We are now approaching a full year of living with the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S., and it has become clear that high quality phone and internet service are a necessity for all of us to continue any semblance of a normal life. People across the country rely on these services for their jobs, education, health care, and to maintain contact with family and friends in this difficult and isolating time. Here in Minnesota, many of us rely on Frontier Communications to provide those services, and as the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) considers approving Frontier’s emergence from bankruptcy, we have an opportunity to ensure that Minnesota residents receive the improved service they deserve.
Frontier, Minnesota’s second-largest phone service provider covering 250,000 households in the state, filed for bankruptcy on April 14 of last year after taking on billions of dollars in debt and driving away customers by refusing to invest in their network or their workforce.
In Minnesota, Frontier’s service failures have been apparent for many years. Both the Minnesota PUC and the Office of the Attorney General have undertaken investigations into Frontier’s service and business practices, finding systemic issues and violations of state law. Those investigations resulted in settlements that will help some Frontier customers. But for customers living in rural areas, Frontier services continue to languish. As Frontier is making plans to emerge from bankruptcy, I am concerned that the company is not planning to invest in Minnesota to expand access to high-speed internet.
The Minnesota PUC is scheduled to reconsider its approval of Frontier’s bankruptcy plan on Thursday, Feb. 18. To be clear: The PUC cannot know for certain if this bankruptcy plan is in the interest of Minnesota residents unless Frontier commits to investing in improved service across the state and deploying a 21st-century fiber network. That’s why CWA is asking the Minnesota PUC to reopen Frontier’s bankruptcy proceeding and follow the leads of other states that have secured commitments from Frontier on new investment, new fiber deployment, and an adequate staff to perform the work.
Minnesotans left behind
In its December quarterly update to Wall Street, Frontier reported on its post-bankruptcy “Modernization Plan,” which includes nearly 3 million customers who will receive high-speed, fiber optic internet service over the next 10 years. Frontier’s plan identified 10 states in line for new fiber deployment, not one of which was Minnesota.
In addition, Frontier recently bid to receive federal grants under the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction to provide high-speed broadband in rural areas and won more than $37 million in federal funding to support more than 125,000 customers in eight states. Not one of those customers is in Minnesota. This is very concerning because significant investment is required from Frontier to bring Minnesota residents the quality of telecommunication services they deserve.
Other states — including California, West Virginia, and Connecticut — have reviewed Frontier’s bankruptcy plan and have secured settlements or have ordered Frontier to comply with commitments that include new investment in fiber, capital expenditures to improve their ailing network, and workforce commitments to ensure that the job gets done right. These states have taken the critical step in holding Frontier accountable.
I believe the past actions of Frontier’s executives make clear why accountability is so crucial. After years of debt-financed acquisitions and under-investment that drove Frontier into bankruptcy, Frontier’s top eight executives awarded themselves an additional $16.2 million in bonuses last summer while in bankruptcy on top of the millions they already receive in their existing compensation arrangements.
Meanwhile, years of diminished staffing levels and a lack of resources have pushed our members to the breaking point. Areas that used to be covered by six to eight technicians are now being handled by two. As a result, the remaining technicians can’t provide the kind of service that customers deserve. Needed repairs to the network are ignored or postponed, resulting in continued deterioration of plant and customer service.
The Minnesota PUC in its initial approval of Frontier’s bankruptcy plan put no commitments on the company to invest or maintain an adequate workforce. Minnesota families and businesses deserve better. We need assurances that Minnesota will not be left behind by the new Frontier. The PUC has the power to fix this by requiring Frontier to provide better service for Frontier customers struggling for connectivity amid the pandemic.
Mark Doffing is president of the Communications Workers of America Local 7270, representing members working as technicians and in call centers for Frontier in the southern Minnesota area.
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