Even after the information was made public earlier this month by a science and technology magazine, a debate continues in the West Virginia Public Service Commission as to whether commissioners should make fully public a lengthy audit into state’s main landline provider.
A third-party auditing firm completed its investigation into Frontier Communications and its two West Virginia subsidiaries in March, regarding the quality and management of the private company’s publicly regulated copper cable network for landline phones.
Frontier also offers internet services using its copper network, a service that's not regulated by the state.
Frontier attorneys submitted the audit confidentially to the PSC on March 18 and filed a redacted version for the public a week later.
Nearly a week after West Virginia Public Broadcasting filed a Freedom of Information Act request to the commission, asking commissioners to release the full report, a journalist for Ars Technica found Frontier’s public version of the audit was improperly redacted, revealing physical characteristics related to the more-than 49,000 mile copper cable network, and its roughly 952,000 weak points.
Frontier also had redacted its low number of DSL customers (175,000), problems with that service’s speed, and a large gap between the 2 million customers the company's infrastructure is capable of serving, and the roughly 300,000 landline customers the company actually has.
PSC staff called the Ars Technica report an “unfortunate disclosure” in public documents filed April 17 to the commission. In those same documents staff advocated for the commission to release the information on its own accord to WVPB, in response to the FOIA request.
Staff previously recommended the commission reject Frontier’s redactions on March 31, a week after Frontier filed its redacted version of the audit for the public.
“For the public to understand why Frontier is struggling to provide quality service it must know the magnitude of Frontier’s system,” staff wrote in their more recent April 17 recommendation, regarding WVPB’s request for the unredacted audit. “The sheer size of its copper network, the number of poles, switches, batteries, splices, etc. all contribute to Frontier’s poor quality of service.”
Although the redacted information already is publicly available online, staff’s recommendations to share the data highlights a greater debate regarding the commission’s authority to regulate various aspects of Frontier, and other utilities in general.
When information related to Frontier’s internet service was redacted, the company stated it deserved protective treatment because the commission doesn’t have the authority to regulate broadband.
Staff argued that Frontier agreed to conditions related to broadband offerings when it acquired hundreds of thousands of access lines previously belonging to Verizon in 2010.
Frontier reported to the commission in 2018 it had successfully made broadband offerings available to at least 85% of the former Verizon service area, according to staff, who went on to add “complaints and comments filed with the Commission ... claim a different story.”
“Frontier cannot claim a customer has broadband service if the speed is too slow to effectively use the service for its stated purpose or if the service is unavailable due to problems with the copper network, batteries, etc.,” staff wrote.
Public Service Commission staff also noted that much of the redacted information in the audit regarding the company's number of customers and Frontier’s investment strategies already is included in other public and closed filings, making the redactions unnecessary.
In an email on Saturday, Frontier spokesman Javier Mendoza said the company “operates in a competitive industry and, therefore, took steps as permitted by law to protect its competitively sensitive information.” The company will reply to the entire audit on April 30, after filing Chapter 11 bankruptcy and receiving an extension from the Public Service Commission.
Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member.