$100M may end Northern Tier’s ‘absolute nightmare’ with Frontier

(The Center Square) — A proposed $100 million settlement in the Northern Tier to offer service upgrades and consumer refunds for low-quality phone and internet service may soon move forward.

A panel of administrative judges recommended that the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission accept the settlement, avoiding litigation and compelling Frontier to invest in its rural infrastructure.

The $100 million settlement should be accepted by the PUC “in its entirety and without modification,” Administrative Law Judges Steven Haas and John Coogan wrote in their initial decision.

Longstanding customer complaints prompted an investigation in January 2023 after state legislations received hundreds of complaints and tired of serving as an unofficial customer service office.

Dozens of locals turned out for a meeting in February to note health concerns and lost business due to Frontier’s spotty service provision. Some went for weeks without any service, ignored by the company.

Haas and Coogan recapped some of the 93 complaints gathered by the Office of Consumer Advocate and Office of Small Business Advocate in their investigation.

“All of the witnesses testified that they have experienced various service quality problems, including frequent telephone outages, frequent internet service outages and slow internet speeds,” Haas and Coogan wrote.

The service problems isolated some residents.

“Earlene Bailey testified, ‘I live by myself, and I was without phone (service) from October until February . . . I had numerous calls to Frontier, and they always had a ticket open for me but never got anything done,’” Haas and Coogan wrote.

What did get through, however, were service charges.

Another testifier, Donna Jones, noted that “[M]y grievance is toward the company, Frontier itself, who while they seem quite willing to exercise their right to charge us a monthly bill seem equally quite unwilling to now exercise their responsibility to provide adequate service, let alone good service.” 

Others called Frontier’s service “a laughing stock” and dealing with the telecoms company “an absolute nightmare.”

Rep. Tina Pickett, R-Towanda, also appeared in Haas and Coogan’s decision, lamenting how internet outages prevented remote education.

“In the last two years we had to say sorry, we’re down, go home, get on the internet, we’re going to teach you that way,” Pickett said. “(I) probably won’t be exaggerating again if I said 30% or 40% of those students had absolutely no way to get on the internet where they live, or they have it so spotty and so unreliable they couldn’t possibly get the education they were needing and expecting to get.”

To remedy the problem, the proposed settlement requires Frontier to prorate bills and offer credits for outages; give refunds for problems dating back to July 2022; install batteries to shore up service; hiring more technicians to work in the Northern Tier; and invest at least $100 million in capital projects through 2026 to repair its infrastructure, among other requirements.

The Office of Consumer Advocate supports the proposal, as does the Office of Small Business Advocate — though, for the OSBA, the settlement “does not meet all of its objectives.”

Frontier also supports the settlement, arguing that “the service issues in this case are based on technician staffing shortages and not network related.”

Public comments included in Haas and Coogan’s decision were generally supportive of the settlement.

“Any action to hold Frontier accountable to more reliable service is welcome,” Comment No. 22 said.

“It’s a grand gesture and a small start … The terms of the proposed settlement sound too good to be true – too little, too late. Like I said – it’s a start,” Comment No. 125 said. “I know that emergency personnel will be thrilled with any helpful changes – if and when they actually happen.”

Others called the settlement too much of a light touch.

“The settlement should have been bigger and the board should have to give back all bonuses they received,” Comment No. 135 said.

“That settlement agreement isn’t even a slap on the wrist for what Frontier Communications put us consumers through while charging us the full rate on our monthly bills for years,” Comment No. 55 said. “This ‘’Settlement Agreement’’ isn’t severe enough to satisfy the public and we all feel that with these weak penalties will not encourage much of a change in Frontier[’]s lack of responsibility. I personally feel that the OCA should go for the full litigation.”

Many comments emphasized the need for oversight and accountability to ensure Frontier lives up to the settlement’s terms.

“Although the Settlement terms may not be satisfactory to all commenters, it contains numerous significant commitments that should greatly improve Frontier’s service in terms of its facilities and customer service, as well as an oversight process to make sure Frontier adheres to its commitments,” Haas and Coogan wrote in their decision.

Area legislators support the settlement, arguing residents deserve better service.

“We are encouraged to see this case taking another step forward because – we hope – it means we are another step closer to ensuring the customers of Frontier Commonwealth finally get the kind of reliable telephone and internet service they pay for and deserve,” Reps. Bryan Cutler, Tina Pickett, Clint Owlett, Martin Causer, Jonathan Fritz, and Joe Hamm said in a joint statement. “Companies like Frontier must be held accountable to the customers they serve, and we are grateful to OCA and OSBA for the work they’ve done to advocate on behalf of our constituents.”

Action by the PUC is expected in April; the commission can accept the decision or review and change it.

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