Employees blame cutbacks and poor communication for Frontier's problems

Bill Rosa says the Frontier needs to improve service and maintenance
Frontier Communications employee Bill Rosa says the company needs to improve service and maintenance for its Minnesota customers. The PUC is investigating complaints against Frontier.
Mark Steil | MPR News

Frontier Communications serves more than 90,000 mainly rural customers in Minnesota and many of them are not happy with the service the telecommunications company provides. They say Frontier has become increasingly undependable. Even some Frontier employees agree with the assessment.

Bill Rosa joined Frontier two decades ago, working most recently in the company's Fairmont office of southern Minnesota. He says it's a good company, but has slipped in recent years.

"You know that more can be done and it's not being done," said Rosa.

He hears about it first hand from customers. Like from the residents of the small town of Ceylon. About three years ago some underground Frontier communication cables there went bad.

Rosa came up with an emergency solution to keep customers connected. Standing on a street corner in Ceylon, he points to where he hooked up the new lines, in a make-do solution. He left the new cables exposed, laying on the ground. To cross a street, he ran the new line through trees on either side. It was meant to be a temporary fix, a few months at most.

"It wasn't pretty how I did it. But we got them going and they got service and at that point, turned it over to engineering to get it buried," said Rosa.

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But that's where things came to a halt.

Management failed to follow through on Rosa's quick fix, and the temporary lines were left unburied. They lay exposed on the ground and strung through the trees for years. Frontier finally completed the project and installed replacement underground lines this month. That happened after a Ceylon city council member complained to state officials about the lack of a permanent fix. Rosa says in the last few years the company isn't keeping up with its work.

"This isn't the Frontier that I was hired on with," said Rosa. "Problem is there isn't enough people at the end of the day to get the work done."

Frontier reports filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission support Rosa's contentions. At a time when the company is expanding, Frontier's U.S. work force is contracting; down nearly 30 percent over the last two years. In Minnesota, the union representing Frontier technical workers says membership has been cut in half over the last five years. It's something Frontier customers such as Caroline Simcoe of McGrath have noticed. She went without phone service for two weeks this year before a Frontier technician showed up.

"I just don't know what their problem is," said Simcoe. "If they don't have enough help to get out and fix things right away? And I think they should be a lot more considerate of their customers. When we got to sit without a phone it's ridiculous."

The state Public Utilities Commission is investigating Frontier's service in Minnesota. More than 600 people have filed complaints. An administrative law judge is also scheduled to file an opinion soon on the company's performance.

University of Minnesota law and business professor Paul Vaaler says Frontier's problems started when it began buying landlines and other assets from competing telecommunications companies in recent years. He says that's left Frontier in poor financial shape.

"Frontier Communications got there, I think, by using a corporate strategy of acquisition, without a thoughtful business strategy on how to integrate and enhance the value of the assets that they had bought," said Vaaler.

Among the buys was Frontier's 2016 purchase of Verizon's landlines and other properties in California, Florida and Texas for about $10.5 billion. Paying for that deal and others left the company unable to invest sufficiently in customer service and equipment.

"They're losing customers faster than they can get and acquire new ones," said Vaaler. "And we're looking at the quality of service decrease. That's had an impact on their bottom line."

Frontier lost more than $1.5 billion in the last three years and its stock price collapsed, down 95 percent.

In a statement, Frontier said much of the financial loss was caused by the expense of integrating its recent acquisitions into the business. Frontier also says the new properties will enhance the company's service offerings.

Frontier employees like Bill Rosa hope that happens soon.

"Communities suffer from not having good broadband, reliable broadband connection, good landlines," said Rosa. "And that hurts everything overall."

There may be a brighter future ahead for Frontier, but right now the company has multiple problems to fix. And that's left customers searching for answers.