Frontier Communications in 2017 fell short of state standards for fixing phone service outages within 24 hours, as well as the response time for customers calling with complaints, an attorney with the Minnesota Department of Commerce said.

After hearing Thursday from state and company officials and reviewing a deluge of customer complaints about Frontier's phone and internet service, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) ordered Commerce to do a formal investigation of the telecommunications company's compliance with state customer service regulations.

As part of the investigation, three to six public hearings will be held. The inquiry will look only at Frontier's phone business since the PUC doesn't regulate internet service.

The PUC opened a case Feb. 12 after receiving a "large volume of complaints." The commission then asked for further public comments and received 439 complaints over the next five weeks. In most PUC proceedings, responses number in the single and low double-digits.

"The total number of comments and complaints, often with detailed documentation, appears to indicate that widespread problems with service quality, customer service and billing exist," PUC staff said in a recent filing. Nearly all complainants said they are being charged for services that aren't being provided as promised, often with billing disputes as a result, the filing said.

Kevin Saville, an attorney with Frontier, told the PUC on Thursday that Frontier takes "all of these customer concerns and complaints very seriously." He also said that "from a historical perspective, we've largely met the commission's service quality requirements."

Frontier, based in Stamford, Conn., is a publicly traded company with more than $9 billion in annual sales and operations across the country.

Frontier has almost 100,000 landline customers in Minnesota. Many live in more rural parts of northeastern and southern Minnesota, but Frontier also covers some of the metro area, including Apple Valley, Rosemount, Burnsville and Farmington.

Internet not regulated

The problems Commerce found were in Frontier's annual Minnesota regulatory filings covering 2017 and early 2018, said Linda Jenson, the attorney for the Department of Commerce, which represents the public interest before the PUC and will conduct the Frontier investigation.

The PUC regulates landline phones. Complaints filed with the PUC include talk of problems ranging from static on phone lines to losing phone service altogether for several days. However, about 80 percent of complaints deal with high-speed internet service, Saville told commissioners.

Federal law generally prohibits state regulation of internet service.

Many complaints reviewed by the Star Tribune reveal Frontier consumers angry with slow and intermittent internet service. Several wrote, too, that Frontier was the only way to access the web where they live.

"My kids can't even do their homework at home because it takes so long to load their stuff," Melody Webster of Cannon Falls wrote to the PUC. She also wrote she felt "trapped since we are very limited to the providers in my area."

"I used to pay for 'high-speed' internet for years, but when pressed [Frontier] admitted that they couldn't give me any faster service despite the charges," Peter Eric Olson of Watertown wrote to the PUC. "So I stopped paying extra for nothing."

Improvements cited

Saville said that Frontier is working on its internet service and has improved speeds.

Still, he acknowledged the company's network falls short when it comes to customer demands for intensive bandwidth services like Netflix. And reaching that upper level doesn't look like's it coming anytime soon.

"It's not financially or technologically viable to do that," Saville told the PUC.