National ISPs with millions of customers are some of the most hated companies in the U.S. Poor customer service, contract tricks, and a refusal to upgrade services are only a few of the common complaints from subscribers who are often trapped due to lack of competition. Frontier Communications is proudly carrying on that tradition of deficiency in Minnesota. In fact, the company’s excellence at skullduggery has drawn the attention of the state’s Public Utilities Commission (PUC), which launched an investigation into the service quality of Frontier this spring.
So Much Going On Here
While many of us are used to some level of poor service when it comes to the big ISPs, Frontier in Minnesota accumulated so many complaints, the PUC felt they had no choice but to take action. According to Phil Dampier from Stop the Cap!, the Commission received 439 complaints and negative comments in a five-week period in early 2018. Some but not all, of the types of issues that subscribers described included:
- Lack of telephone service for up to a week at a time.
- Poor quality telephone service, including missed calls and noise on phone lines.
- Subscribers charged for services they’re not receiving.
- Service visits that accomplish nothing but for which customers are still charged.
- Missed service appointments and long delays in getting repairs scheduled.
- Mistaken disconnections, service additions customers did not ask for, and service errors.
- Contract issues that include penalties for early termination, even if the subscriber told Frontier they did not want a long term contract.
- Auto-renew contracts that customers were never told about.
- Threats to customers’ credit if they don’t pay bills, even when there is a dispute regarding the charges.
- Customer service promises of discounts not being applied, penalties on disputed bill totals, and checks sent to Frontier but not credited to subscribers’ accounts.
The PUC wanted to hold public hearings to seek out other information from subscribers and those who had previous dealings with Frontier. In order to limit the public spectacle, Frontier and CenturyLink filed comments arguing that the PUC had no authority to review Frontier’s performance. They claimed that the PUC was aiming to regulate Internet access and that such regulation was preserved for federal jurisdiction. The Minnesota PUC could not extend the conversation beyond landline telephone service, lawyers for the two companies argued.
As Dampier points out, the ironically titled “Restoring Internet Freedom Order” of January 8th gave CenturyLink and Frontier the ability to confidently press their argument:
That FCC Order swept away former FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler’s favored classification of broadband as a ‘telecommunications service,’ which is subject to oversight, and instead put it firmly back in unregulated territory as an ‘information service.’
CenturyLink could then argue that state and local “patchwork” regulation was meant to be preempted by federal law and “[t]he FCC expressly preempted any ‘public utility-type’ regulations, . . . akin to those found in Title II of the Act and its implementing rules . . .”
Just Say It
During the process leading up to the hearings, the PUC and attorneys for Frontier couldn’t agree on language for the notice of the hearings. Frontier wanted the notice to include some language referring to the jurisdictional issue. In an effort to be accommodating, the PUC allowed Frontier to draft a proposed notice that would have been included in subscribers' bills. Frontier pushed too far, however, drafting language that couldn’t get past the Attorney General’s office, even after multiple attempts. Rather than continue the charade that Frontier could draft a notice that was not shamelessly slanted, the PUC chose to do it themselves.
So Many Stories
Over the years, we’ve encountered many instances in which residential and business subscribers have had similar problems with Frontier. In addition to the same issues rural business and residential subscribers face, local municipalities and new entrants have had problems with the company.
In places where community leaders or new entrants have taken steps to improve connectivity with their own investment, Frontier has taken the time to derail projects, even though they can’t take the time to provide better service. Most recently in 2016, when local company Woodstock Communications applied for a Minnesota Border-to-Border Broadband Program grant, Frontier delayed the project by asserting their right of first refusal. Back in 2012, Frontier also delayed the Lake County municipal broadband project over pole ownership issues. Frontier has increased the cost and interrupted momentum for new projects by perfecting the delay tactic.
Frontier has also collected an impressive collection of complaints over the decades. While the most recent assortment is from Minnesota, other states with large swaths of rural regions have endured Frontier’s usual behavior, leaving a wake of complaints behind. In North Carolina, local media investigated.
One brutally honest Frontier technician summed up the company’s attitude toward subscribers, an incident recounted by Minnesota’s Roger Wikstrom:
“We have had Frontier service for 32 years. Beginning about 20 years ago we added internet service, which has always been unreliable. […]We complained many times and had dozens of service calls over the years. At one point, the technician told us we were out in the country, the brass at Frontier did not really care about our service, and that if we wanted good service from Frontier, we should move to town.”
The Minnesota PUC has moved beyond the flap over the language of the notice of the hearings and scheduled five public hearings in Greater Minnesota. Specific locations have yet to be determined, but dates and times are set:
- Ely September 4, 2018, at 6:00 p.m.
- McGregor September 5, 2018, at 6:00 p.m.
- Wyoming September 12, 2018, at 6:00 p.m.
- Slayton September 25, 2018, at 6:00 p.m.
- Lakeville September 26, 2018, at 2:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m
If you’re a Frontier subscriber and, whether you’ve received the notice of these hearings or not, you probably have something interesting to share with the Commissioners.
Image of the Minnesota State Capitol by McGhiever [CC BY-SA 4.0], from Wikimedia Commons.