Investigation suggests ‘systemic’ problems with whole corporation
If investigators looking into complaints about Frontier Communication’s telephone service in Castle Valley are correct, Frontier has been struggling nationwide with its finances, possibly breaking Utah state law, evading questions from investigators and missing its deadlines.
The probe began after the Utah Division of Public Utilities said in July that it had become “concerned about the commitment to quality service exhibited by Frontier,” particularly in Castle Valley, following two complaints by local customers. Sorrel River Ranch on Highway 128 near Castle Valley filed one of the complaints; town resident Jayne May filed the other.
Frontier’s Vice President for Corporate Communications and External Affairs Javier Mendoza said recently that Frontier has already responded to these service issues reported by locals in Castle Valley.
“The service interruption to Frontier customers in Castle Valley has been resolved,” Medoza said. “Frontier provided four months of credit to those affected and the equipment serving the area is performing reliably. Prior to this incident, Frontier has a demonstrated history of providing safe, reliable, adequate, and reasonably priced service to our Utah customers. That commitment remains.”
The investigation, now less than three months old, has already yielded stark results. The matter became public after attorneys representing the investigating agency filed a motion on Tuesday, Oct. 1, that, if approved, would force Frontier to answer questions from investigators about how the company has been handling customer complaints, whether its terms and conditions comply with Utah law and how thoroughly (or if) the company audits its service quality.
The filing, which details an alleged effort by Frontier to stonewall the nascent investigation, paints a picture of a national public utility company in financial straits, doing its best to not to bend the knee to its state regulators. For its part, Frontier disputes the filings’ claims.
“While we disagree with the assertions in the recent filing, we take this issue seriously, continue to review the matter and will respond in the right forum, the Public Service Commission. Serving our customers is our highest priority.”
Frontier’s money problems
Among the points made by Assistant Attorney General Robert Moore, are that recent news reports from Frontier and the company CEO’s own words suggest Frontier is in dire financial straits.
Moore included a quote from Frontier President and CEO Daniel McCarthy in which McCarthy made exactly this point on an earnings call earlier this year.
“We have been challenged by ongoing revenue declines,” McCarthy said on the earnings call. “That being said our objective continues to be to optimize our business, leveraging our best assets for future growth, while managing the elements of our business in secular decline by executing on cost efficiency programs and selective capital investment.”
Moore, representing Utah’s Office of Consumer Services, which is the state’s watchdog over utility providers, said that this cost cutting was Frontier’s alternative to investing in its phone services to address “wide ranging problems with landline services.”
Investigators: Frontier is being ‘evasive’
The filing Tuesday also outlines how Frontier has answered only some of investigator’s questions. For the most part, they said that Frontier’s answers have been “inadequate, incomplete, ambiguous, evasive and generally unresponsive.”
One example was a question that investigators put to Frontier regarding its terms and conditions. They asked whether and how the terms were in compliance with rules approved by the Public Service Commission that outline certain standards for how public service providers in Utah must structure their terms and conditions.
Frontier responded that its contract language, “set out the precedence of the contract language as opposed to tariff language,” which the commission approved. The answer, the commission said, was “at best … ambiguous and incomplete.”
In responding to another question that was about any ongoing investigations that Frontier is facing in other states or by the federal government, Frontier refused to answer, saying that the information falls “outside the jurisdiction of the commission, and is therefore irrelevant,” and would not produce admissible evidence.
How Frontier handles customer complaints
Among the other matters outlined by investigators, Frontier, it said, appears to possibly be out of compliance with state code that governs public utilities, such as landline services. It said that it has “not identified any attempt by Frontier” to comply with rules regarding self-inspection and reporting to Utah’s Public Service Commission about those programs and inspections.
The Office of Consumer Services also outlined in its report testimony from Frontier that implied it does not maintain records of trouble reports except via phone call. In other words, customer complaints sent by email or through online, according to testimony from Frontier, do not get saved. Frontier denied that this was the meaning of the response to the office’s question.
On top of this, Frontier’s response to requests for customer complaints suggested that its system for tracking the physical location to which a complaint is relevant was highly inaccurate.
Investigators want to hear from Castle Valley residents
Michele Beck, the director of the Utah Office of Consumer Services, which is conducting the investigation, said in an interview that she wanted to hear from Castle Valley residents about their phone service by emailing the commission at firstname.lastname@example.org and including in the subject line or body of the email the docket number of the Frontier case: 19-041-04.
“We’re trying to get to the bottom of whether the service issues continue in Castle Valley,” Beck said, and that it was “very important” that the commission hear from Castle Valley residents about the facts on the ground.
In response to Frontier’s claims that it had addressed service concerns, Beck said that she wants to know whether customers have noticed any difference in their phone service; has it gotten better, are things the same, or are they worse?