REGIONAL— Frontier Communications has failed to provide adequate, reliable phone and Internet service to its Minnesota customers and should be required to refund or credit customers for service …
REGIONAL— Frontier Communications has failed to provide adequate, reliable phone and Internet service to its Minnesota customers and should be required to refund or credit customers for service outages and unauthorized charges.
The company also appears to have violated dozens of laws and rules and could be subject to hefty fines or even prosecution.
Those are among the findings and recommendations in a scathing investigative report released by the Minnesota Commerce Department on Jan. 4.
The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission ordered the investigation last year following reporting by the Timberjay, which had revealed widespread problems with the company’s service in northeastern Minnesota. As part of the investigation, the department and MPUC oversaw seven public hearings in September in regions of the state served by Frontier. Overall, state regulators received more than 1,000 public comments, some highly-detailed and documented.
The Department of Commerce report, which is over 500 pages in length, pulled few punches, and alleges that Frontier appears to be in violation of at least 35 separate laws and rules that the MPUC has authority to enforce.
The report also suggests the company could be subject to significant penalties for its actions. “The Minnesota legislature has provided a clear set of remedies to curb misconduct of rogue companies, ones who routinely, knowingly disregard the law and jeopardize the lives and well-being of Minnesotans, including hefty civil penalties and criminal prosecutions,” notes the report.
The department investigators are also recommending that Frontier be required to refund or credit customers for service outages and unauthorized charges. They are also recommending that the company be required to add staffing to improve customer service and to increase investments in repairing and upgrading its physical infrastructure and equipment.
“The findings in this investigation detail an extraordinary situation, where customers have suffered with outages of months, or more, when the law requires telephone utilities to make all reasonable efforts to prevent interruptions of service,” states the report. “Frontier customers with these outages include those with family members with urgent medical needs, such as pacemakers monitored by their medical teams via the customers’ landline. The alternatives and corrective measures available to the Commission all merit consideration.”
One of the cases of medical need cited in the report came from a Frontier customer in Eagles Nest Township.
A Frontier spokesperson took strong exception to the Commerce Department findings, which the company is still reviewing. “Frontier and its employees work hard to provide reliable, affordable telecommunications services to approximately 90,000 customers in Minnesota, many in rural communities where no other provider will invest in providing service,” said Javier Mendoza, vice president of corporate communications and external affairs. “Frontier recognizes we experience service issues and delays from time-to-time with some of our customers. We are an ethical company committed to our customers and the Minnesota communities we serve. We take this matter seriously and will respond appropriately before the Public Utilities Commission.”
The report highlights a situation in which state regulators may have acted too slowly in recent years to address a significant and systemic deterioration in the service provided by a regulated company. “The degradation of Frontier’s operations in Minnesota, while it was operating under an Alternative Form of Regulation plan, cannot quickly, or easily, be resolved,” notes the report. “Not only are there large numbers of serious violations, they are interrelated.”
For example, Commerce investigators noted that despite rules that require accurate record-keeping by regulated utilities, Frontier’s records were “so deficient” that the department could not rely on them to determine if the company was meeting its obligations. Investigators concluded it will take “significant, multi-step actions by the Commission to set Frontier on a path to reach an acceptable level of performance.” The investigators said the MPUC will need to ensure strict compliance with any orders it issues to the company and recommended that the commission not rely on Frontier’s own records, unless a company executive is willing to personally confirm their accuracy.
The Commerce report includes nearly 250 pages of public comments that investigators urged MPUC members to read, to give them “a better appreciation of the customer experience and how the lives of the individuals, families, small businesses and entire communities have, and continue to be, negatively affected by Frontier’s conduct.”
The report also highlights failures by Frontier to adequately maintain its own infrastructure. “Consumers reported many instances of staggering deficiencies in Frontier’s outside plant and its failure to repair reported damage or other problems with cable, poles, pedestals, and other infrastructure,” noted the report.
A union representative for Frontier’s technicians cited the company’s unwillingness to invest in proper updates and repairs. “Frontier’s lack of investment has led to deteriorating plant that is increasingly difficult for our technicians to maintain,” said Mark Doffing, President of Local 7270 of the Communications Workers of America. “As a result, our technicians are forced to jury-rig quick fixes because Frontier won’t repair or replace the damaged cables, poles, cabinets, other network infrastructure to ensure that customers receive the reliable, high-quality phone and Internet service that they are paying for,” Doffing added.
According to the report, the company was able to provide receipts showing just $605,000 in plant repair and rehabilitation over the past four years, an amount that Commerce investigators described as “extremely limited given the size of Frontier’s service territory and number of customers in Minnesota.”
While the complaints from Frontier customers were wide-ranging, several were frequently cited, including:
Frequent and lengthy service outages, including loss of customer access to 911 emergency services.
Delays in repairing and restoring service.
Failure to provide expedited responses to service outages affecting vulnerable customers with medical needs.
Failure to maintain and repair equipment, causing service outages and leading to public safety hazards such as lines and damaged equipment on the ground.
Frequent billing errors, including inaccurate and unauthorized charges.
Failure to provide refunds or bill credits for service outages.
Lack of timely, responsive customer service, including lengthy call wait times, inaccurate information and “lost” repair tickets.
Discriminatory practices such as prioritizing new service installations over repairs of existing service and providing slower repair services in rural areas compared to more populated areas.
With the findings and recommendations in the report, it’s now up to the MPUC to decide how to effectively address the wide-ranging problems revealed in the investigation. No date for that decision was available as of press time.