Free Webinar March 26: Broadband: The Fourth Utility

Looking like an interesting webinar from Corning

Broadband: The Fourth Utility
Tuesday, March 26, 2019 02:00 PM CDT – 03:00 PM CDT

Communications and technology are enabling new ways to connect, do business, obtain a better education, gather information needed to make major health decisions, and more. What’s the best way to ensure that rural residents aren’t left behind the digital networks that are now essential infrastructure?

Join our own Jaime Espinosa, business development manager, as he examines the utility industry and how it is fueling grid optimization, reliability, and efficiency. Electric Cooperatives are in a unique position to use communications to improve their own operations, while putting their member communities on a path towards growth, innovation, and self-reliance.

PUC needs more info from Frontier and the investigation might start in Ely

Just a day after Senators Smith and Klobuchar ask the FCC to step in to look at Frontier’s service, the Timberjay also asks deeper questions the allegations made against Frontier and the report filed by the PUC.

The PUC ordered the DOC investigation last spring in response to reporting by the Timberjay in late 2017 that highlighted the poor service quality provided by Frontier and its local affiliate, Citizens Telecommunications, or CTC-Minnesota, in northern St. Louis and Lake counties. The DOC investigation revealed that similar problems are widespread among customers in Frontier’s service territory in Minnesota.

Frontier and CTC, operate in the state under what’s known as an Alternative Form of Regulation, or AFOR, as opposed to the more traditional regulatory rules which are tied to return on investment. As part of approval of an AFOR plan, companies must make certain commitments regarding service quality. As part of approval of its AFOR plan in 2015, Citizens committed to upgrading Internet speeds in Ely, Ranier, and several other communities, to as high as 40 megabytes per second (mbps).

But has the company delivered on that promise? State regulators say that Frontier has provided too little documentation to know the answer. That’s why they want the PUC to require that Frontier document whether it’s kept its word— and it suggests starting that investigation in Ely. DOC investigators, in their January report, recommend that Frontier be required to submit the following information:

1) The number of residential and business customers it has in Ely.

2) The number of customers that have a Frontier Internet service product.

3) The number of customers, including the names and addresses, that receive download speeds of nearly 40 mbps. The DOC suggests that state officials should contact a test sample of the names to confirm the information provided by Frontier.

4) The number of customers in Ely who are receiving service at a minimum of 10 mbps download and one mbps upload.

DOC officials are recommending that all of the communities cited in Frontier’s AFOR plan eventually be surveyed. “But it may be more practical to select a single exchange, such as Ely— as there is more evidence from Ely customers concerning service quality, due to the location of a Commission’s public hearing. The PUC held a public hearing on Frontier in Ely last September, one of several held around the state to take testimony from Frontier customers.

Coop broadband noted as a Forces that will Shape the U.S. Rural Economy in 2019

CoBank recently listed 11 forces that they feel will shape the rural economy in this year. Broadband, especially provided by cooperatives, makes the list…

In 2019, electric distribution cooperatives will continue to build out fiber networks in underserved rural markets. Some rural communications providers are concerned about increasing competition, but CoBank continues to believe that over 90 percent of co-op fiber builds occur where service does not exist or is below the FCC standards for broadband.

U.S. Senators Tina Smith, Amy Klobuchar Call on FCC Chair to Launch Probe into Frontier Communications’ Business Practices Amid Troubling Minnesota State Report, Attorney General Investigation

From the Senators…

Frontier Received Millions in Federal Funding to Improve Rural Broadband While Delivering Shoddy Internet and Telephone Services; Senators Say Minnesotans Deserve Full FCC Investigation Into Use of Federal Funding

WASHINGTON, D.C. [03/13/19]—In light of Minnesota state investigations into telecommunications provider Frontier Communications Corporation (Frontier) and its subsidiaries—which have received millions in federal funding—detailing poor service to consumers, today U.S. Sens. Tina Smith (D-Minn.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) pressed Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chair Ajit Pai to launch an investigation into Frontier’s business practices.

