Federal Communications Fee Chairman Ajit Pai has rejected a request to have the FCC investigate Frontier Communications’ enterprise practices in Minnesota, regardless of evidence that the company has failed to correctly keep its telecom network.
An investigation by the Minnesota Commerce Department already found that Frontier’s community has “frequent and lengthy” telephone and Internet outages, that Frontier has failed to present refunds or bill credits to clients even when outages lasted for months, that Frontier is responsible of frequent billing errors that induced clients to pay for providers they didn’t order, and that it has failed to promptly provide phone service to all clients who request it. Once we wrote concerning the investigation in January, Frontier stated it “strongly disagrees” with the findings however did not dispute any of the precise allegations.
The Minnesota Lawyer Common’s workplace is investigating whether or not Frontier violated state consumer-protection laws, and the state’s two US senators requested Pai to have the FCC investigate as nicely. When Pai wrote again to the senators, he stated that he has requested his employees to “monitor” the state investigation but made no commitment to have the FCC investigate, too. Pai’s response and the senators’ letter have been posted on the FCC’s web site this week.
“For a chairman who is so concerned with rooting out waste, fraud and abuse, it’s baffling that the commission tasked with overseeing billions of dollars in public money is declining to investigate the more than a thousand allegations of poor service by a company that receives that public money to provide those services,” US Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.) informed Ars in a press release immediately. (The Minnesota investigation was based mostly partly on more than 1,000 shopper complaints and statements.)
Frontier is receiving $283.four million annually from the FCC’s Connect America Fund (CAF) between 2015 and 2020 to provide rural Internet service in elements of 28 states, including $27.6 million a yr in Minnesota.
The buildouts are being financed by telephone clients nationwide by way of universal service charges. Smith and Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s (D-Minn.) letter to Pai in March requested him to investigate “whether the company [Frontier] is in compliance with CAF funding requirements as designated by the agency.” The senators’ letter noted that “Frontier has received more than $100 million in federal funding over the last four years to improve broadband services in rural Minnesota,” and that the state investigation discovered that “Frontier may be underinvesting in its service areas for which it received federal subsidies to build out its broadband network.”
“We cannot allow companies who promise broadband to underinvest and mislead the public,” Klobuchar advised Ars in the present day. “The FCC has an obligation to hold companies accountable to ensure efficient and effective broadband deployment and services.”
Pai’s response to Smith and Klobuchar begins with some self-praise. “Since my first day as chairman, my top priority has been closing the digital divide and bringing the benefits of the Internet age to all Americans—in particular, rural Americans who deserve access to what I call digital opportunity,” he wrote.
Pai’s response to the senators by no means immediately addressed the Frontier service problems, referring to them solely as “the information from your letter.” Pai’s response targeted mostly on whether or not Frontier is on monitor to meet its Join America Fund requirement to convey Internet entry to almost 47,000 houses and companies in Minnesota, with out discussing whether Frontier is properly sustaining its community.
Pai noted that Frontier might face “penalties and/or enforcement actions” for not meeting Connect America Fund requirements. But he assured Smith and Klobuchar that “Frontier has reported to the FCC that it has met or exceeded each of its deployment milestones in CAF-eligible areas in Minnesota and annually submitted the required reports and certifications,” and that “the Minnesota Public Utility Commission has annually certified to the Commission that Frontier used the high-cost funds appropriately.”
To Pai, this apparently signifies that the FCC has no need to launch its own investigation. “Nevertheless, the FCC will remain vigilant to ensure that our rules are observed and taxpayer funds respected,” Pai wrote. “Accordingly, I have conveyed the information from your letter regarding the state commission’s investigation to our staff and have asked them carefully to monitor this development.”
Although Pai seems glad by the knowledge Frontier offered to the FCC, Smith and Klobuchar had advised him that Frontier’s filings to the FCC didn’t appear to be adequate “to determine whether Frontier is meeting performance obligations.”
FCC Democrats object
The Republican-controlled FCC’s two Democratic members, Jessica Rosenworcel and Geoffrey Starks, criticized the fee’s inaction when contacted by Ars.
“This is unacceptable,” Rosenworcel stated. “Any repeated pattern of interruptions, accompanied by service failures and billing problems deserves attention from the FCC. The agency should be getting to the bottom of what happened instead of making excuses for its failure to investigate.”
Rosenworcel noted that telecom service failures mean that “consumers are unable to reach family and friends, businesses are cut off from opportunities, and worse, public safety calls fail to go through.”
“We need to do more than just ‘monitor’ developments,” Starks stated. “If a carrier is charging for services it never provided or neglecting its public safety responsibilities, the FCC has an independent responsibility to investigate and act immediately.”
Whereas Smith and Klobuchar asked Pai to investigate whether Frontier is assembly its CAF requirements, that isn’t the only regulatory authority the FCC might use on this matter. Pai’s FCC deregulated broadband service nationwide when it repealed internet neutrality rules, but the FCC nonetheless regulates landline telephone networks similar to Frontier’s as Title II widespread service providers. This provides the FCC authority to make sure that Frontier treats shoppers in a simply and affordable method, and with out discrimination in rates, practices, or offering of providers.
We contacted Pai’s workplace yesterday and can update this story if we get a response.
Frontier’s lengthy record of problems
The letter to Pai from Smith and Klobuchar detailed many issues with Frontier’s community and stated that the state investigation “found that Frontier may have broken more than 35 state laws and regulations.” Right here’s a part of what they advised Pai:
The [Minnesota Department of Commerce] investigation issued a report in January 2019, detailing circumstances where shoppers incurred interruptions of service for months at a time, sluggish and inadequate repairs, and unauthorized or inaccurate billing errors. Some shoppers have been charged for a service by no means offered, experienced a disconnection of service without notification, and weren’t refunded for outages or misguided costs. The complaints and report element that clients have been routinely left unable to attain 911 emergency providers. Some of these clients, together with elderly, disabled, or other notably weak individuals, required using telephone service to monitor pacemakers or different urgent medical wants. Frontier further posed public safety hazards where inaction by the telecommunications provider left cables unburied, tied to timber or propane tanks, or crossing personal decks, for months, and in some circumstances years. Furthermore, several clients detailed their frustrations once they paid for an marketed—or “up to”—velocity that steadily failed to be delivered by the corporate. Many of those shoppers in our state stay in areas that would not have one other service supplier obtainable to them.
The state agency’s report further alleged that Frontier “prioritize[d] repairing requests in more densely populated areas with greater profit margins,” the senators wrote. When the state sought info from Frontier, “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,” they wrote.
“The Department found Frontier’s record-keeping to be deficient, and raised the question of whether Frontier was illegally concealing its discriminatory behavior,” the senators wrote.
Smith and Klobuchar informed Pai that state officials question whether or not Frontier has offered sufficient info to decide whether or not it is meeting its broadband-deployment obligations. They wrote:
Within the report, the Department questions whether the knowledge offered by Frontier to the Federal Communications Fee (FCC) proves adequate for regulators to execute oversight of the corporate and to decide whether or not Frontier is meeting efficiency obligations. The report submitted by the Minnesota Division 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 houses, and verify the service out there to these newly served places.
Because the FCC oversees the Connect America Fund program, “it has the obligation to hold companies who receive federal funding accountable to ensure efficient and effective broadband deployment and services,” Smith and Klobuchar advised Pai.
“These are extremely serious allegations,” Starks informed Ars. “They touch not only on basic service issues, like Frontier billing for services it never provided, but also on public safety issues, like exposed cables and customers being unable to reach 911—likely the most important call someone will make.”