The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission should reconsider the decision by the Department of Commerce to let Frontier Communications avoid any civil or criminal penalties for its systematic neglect of customers in Minnesota and its violations of state law.
Back in January, the Department of Commerce released a hard-hitting report laying bare what they termed “staggering deficiencies” in Frontier’s physical plant and for its poor service and misleading billing practices.
Just seven months ago, the department’s staff appeared loaded for bear, writing: “The Minnesota legislature has provided a clear set of remedies to curb misconduct of rogue companies, ones who routinely, knowingly, disregard the law and jeopardize the lives and well-being of Minnesotans, including hefty civil penalties and criminal prosecutions.”
Seven months later, after months of mediation, it appears the department’s bark is much worse than its bite.
The stipulation agreement first reported this past week in the Timberjay includes no recommendation for either fines or for prosecution.
While the company does agree to take a number of positive steps to improve its service to customers, the agreement runs for only two years. After that, Frontier can apparently go back to its old ways.
The agreement, as we reported last week, does require the company to issue refunds or credits to customers in a number of cases, which is a step forward. Yet, as usual, the burden lies with the customer to document service interruptions or overbillings. We suspect that most Frontier customers will conclude it isn’t worth their time to haggle with the company over the small refunds proposed in this settlement. It will be especially frustrating to business owners, who would have to make their case to win refunds of just ten dollars per day for service interruptions, even though such interruptions can easily cost a business hundreds if not thousands of dollars a day.
Those are just some of the reasons we suspect this settlement will be a disappointment to many of the more than 1,000 Frontier customers who offered comments or horror stories to state investigators. When asked why they are recommending no fines for Frontier, officials with the Department of Commerce indicated that they wanted to “focus on obtaining tangible remedies for Minnesota consumers.”
Yet, as the department noted in its own report issued last January, the Legislature has authorized fines or prosecution as a remedy “to curb misconduct of rogue companies” that don’t comply with state law and put the well-being of Minnesotans at risk. The Commerce Department’s own report documented multiple violations of state law and rules on Frontier’s part, and the department should have utilized the legal tools at its disposal to stand up for Minnesota’s Frontier customers.
We are equally troubled that this decision could well be a case of the foxes guarding the hen house. The Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) who oversaw most of the public proceedings and issued findings in the case, is a former telecom lawyer. And one of the lead negotiators for the Department of Commerce worked under him at the same telecom, a company that did business with Frontier. In addition, the ALJ served as the mediator for this agreement, and then took the unusual step of writing a recommendation to the MPUC to approve the terms. The public would be absolutely justified in wondering if the deck wasn’t stacked in favor of Frontier.
The MPUC has an opportunity to fix it, by rejecting the proposed agreement as drafted, and giving serious consideration to some tougher remedies.
We have to note that even as Frontier was agreeing under this deal to prompt response to outages, a minor thunderstorm that passed over the Lake Vermilion area on Aug. 4 caused scattered phone outages in the area. When customers reported the interruption of service, many were told it would take more than ten days to get their phone and Internet service back. That hardly sounds like a company that’s ready to turn over a new leaf.