Minnesota Department of Commerce investigation alleges that Frontier may have broken at least 35 state laws and regulations, prompting the Minnesota Attorney General to open an investigation into consumer protection complaints. The report details the experience of Frontier customers who incurred interruptions of service for months at a time, slow and insufficient repairs, and unauthorized charges or inaccurate billing errors.

Frontier has received millions in federal funding to build out broadband service to rural Minnesotans. Sens. Smith and Klobuchar are standing up for consumers by urging the FCC to conduct oversight into whether Frontier is appropriately using federal funds.

“Access to broadband is a core economic issue, and Frontier has received more than $100 million in federal funding over the last four years to improve broadband services in rural Minnesota,” wrote Sens. Smith and Klobuchar to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. “However, the report claims Frontier may be underinvesting in its service areas for which it received federal subsidies to build out its broadband network. When rural service issues were reported to the company, the report alleges that Frontier would prioritize repairing requests in more densely populated areas with greater profit margins, and provide better service and equipment repair to those households. When pressed in the investigation, repair tickets for rural and remote customers, which presumably would show lengthy repair times or outages in service, would be “lost” or missing from records. The Department found Frontier’s recordkeeping to be deficient, and raised the question of whether Frontier was illegally concealing its discriminatory behavior.” 

“We respectfully request the FCC commence an investigation into the business practices of Frontier Communications, and its subsidiaries, serving our constituents in Minnesota to determine whether the company is in compliance with [the Connect America Fund] (CAF) funding requirements as designated by the agency.”

You can read text of the letter here or below:

March 13, 2019

The Honorable Ajit Pai
ChairmanFederal Communications Commission
445 12th St. SW
Washington, D.C. 20554

Dear Chairman Pai:

We write to request an investigation into the business practices of Frontier Communications Corporation (Frontier), and its subsidiary Citizens Telecommunications Company of Minnesota, LLC, which together serve approximately 90,000 mostly rural consumers in Minnesota. Last year, hundreds of consumer complaints across the state prompted the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission to request the Minnesota Department of Commerce (Department) to open an investigation into Frontier’s quality of internet and telephone service, billing practices, and customer service.

The investigation issued a report in January 2019, detailing circumstances where consumers incurred interruptions of service for months at a time, slow and insufficient repairs, and unauthorized or inaccurate billing errors. Some consumers were charged for a service never provided, experienced a disconnection of service without notification, and were not refunded for outages or erroneous charges. The complaints and report detail that customers were routinely left unable to reach 911 emergency services. Some of those customers, including elderly, disabled, or other particularly vulnerable individuals, required the use of phone service to monitor pacemakers or other urgent medical needs. Frontier further posed public safety hazards where inaction by the telecommunications provider left cables unburied, tied to trees or propane tanks, or crossing private decks, for months, and in some circumstances years. Furthermore, several customers detailed their frustrations when they paid for an advertised—or “up to”—speed that frequently failed to be delivered by the company. Many of these consumers in our state live in areas that do not have another service provider available to them.

Access to broadband is a core economic issue, and Frontier has received more than $100 million in federal funding over the last four years to improve broadband services in rural Minnesota. However, the report claims Frontier may be underinvesting in its service areas for which it received federal subsidies to build out its broadband network. When rural service issues were reported to the company, the report alleges that Frontier would prioritize repairing requests in more densely populated areas with greater profit margins, and provide better service and equipment repair to those households. When pressed in the investigation, repair tickets for rural and remote customers, which presumably would show lengthy repair times or outages in service, would be “lost” or missing from records. The Department found Frontier’s recordkeeping to be deficient, and raised the question of whether Frontier was illegally concealing its discriminatory behavior.

