A fully unredacted version of an audit of the state’s main privately-run, state-regulated landline provider was made public by a science and technology website Thursday, indicating the phone company faces a serious shrinking customer and revenue base in the Mountain state.
According to Ars Technica, the audit was improperly redacted and all information was visible after copying and pasting the text into a separate document.
The audit was publicly available until recently on the West Virginia Public Service Commission’s website, which indicated the improperly redacted report was “submitted by Frontier,” the phone company at the focus of the audit.
“Frontier operates in a competitive industry and, therefore, took steps as permitted by law to protect its competitively sensitive information,” company spokesman Javier Mendoza said in an email Thursday evening. “Frontier is investigating whether there was an error in the redaction, filing or copying process of the report.”
Blacked out information included the company’s worst performing areas, workforce concerns, the age of its network, a huge drop in customers and a dour glimpse at the company’s poorly performing internet services in West Virginia.
Frontier was permitted to file a redacted version of the more-than-160-page audit, which was completed by a third-party firm, on March 25, after submitting a confidential, unredacted version of the document to Public Service Commission a week earlier.
Commissioners ordered an investigation nearly two years ago and selected auditing firm Schumaker & Company in August 2019.
Company attorneys stated Frontier redacted the audit because it wanted to protect “trade secrets” and any other information that competitors could use to take business and revenue from the telecommunications group.
West Virginia Public Broadcasting filed a Freedom of Information Act request on April 2, requesting the commission make the information publicly available.
The commission asked Frontier to comment, and staff then replied to WVPB’s FOIA request on Thursday, saying the commission needs time to “deliberate, decide and issue an order” regarding Frontier’s request to maintain a redacted, public report.
The commission’s executive secretary said she anticipates the commission will issue an order to Frontier, regarding the matter, soon.
Frontier is supposed to respond to the report by April 20, and share a plan for how it will address issues identified in the report.
As of Friday morning, the improperly redacted version of the report was no longer available on the Public Service Commission’s website.
Frontier Hid Issues With Weak Points, Shrinking Customer Base, Internet Services
According to the report, the copper cable network is more than 49,000 miles long. It was built to serve 2 million customers, but the redacted version of the report shows the company only has around 300,000 people now.
Since Frontier acquired roughly 600,000 new access lines from Verizon, the state’s former main provider, in 2010, the report shows Frontier had lost roughly 37 percent of its total customers by 2017.
Landline phones are not the most popular nor lucrative telecommunications option – in 2017, the federal National Center for Health Statistics reported roughly 53 percent of West Virginia adults were using wireless services exclusively, while only 22 percent of West Virginia adults were using landline services exclusively or most of the time.
For West Virginians without reliable access to cellular services, landline phones are still vital for local businesses, daily use and emergency response. The Communications Workers of America, AFL-CIO, a union representing Frontier field employees, noted this in March 2018, when the group requested the Public Service Commission order an investigation into Frontier’s maintenance of its landline network.
"CWA started this process because of the condition of the copper plant and problems with service quality,” said Edward Mooney, vice president of the regional CWA district, in a written statement to WVPB in March. “In a state like West Virginia, the copper network is a critical portion of the telecommunications system for people and businesses. It is a network that requires investment in both people and its infrastructure.”
Almost half the network is 36 to 47 years old. There are roughly 952,000 areas of the network that are susceptible to “moisture, corrosion, loose connections, etc. that may cause interruptions of service to customers,” according to the report.
The report notes a higher trouble reporting rate in its southern coverage area. Generally, the network performs better in the northern part of the state.
Although auditors said the company has a sufficient number of staff now, redacted lines in the report said Frontier is slated to lose 50 percent of its experienced field employees over the next five years, due to retirement. Schumaker & Company, the private auditing firm that wrote the report, recommend the company come up with a plan to find and train more people soon.
Auditors also recommended the company take on more original maintenance projects – according to the report, Frontier is not doing enough preventative maintenance work on its copper cable network for landline phones in West Virginia.
While the West Virginia Public Service Commission regulates landline rates and services, the commission has not been given authority by the state Legislature to have a say in broadband services.
Frontier cited this as a reason to redact all portions of the audit detailing the company’s efforts to sell internet offerings in West Virginia. Staff for the commission recommended making that information public on March 31, noting a “large amount of comments from impacted customers throughout the state of West Virginia” involved “Frontier’s provisioning of internet services throughout the state and the speeds of internet service provided.”
Redacted portions included that Frontier is not offering broadband over fiber to end users in West Virginia, meaning its broadband speeds are limited to DSL speeds.
“While both companies present a high “availability” for their broadband, speeds are relatively slow and customers have complained about the speed and the reliability of the service,” according to redacted parts of the audit. “Frontier, like many local exchange companies, continues to lose telephone and broadband customers to other providers.”
The audit also stated that between December 2010 and December 2017, Frontier lost 1,000 broadband customers a month since April 2017.
Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member.
Editors Note: The current story image replaces a previous image of foreign power lines.