Telecommunications company serves hundreds of thousands in Wisconsin, many in rural areas
By Peter Cameron, THE BADGER PROJECT
After receiving more than 1,000 complaints, the state of Connecticut announced an investigation April 8 into the business practices of Frontier Communications.
Nearly 800,000 people in Wisconsin have access to internet provided by Frontier, according to FCC data. For some, it’s their only option. Frontier has about 80,000 customer accounts in Wisconsin, said Frontier spokesman Javier Mendoza.
But the company provides federally defined broadband speeds – 25 megabits per second of download speed – to fewer than 2 percent of those customers, according to that same data.
Many other states have investigated the company, including Minnesota, which recommended in 2019 that Frontier take actions like issuing refunds to customers and increasing staffing.
Since 2015, Connecticut’s Office of the Attorney General and the Department of Consumer Protection have jointly received more than 1,000 consumer complaints about Frontier regarding things like poor service and excessive fees, the state said in a press release announcing the investigation.
“Frontier does not comment on pending matters,” Mendoza said in an email.
Since 2017, the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection has received 249 complaints about Frontier, according to department spokeswoman Ti Gauger. Figures from 2015 and 2016 were not immediately available. The Wisconsin Department of Justice did not respond to an email asking for complaint figures.
The Connecticut investigation will have no effect in Wisconsin, said Barry Orton, a professor emeritus of telecommunications at UW-Madison. In the past decade, the Wisconsin State Legislature has defanged the regulatory power of agencies like the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection in recent years, he added.
Asked if it would be conducting its own investigation, that department responded that it does “not have the ability to discuss future or ongoing investigations of these complaints,” Gauger wrote in an email.
Even if they wanted to punish Frontier, regulatory bodies in Wisconsin “can’t really fine it – it is broke,” said Christopher Mitchell, the director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative, a Minnesota-based think tank which helps communities with their telecommunications networks.
Frontier is planning to file for bankruptcy, according to a report from Bloomberg.
That’s despite the fact that, since 2015, Frontier has received more than $300 million from the federal government to provide internet in rural areas of Wisconsin. In total, the company has received nearly $2 billion from federal and state government agencies to expand and upgrade its rural broadband service nationally.
Regulatory bodies “can’t kill it because millions of people rely on it (or try to and cannot) for 911,” Mitchell said.
A January report from WSAW TV in Marathon County found that Frontier often took more than three weeks to fix landlines in its territory, preventing residents from calling 911. That problem is especially severe because much of the area Frontier serves is rural and does not have good – or any – cell phone service.
In 2011, the Wisconsin State Legislature deregulated landline phone companies, scaling back enforcement powers by state agencies like the Public Service Commission.
Earlier this year, Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) sent a letter to the CEO of Frontier, expressing concern about the delay in repairing phone lines. She also wrote to the Federal Communications Commission regarding the issue.
“They should tar and feather all the executives,” Mitchell said.
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