ELY— Nearly 100 people from across northeastern Minnesota turned out here Tuesday night to tell an administrative law judge why they’re frustrated with the service provided by Frontier …
ELY— Nearly 100 people from across northeastern Minnesota turned out here Tuesday night to tell an administrative law judge why they’re frustrated with the service provided by Frontier Communications. And they had a lot to say over the course of nearly four hours of testimony before Judge Jeffery Oxley, at Vermilion Community College’s fine arts theater, with most of the dozens of speakers focusing on poor quality phone service, slow Internet, and the company’s deceptive billing practices.
The formal public hearing, which included a court reporter to record the testimony, was the first of five being held this month around Minnesota. It’s part of an investigation ordered by the state’s Public Utilities Commission, which is being overseen by the Department of Commerce.
The PUC was flooded with complaints after it opened an initial investigation into the company in the wake of reporting by the Timberjay last November and it ordered a full investigation earlier this year.
At Tuesday’s hearing, the judge heard from resort owners who said their customers can’t make online reservations due to their slow Internet and others who said they are being forced to sell summer homes due to unreliable communications with medical providers or their jobs.
“I’m just absolutely fed up with Frontier,” said Ellen Sauer, an Eagles Nest resident living on Social Security who told Judge Oxley that she has been overbilled for years by the company.
That’s a common experience noted by many other speakers, and getting billing issues resolved can be maddening, said Sauer. “It takes you 45 minutes to sit on the phone to get through and when you do get a representative they’ll tell you anything you want to hear. And then nothing happens,” she said.
Brad Sagan, a Lake County resident, spoke about the poor quality of his Internet. “It’s just atrocious,” he said. “It’s constantly going down. It’s very slow and it can take hours to download documents,” he said.
Sagan said he had hopes that the competing Lake County Connections would provide much better service, but that project ran out of funding within just 200 yards of reaching his home, leaving him likely stuck with Frontier for the foreseeable future.
But, at least, he said, he can utilize the high-quality wi-fi now available at the Fall Lake town hall if he needs to download a larger file.
Many others at the hearing spoke about poor phone service, particularly long waits for technical assistance when service goes out. Many indicated that they have waited as long as three weeks to have basic phone service restored following outages. While most said they appreciated the work of local technicians, several expressed concern that Frontier employs too few technicians to handle the backload of problems in the company’s system. And some cited poor coordination between the service staff who work in remote offices and the local techs, which often leads to long delays in getting outages repaired. Others, like Claire Taylor, a Burntside Lake resident, said she’d been told by Frontier service representatives that the company plans to stop providing maintenance service altogether in Morse Township.
Others complained that the company was guilty of false advertising for promising services at set prices then failing to deliver the service, or charging a higher price.
Taylor told the judge that the company’s DSL service has been so poor for years that state regulators should order refunds of the difference between the price of DSL and standard dial-up Internet service. Citing the testimony of another commenter, who noted that Frontier deploys antiquated equipment in the Ely area, recommended that the company be ordered to install more modern facilities in the region.
Many of those who attended Tuesday’s hearing said they were pleased to have the opportunity to vent their frustrations, and were impressed with Judge Oxley, who listened intently throughout the hours of testimony. “He did a heck of a job, I thought,” said Ron Brodigan, another Lake County resident. “He really listened.”
The testimony from Tuesday’s hearing, as well as the four remaining hearings elsewhere in Minnesota, will form the basis for findings of fact that Judge Oxley expects to issue in November or December. Those findings will provide the basis for a report by the Department of Commerce, which will form the basis for any subsequent orders by the PUC.
The public hearings represent only a fraction of the input and documentation that state regulators have already assembled regarding Frontier’s service issues. The PUC has received several hundred written comments from customers to this point and the Department of Commerce has conducted an initial assessment of the company’s compliance with state service quality standards. Earlier this summer, DOC staff reported that their analysis found that Frontier failed to meet a standard to restore lost phone within 24 hours, in two-out-of-three cases. Frontier also failed 70 percent of the time to meet a state standard to limit hold times for customer service to an average of 60 seconds or less. During several months, average hold times reached as long as seven minutes, according to DOC staff.
State regulators were reluctant to speculate on what, if anything, the current investigation could yield in terms of final decisions. But based on past cases where service quality has been shown to be deficient, state regulators have ordered refunds and put companies under special scrutiny to ensure they meet quality standards established by the state.
According to PUC executive secretary, it’s likely to be the first quarter of 2019 before the PUC and other state regulators will be ready to formulate any such final orders.