In the report, the Department questions whether the information provided by Frontier to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) proves sufficient for regulators to execute oversight of the company and to determine whether Frontier is meeting performance obligations. The report submitted by the Minnesota Department of Commerce concluded that “the information Frontier has submitted has been too minimal for the [Public Utilities] Commission to perform the duties delegated by the FCC, including the authority to investigate and make findings as part of the Commission’s obligation to certify to the FCC that the Connect America funds are used appropriately by Frontier.” The report recommends requiring Frontier to produce documentation of households where funding was used to serve previously unserved homes, and verify the service available to those newly served locations.

In filing complaints, Minnesota consumers sought assistance from the Minnesota Department of Commerce, the state Attorney General’s office, and the FCC. In its report, Minnesota regulators found that Frontier may have broken more than 35 state laws and regulations. Last week, the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office revealed it has also opened an investigation into the alleged violations of the state’s consumer protection laws. As the FCC is tasked with overseeing its Connect America Fund (CAF) program, it has the obligation to hold companies who receive federal funding accountable to ensure efficient and effective broadband deployment and services.

We respectfully request the FCC commence an investigation into the business practices of Frontier Communications, and its subsidiaries, serving our constituents in Minnesota to determine whether the company is in compliance with CAF funding requirements as designated by the agency.

Sincerely,

###

MTA’s Brent Christensen featured on ILSR podast – Community Broadband Bits

Happy to share the podcast and write up from Chris Mitchell and the Institute for Local Self Reliance

Brent Christensen, Chief Operating Officer of Christensen Communications, came into our Minneapolis office to sit down and have a chat with Christopher this week for podcast 346. Their interview comes a short time after Christopher and several other Institute for Local Self-Reliance staff took a tour of the Christensen Communications facilities.

Brent has an additional role as President and CEO of the Minnesota Telecom Alliance (MTA) a group that advances policies encouraging expansion of broadband connectivity. Brent describes some of the ways MTA has helped Minnesota and local leaders establish policies to help private sector telecom companies bring better connectivity to local communities, especially in rural areas. He and Christopher spend time discussing Minnesota’s Border to Border Broadband Program and why they think it’s been a success.

The conversation also covers the permitting process, railroads, and partnerships, in addition to other topics. Brent and Christopher discuss some suggestions for communities that are interested in working with local companies, based on Brent’s years in the industry and the knowledge he’s gained from his family’s business.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 36 minutes long and can be played on this page or via iTunes or the tool of your choice using this feed. You can listen to the interview on this page or visit the Community Broadband Bits page.

Read the transcript for this episode.

CenturyLink deploys FTTH to Fish Lake Township

The Post Review reports…

More than 900 residents and businesses in Fish Lake Township now have access to fiber gigabit internet speeds up to 1,000 Mbps due to investments from CenturyLink, Inc. (NYSE: CTL) and Fish Lake Township, as well as a $1.8 million grant from Minnesota’s Border to Border Broadband Development Grant Program.

CenturyLink is delivering Fiber to the Home (FTTH) technology in Fish Lake Township as part of its participation in the Federal Communications Commission’s Connect America Fund (CAF) program and its commitment to meet the broadband needs of residents and local businesses in Minnesota.

“From telemedicine to students doing homework, broadband access is essential to our everyday life,” said Sen. Mark W. Koran, R-North Branch. “I’m proud to have supported and continue to support the Border to Border grant program that enabled this partnership with CenturyLink and Fish Lake Township. This fiber to the home broadband expansion brings 21st century access to the businesses and households in our area.”

“CenturyLink knows that life is powered by connections and that communities benefit from fiber internet speeds,” said Dan O’Connell, CenturyLink senior director, Northeast region. “The state broadband grant program, coupled with CenturyLink’s local investment, is a great example of the public and private sectors working together to provide connectivity that helps meet our customers’ personal and business needs.”

For more information or to order gigabit service, residents can contact Darren Larson, CenturyLink retail sales, at (612) 412-5113 or at darren.larson@centurylink.com.

For existing CenturyLink customers, our policy is to cover the cost of the first 700’ and the customer would pay excess construction charges for the difference between the first 700’ and the actual length of the drop – this is being waived through March 31.

