DSL internet service.

Frontier heavily redacted the independent audit about its performance.

Frontier’s largest service problems result from its indefinite reliance on splicing damaged or degraded line pairs servicing individual customers. With fewer customers, the company has more choices of alternative line pairs it can use to restore service for customers affected by service interruptions. The audit found many line splices were decades old and often were responsible for eventual larger scale service outages, especially when repairs were inadequately completed exposing the entire cable to the elements. The audit also found no formal tree trimming operation was in place at the company, which meant trees inevitably overgrew into the company’s lines. In storms, trees can disrupt service by blowing into cables or even tearing wires off utility poles. The report also noted that technicians often drove around and spotted network defects and other problems likely to eventually cause service outages, but there was no formal reporting and mitigation strategy, which often left repairs delayed for months or years.

Frontier is also facing a talent flight, as network engineers that have serviced the lines since they were operated by Verizon are preparing to retire in large numbers. That could create even greater problems as inexperienced new technicians unfamiliar with the state of Frontier’s network gradually replace them.

Despite these problems, the auditors found Frontier was still earning a healthy amount of revenue in West Virginia. Oddly, that assertion was hotly disputed by Frontier itself, claiming that conclusion was “flatly wrong” and it had been losing money in the state every year since 2012.

“The auditors did not properly account for pensions, post-employment healthcare, and other benefits paid by Frontier nor for interest costs on the money Frontier borrowed to invest in West Virginia,” wrote Allison Ellis, Frontier’s senior vice president of regulatory affairs. “When those expenses are taken into account, it is clear that Frontier has invested more in the state than it has recouped.”

Auditors recommend that Frontier establish a more robust network engineering effort, aggressively repairing line issues before they become apparent to customers and improving its reporting systems to track service problems from start to finish. It also recommended increasing the amount of fiber in the network to reduce service issues and maintenance expenses and allow for better internet speeds. Finally, it recommends customers receive additional compensation for repeated service outages.

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