ILSR Challenges Frontier's Attempt to Block Rural Broadband Upgrades

Late last month, we reported on Frontier Communications’ claim that it now offers broadband in 17,000 rural census blocks in an effort to remove those areas from the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC’s) upcoming rural broadband funding program. At the time, we expressed concerns that the provider may be exaggerating Internet speeds, and after publishing that article, we heard from Frontier subscribers, local officials, and private companies who shared their own doubts over the accuracy of the company’s reporting.

Earlier today, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance filed comments with the FCC to draw attention to Frontier’s questionable claims. “We are concerned that Frontier may have overstated its capacity to actually deliver the claimed services in many areas,” the comments read.

We call on the FCC to either investigate or to simply refuse Frontier’s disputable claims to ensure unserved rural areas aren’t prevented from receiving subsidies to expand broadband access. The comments argue:

Allowing Frontier to so remove hundreds of thousands of Americans from one of the most significant rural broadband programs in history would send a strong message that there is no claim too far that the Commission will be skeptical of . . . Frontier is all but inviting the Commission to make an example of it and serve notice that the Commission intends to ensure Americans in rural regions have real opportunities to connect rather than continuing to play games with bankrupt firms.

Download ILSR’s comments to the FCC at the agency's website or below.

Inconsistent Reports Raise a Red Flag

We have seen inconsistencies in Frontier’s past reports to the FCC on its broadband offerings, which the company is required to file twice a year. A few years ago, Frontier reduced reported speeds in a number of census blocks from 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload — the FCC’s minimum definition of broadband — to just below broadband speeds.

Our analysis of federal data shows that the 17,000 census blocks that the company recently reported as having access to broadband have seen similar inconsistencies. In December 2018, Frontier claimed that more than 3,000 of those blocks suddenly had broadband available but then 6 months later said that none of those blocks had access to broadband speeds. View the graph below to see how Frontier’s reporting of its advertised speeds in those census blocks has changed over time.

Graph of past reported speeds for Frontier's new broadband claims

We explain the implications of Frontier's new claim to offer broadband service in the light of the company's past reporting in our comments to the FCC:

Frontier’s filings of broadband service within the 16,987 blocks is not consistent. In Form 477 filings from Dec 2014 - June 2019, only 3590 or 21% of these blocks were filed at least once as having broadband coverage from Frontier. 13,397 or 79% of census blocks filed on April 10, 2020 would have had to have broadband installed since June 2019.

Frontier’s erratic reports to the FCC are, we believe, further evidence of the company’s incompetency and of the unlikeliness that it has expanded broadband to thousands of new census blocks within the last year.

We are not the only ones raising alarms over Frontier’s sudden claim, which follows years of failing to invest in its rural networks, investigations in several states (most recently in Minnesota, West Virginia, and Connecticut), and a still-fresh bankruptcy announcement. A comment to the FCC [pdf] submitted by the Buckeye Hills Regional Council in Ohio argues that Frontier is making “unfounded upward revisions of advertised speeds,” pointing out that other filings to the agency show that the company is only deploying networks capable of 10/1 Mbps. “In the pending challenge, Frontier asks the FCC to double down on the damage to rural America,” the Council writes.

Other comments from local and state agencies also expressed concern that other companies were misreporting broadband speeds and availability to keep the FCC from subsidizing broadband expansion in those areas. View PDFs of the comments from the Arkansas Attorney General, Moffat County in Colorado, and the Bootheel Regional Planning and Economic Development Commission in Missouri below.

FCC’s Unfounded Fear of Broadband Competition

Even if Frontier’s recent filing is accurate — meaning that at least one household in each of those 17,000-odd census blocks can now access 25/3 Mbps Internet speeds from the company — it’s clear that these rural communities are still woefully underserved.

Instead of focusing on expanding reliable, affordable, high-speed Internet access in as many rural areas as possible, the FCC is preoccupied with its fear of accidentally subsidizing broadband competition in a census block where perhaps only one resident has access to baseline connectivity. The complicated he-said-she-said discourse that dogs eligibility for rural broadband subsidies is a clear result of the agency’s reluctance to support true broadband competition and its protracted reliance on inaccurate data. Planned changes to the FCC’s data collection process should help solve one of those problems, but fixing the other may require more foundational shifts in the agency’s policies.

Read ILSR’s comments to the FCC and the other entities’ filings by downloading the PDFs below.