Once as important as the American railroad and electrical grid, American phone companies aren’t quite what they used to be. With the use of copper-based landlines having plummeted the last few years, many of the nation’s phone companies have understandably attempted to shift their business models toward new, more profitable sectors like video advertising.
The problem: many of their aging fixed-line networks were not only built on the backs of billions in taxpayer subsidies, they’re very much still in use—and for many, slow, expensive DSL is the only broadband available. But with no local competition and local and federal oversight eroded by lobbying—many of these companies have simply stopped caring.
Case in point: Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson last week released a scathing 133-page report highlighting how the state’s incumbent phone company, Frontier Communications, has increasingly refused to upgrade its aging network, often taking months to make repairs, putting those with medical conditions at risk. “The findings of this investigation detail an extraordinary situation, where customers have suffered with outages of months, or more, when the law requires telephone utilities to make all reasonable efforts to prevent interruptions of service,” the state AG said. “Frontier customers with these outages include those with family members with urgent medical needs, such as pacemakers monitored by their medical teams via the customer’s landline,” said the AG, which notes Frontier violated more than 35 state laws and rules by failing to respond to customer repair requests in a reasonable timeframe. The report, based on data collected from over 1,000 complaints and half-a-dozen public hearings, provides photographic evidence of the company’s neglected network, including network pedestals left abandoned to the elements:
The report also illustrates how Frontier phone and DSL line installations are often left draped across yards, or even over propane tanks:
“Many of the issues reported by consumers show direct violations of Minnesota law and Commission rules, and indicate broad, systemic problems with Frontier’s service quality, recordkeeping and business operations,” the report concluded. Frontier did not respond to a Motherboard request for comment on the AG’s findings. Frontier has similarly found itself under fire in states like West Virginia, where the telco was recently accused of misusing millions in federal taxpayer dollars intended to help shore up the company’s flailing networks. Similar complaints have been levied against telcos like Verizon by regulators in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. There too union workers and regulators allege phone companies have simply stopped giving a damn, numerous recent settlements illustrating how network gear is simply being left to rot:
Even when repairs are made to lines, cabinets, and utility poles, critics are quick to highlight an obvious half-assed approach to the work in recent years:
Christopher Mitchell is the Director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative, which helps local communities explore connectivity alternatives to apathetic monopolies. Mitchell told me via email such neglect is routine for companies that don’t want to upgrade aging DSL lines, yet simultaneously lobby for laws banning towns and cities from building better networks. “State and federal elected officials have been negligent in allowing companies like Windstream [another lagging U.S. phone company] and Frontier—particularly for a business model that is mining a public safety telephone system for all it is worth—to charge as much as they can until the network literally rots,” Mitchell said. One problem is that internet voice and VOIP services became more common in the early aughts, the nation’s phone companies used this surge in voice competition to convince both state and federal lawmakers meaningful oversight was no longer necessary. Now, for every state like Minnesota, there’s countless states that do little to nothing about this dysfunction.
The result are companies that can’t even technically offer even the FCC’s base definition of “broadband” (25 Mbps), yet often charge the same or higher prices users in more developed areas pay for gigabit (1000 Mbps) broadband. All while actively undermining local community efforts to build better, faster broadband networks.
Mitchell pointed to numerous examples where Frontier executives and lobbyists have attempted to sue, hinder, or otherwise hamstring local efforts to bring better service to these long-neglected areas. If Frontier doesn’t want to upgrade its lines, Mitchell noted, the least it can do is get out of the way of those looking at creative, local alternatives. “In 2019, any policy maker that listens to a lobbyist from Frontier should be held criminally negligent,” Mitchell said. Cable operators certainly appreciate phone companies’ apathy. Consumers with an actual choice in broadband providers are fleeing to cable at an unprecedented rate. This cable monopoly (especially at faster speeds) in turn gives cable operators carte blanche to raise rates, impose arbitrary usage caps, and ignore their own failures on the customer service front.
And while next-gen wireless networks may provide an additional competitive option to some of these neglected users in time, we’ve discussed at length how wireless isn’t going to be a magic bullet on this front due to geographical limitations, bandwidth usage restrictions, and high prices.
With neither competition nor government accountability to force its hand, most American phone companies now operate in an accountability vacuum. And while users that can flee to alternative options continue to do so, there’s still millions of Americans stuck with companies making it very clear that actually giving a damn about paying customers is among their lowest priorities.