By Howard Hardee
For The Badger Project
The phone and internet company Frontier Communications came to an agreement with the state of Wisconsin to improve its broadband service — the latest assurance from the company that its slow internet speeds and potentially dangerous phone outages are being modernized.
Reached following an investigation into the company’s advertising of internet speeds by the Wisconsin Department of Justice and the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, the deal includes a $15 million commitment by Frontier to improve its DSL internet infrastructure in Wisconsin over the next four years and a “payment” of $90,000 to the state.
“Wisconsin consumers deserve honest advertising and reliable services related to their internet speeds and telephone services,” said Randy Romanski, secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, in a press release. “This agreement ensures these improved practices for Wisconsinites, as well as upgrades to communications infrastructure so future consumers have better access to the high-quality products they pay for.”
The agreement requires Frontier to improve its disclosure practices regarding internet speeds when installing new service for customers and requires the company provide opt-out opportunities for consumers who do not receive the advertised internet speed purchased, the press release said.
It also requires improvements in Frontier’s advertising of telephone service and its handling of service outages in Wisconsin, the press release said.
The deal mandates semi-annual reporting by Frontier to the state detailing the improvements and expenditures made on its internet infrastructure, said DATCP spokesman Caleb Kulich in an email to The Badger Project.
“The state will thus be able to track Frontier’s fulfillment of this commitment, and can bring an action in court for Frontier’s failure to honor this commitment should that be the case,” he added.
In an email to The Badger Project, Frontier spokesperson Chrissy Murray noted that the issues identified by the state investigation are related to its DSL service, also known as digital subscriber line, a way of connecting to the internet over a phone network, not its fiber optic cable systems.
“The settlement with the state of Wisconsin stipulates that Frontier has admitted no wrongdoing, cooperated with the state and resolved the state of Wisconsin’s concerns related to our DSL services,” Murray told The Badger Project in an email. “We settled the investigation in good faith to put it behind us so we could focus on our business — that’s in the best interest of all our customers.”
As of February, Frontier had about 137,000 subscribers to phone or internet services in Wisconsin, Kulich said. Much of their customer base is in rural parts of the state.
Frontier declared bankruptcy in 2020. Since 2015, it has received more than $2 billion in federal funds to upgrade its internet service across the country, according to the FCC. More than $215 million of those dollars were intended for internet projects in Wisconsin.
Frontier emerged from bankruptcy in 2021 and said in a press release it would upgrade millions of its internet accounts across the country to modern, fiber optic cables from the old and slow copper phone wire.
Also in 2021, Wisconsin, five other states and the Federal Trade Commission sued Frontier on the basis that the company hadn’t delivered the internet speeds it advertised.
The federal court in California dismissed claims brought by Wisconsin and other states, saying they lacked jurisdiction, but allowed the FTC and the state of California to proceed with their case. The parties settled in May, with Frontier agreeing to pay nearly $9 million to customers and make upgrades. The state of Wisconsin conducted its own investigation, resulting in the recently announced agreement.
Frontier finishes near the bottom of a ratings survey of telecommunications companies by Consumer Reports, and the Better Business Bureau gives the company a grade of F.
Barry Orton, a telecommunications professor emeritus with the University of Wisconsin-Madison and fierce critic of Frontier, said the payment of $90,000 is “insignificant compared to the level of the damages to Frontier’s customers.”
“Frontier now promises to improve the speed and quality of its broadband service, about which it has continually lied,” Orton told The Badger Project in an email. “Frontier now also pledges to improve the reliability of its wireline telephone service, especially to elderly and medically fragile customers, even after Frontier deliberately allowed its existing copper-wire facilities to deteriorate, forcing most of its customers to its more profitable wireless services.
“Will Frontier fulfill these promises to improve service?” he asked. “I remain skeptical, but I hope I’m wrong.”
Murray responded to the criticism by touting the company’s recent rollout of broadband service to what it says are more than 77,000 rural locations throughout Wisconsin using federal funding.
“It is easy for third parties to be critical of the services Frontier is providing,” she said in an email, “but they often fail to understand the challenges and costs of providing this critical infrastructure to customers in the most rural, underserved areas of the state where other telecommunications providers have intentionally elected to not provide Internet or telephone service.”
— The Badger Project is a nonpartisan, citizen-supported journalism nonprofit in Wisconsin.