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W.Va. PSC Issues Preliminary Order In Frontier Landline Case

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Kara Lofton
/
WVPB

State regulators are ordering Frontier Communications to make some changes, more than two years after initiating an investigation into the company’s infrastructure for landline phones in West Virginia.

The West Virginia Public Service Commission issued an order on Wednesday, Sept. 16, requiring that the telecommunications company implement some of the recommended actions from an audit that was finalized in March.

The commission’s demands on Wednesday were preliminary. Frontier has 30 days to provide additional information that the PSC requested on Wednesday, before the commissioners release their final order.

“Frontier customers in this state remain plagued with service problems,” the commissioners wrote in the most recent filing. “[E]ven as the customer base – and the corresponding revenue – declines.” 

Some of the actions the PSC is seeking from Frontier, including a proactive tree-trimming program and initiatives to identify problem areas in Frontier’s antiquated copper network, are already underway, according to responses from the company included in the Wednesday order.

For other initiatives that Frontier previously called unnecessary, including one to make state-level capital budgets for Frontier’s two West Virginia companies more transparent, or another to deploy more fiber optic cable, the commission is asking that Frontier to provide information on what's holding the company back. 

PSC staff have received 1,342 informal and formal complaints regarding Frontier’s landline phone service in the last year, according to the agency.

Commissioners agreed to initiate a focused management audit into the company in August 2018 after a union representing Frontier employees filed a petition requesting action that March. 

Frontier had agreed to added regulation from the PSC in 2010, when acquiring the former Verizon territory.

An auditing firm that the PSC selected in July 2019 found that the company wasn’t doing enough preventative maintenance work. It also determined that Frontier faced a poor financial outlook due to the decline of landline phone use nationwide, and found that the company was slated to lose more than half of its experienced field employees in the next five years, due to retirement.

Although the PSC selected the auditing firm for Frontier, after earlier proposals from the company didn’t meet the PSC’s standards, Frontier was still financially responsible for the audit.

Frontier filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in April. The PSC is keeping tabs on the company's plans for new leadership, to make sure their subsidiaries in the Mountain State continue to comply with regulatory rules. The PSC plans to hold a hearing on the matter in Charleston on Oct. 28.

On Broadband

Although the West Virginia Public Service Commission doesn’t have the authority to regulate broadband, commissioners say that Frontier committed to offering internet-related services in 2010 when it acquired 600,000 access lines from Verizon. 

Auditors included information on broadband in the report – all of which Frontier was allowed to redact along with phone-related information Frontier classified as “trade secrets.” The PSC later disagreed with this categorization.

In April, a reporter for Ars Technica found that Frontier hadn’t completely redacted the report. By copying and pasting blacked out text in a clean word document, the redactions disappeared, showing that auditors had found more than 900,000 susceptible points in Frontier's copper network. 

The Public Service Commission later agreed more than four months later that Frontier had no legal authority to redact roughly half of the landline-related information that the company tried to hide. A new, less redacted version of the report was uploaded to the PSC website in August.

In the same month, the West Virginia Broadband Enhancement Council requested to intervene in the case. 

“[I]nternet access in West Virginia through Frontier is inextricably intertwined with Frontier's copper network,” the council wrote in a filing to the PSC in late August, earlier acknowledging that the company offers both internet and phone service through the same infrastructure. “Investments in broadband will help Frontier retain customers with bundled service, resulting in improvements in Frontier's telephone network, which is a major focus of the audit.”

The PSC decided on Wednesday that it would reject the council’s request, due to the fact that commissioners don’t have the authority to regulate broadband.

Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member.


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