State investigation into Frontier Communications draws public ire

By Adelle Whitefoot

More than 400 people in five weeks have made comments or complaints against Frontier Communications to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, which has opened an investigation in the company’s practices.

Frontier provides phone and internet service to communities across the state, including large portions of Northeastern Minnesota. The PUC said it opened an investigation after receiving a large volume of complaints in 2017 related to Frontier’s service quality, customer service and billing practices.

“There were numerous complaints and they appear to be unresolved,” said Dan Wolf, executive secretary of the PUC. “The investigation is based on both the fact the complaints against Frontier were more numerous than what we might see and they seem to remain unresolved still.”

The commission has received 439 comments in the five weeks it’s been accepting public commentary. According to the PUC, most issues draw fewer than 10 or 20 comments, with one recent exception where the commission received 529 comments over seven months on a docket about Minnesota Power’s rates.

The majority of the comments have focused on a lack of service promised. Some people have said they’ve experienced long periods of time without service and/or they are paying for a certain internet speed but regularly only receive a quarter or less of that speed.

One Frontier customer having these types of issues is M.K. Manner. Manner, who lives in rural Floodwood, said when her landline goes out, she has to drive 10 minutes away just to call Frontier on her cellphone.

“So we don’t have cellphone service at home. If I stand on my back deck and reach as far as I can and leave my phone on speaker, sometimes it works,” Manner said. “So if I were to need to call 911, I would have to hit state Highway 73 at the very minimum, and even that is still hit and miss.”

Manner said the longest her family has been without phone service was a couple of days, which she said is a safety concern. Unfortunately, Frontier is the only option for landline service where she lives.

Manner has also had problems with her internet service.

“So we were paying for high-speed lite, which is up to 1 MB per second, and now we have 3 MB per second, not that it got any faster,” she said. “My hope was that it would just get a little better.”

Manner said a few years back, the internet was unbearably slow at less than 0.1 MB per second, and that a technician told her the infrastructure can’t keep up with the demand, so she would continue to have problems until it was updated. She wasn’t given a timeline on when or if that would happen.

Billing issues

The second-biggest complaint made by the public on the PUC docket has been issues with billing. Manner said she has to say on top of the billing, checking it every month to make sure it’s right, which she finds frustrating. Jet Galonski, of Tower, said he has had to do the same even though he had no issues with billing up until about 15 months ago when he signed up for automatic payments around December 2016 before he went to Thailand.

“My bill use to be right around $194 all the time. Then right about the time I took it off, it went up to $198,” Galonski said. “Then after I came back, the first bill I got was $236, and from that time on I could not get anything set straight.”

Galonski said the customer service representatives he talked to were all very helpful, but he was getting frustrated with having to call every month to have a billing issue fixed.

“I feel bad for some older people because they don’t look at their bill thoroughly or they don’t understand it or they won’t keep their bill from the previous month and go through it, but I do,” he said. “I don’t really have the time to, but it (upsets) me when someone is trying to screw me over when I shouldn’t be.”

Galonski said he’s retired and has a limited income, which he does his best to stick to, but Frontier has made it more difficult.

“I have a budget and I need to keep to that because I use my money to do a lot of humanitarian work,” he said. “I’m very scrupulous with my money so I can give it to the people that never had a chance and to the people that really need it. So when somebody like Frontier tries what they do, it really (upsets) me.”

Frontier’s response

When asked about the investigation, Frontier said it “is committed to being responsive to our Minnesota customers.”

“Frontier is cooperating with and plans to respond to and address the issues raised in the PUC review,” Christy Reap, assistant vice president of corporate communication, wrote in an email. “Frontier strives to address billing issues and service complaints promptly, whether the issue comes to Frontier’s attention directly from the customer or through the commission or another agency.”

Reap said the company faces technological and economical challenges when providing faster internet speeds. “Customers in some of these areas are located miles from the core Frontier network facilities used to provide broadband service, which makes it technologically and economically challenging to provide faster internet speeds,” Reap said. “However, Frontier is continually evaluating and working to improve its network and has and will continue to undertake various initiatives at a customer and a community level to enhance its Internet services.”

Some commenters on the PUC docket have complained about the time it takes for service to be restored or even hooked up by having a technician come to their home. Reap said it may take longer for some customers to receive help for a variety of reasons.

“Frontier prioritizes service outages based on the nature of the customer facts and circumstances. A customer with medical issues and experiencing a complete service outage will be given higher priority that another customer that may just be experiencing static periodically on their telephone line,” Reap said. “In the absence of unique circumstances, Frontier attempts to address the customer’s service issue in three days or less.”

Reap said Frontier is actively working to review and respond to complaints that have been filed with the PUC and “will cooperate with the PUC and the other state agencies involved in the PUC review.”

“Frontier, however, encourages its customers to reach out directly to Frontier at 1-800-921-8101 or at Frontier.com if they have any specific issues or complaints,” she said.

Comments still accepted

The PUC is accepting comments until May 25 from the public. Comments can be made by visiting minnesotapuc.granicusideas.com, emailing consumer.puc@state.mn.us or mailing them to Public Utilities Commission, 121 Seventh Place East, Suite 350, St. Paul, MN 55101. Include the commission’s docket number CI-18-122 in all communications.

The PUC was scheduled to meet Thursday to discuss the next steps in the investigation into Frontier.

“In the meantime customers are more than welcome to work with our Consumer Affairs Office at anytime if they have individual complaints they would like handled as a normal matter of working with our office,” Wolf said.

The PUC Consumer Affairs Office can be reached at (651) 296-0406, toll free at 1-800-657-3782 or by email at consumer.puc@state.mn.us.