For new customers, we charge excess construction for the entire drop regardless of length and is not subject to being waived.

How much broadband does $100 million of federal funding buy in MN?

The Minneapolis Star Tribune reports…

Frontier Communications has received over $100 million in federal grants to improve rural broadband in Minnesota over the past four years, yet complaints about its internet service suffuse a state investigation of the company.

Minnesota regulators last year commissioned an inquiry into Frontier after fielding numerous complaints. In January, the Minnesota Department of Commerce issued a report concluding Frontier may have broken at least 35 state laws and failed its customers with shoddy service and inadequate network investment.

The report also questioned how Frontier used the federal grant money. Information submitted to the state by Frontier “has been too minimal” for utility regulators to certify that the grants from the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Connect America Fund were used appropriately, the Commerce Department said.

“It is obvious to anyone who bothers to look that Frontier is a terrible investment for the federal government,” said Christopher Mitchell, community broadband director for the Minneapolis-based nonprofit Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

Frontier strongly disputes the entire Commerce Department report and expects this week to file a formal response with the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC). The company said in a statement that it is in compliance with all FCC requirements for the Connect America money.

Frontier is not alone is accepting money…

It is one of several large phone companies collecting hundreds of millions of dollars from the Connect America Fund, and it says it has filed all requisite FCC reports and met all its obligations.

Connect America is aimed at FCC-designated rural areas where broadband is deemed too costly for private investment without public subsidies. The program has been criticized for requirements on broadband speed that use outdated government standards.

In 2015 the fund awarded $9 billion over six years to several large U.S. wireline carriers. Money from the 2015 allotment, dubbed Phase 2, has been used extensively in Minnesota by both Frontier and Monroe, La.-based CenturyLink.

Companies participating in Phase 2 must provide download speeds of at least 10 megabits per second (Mbps) and upload speeds of 1 Mbps. That target was set when the FCC standard for download speeds was 4 Mbps. But by 2015, the FCC had redefined broadband as 25 Mbps for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads.

Essentially, Connect America phase 2 projects were obsolete before they rolled out, Mitchell said. “It’s totally wasteful.”

Bill Coleman, owner of St. Paul-based Community Technology Advisors, said that 10 Mbps service is an improvement for some remote areas. Also, the lower — and therefore less costly — standard allowed the FCC to spread Connect America funding over a larger area, he noted.

“But whether it positions Minnesota or any state for rural economic vitality, I would say no,” said Coleman, who works with small communities on telecommunications issues.

How much federal funding has been spent?

Federal records show that Frontier has already been allotted $109.5 million for Minnesota through 2018. The company completed more Connect America projects by the end of 2017 than it was obligated to finish, records show, and Frontier said that was also true for 2018.

CenturyLink, Minnesota’s largest wireline provider with 430,000 customers, received Phase 2 Connect America funding of $505.7 million annually for six years. For Minnesota, CenturyLink gets $54 million each year. The company says it expects to have completed more than 60,000 Connect America-funded projects by the end of March.

CenturyLink and Frontier, not surprising given their size, have been targets of various grievances to the PUC.

The PUC logged 216 service complaints about CenturyLink from Jan. 1, 2017, through Feb. 28, 2018, said Dan Wolf, the PUC’s executive director, in an e-mail. During the same time, 63 were filed about Frontier.

Is the FCC minimal requirement enough?

Frontier and CenturyLink said they annually report the status of Connect America projects to the FCC. Both companies said that many locations under the program are eligible for download and upload speeds that are faster than 10/1 Mbps.

A report last summer from the Grand Rapids-based Blandin Foundation concluded that it is difficult to gauge the effects of Phase 2 Connect America investments in Minnesota. “The lack of transparency and accountability in [the program] has been challenging and frustrating,” the report said.

Connect America-funded networks don’t meet Minnesota’s own definition of broadband, which is the same as the FCC’s current characterization: 25 Mbps for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads.