Minnesota utility regulators Thursday approved a legal settlement aimed at remedying Frontier Communications’ multitude of telephone network failings.
The settlement between the Minnesota Department of Commerce and Connecticut-based Frontier calls for refunds for aggrieved customers and establishes a framework to deal with any future Frontier phone service problems and maintenance breakdowns.
The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) voted 5-0 to approve the settlement, throwing in a few tweaks to essentially uphold the commission’s ultimate authority over the matter.
“The settlement is a path — as the [Commerce] Department has said — to righting wrongs and correcting inequities that [Frontier] customers across Minnesota have faced,” said Katie Sieben, the PUC’s chairwoman.
Frontier, which also operates under the name Citizens Communications, is Minnesota’s second-largest landline phone provider with 90,000 to 100,000 customers, many in rural northeastern and southern parts of the state.
The PUC began looking into Frontier in 2018 after hearing from its customers about poor service, from static-filled phone calls to billing mistakes. The PUC ordered a Commerce Department inquiry, through which more than 1,000 customer complaints about Frontier surfaced.
The Commerce Department issued a scathing report in January concluding that Frontier may have broken 35 laws and failed its Minnesota customers with shoddy phone and internet service, lax record-keeping and inadequate investment in its own network. Commerce has been working with Frontier in recent months on a settlement.
Frontier has denied breaking any laws and does not admit to noncompliance with state regulations and statutes in the settlement.
The settlement does not include complaints about Frontier’s internet service, which isn’t under the PUC’s regulatory purview.
The Minnesota Attorney General’s Office is continuing its own investigation into Frontier, which may involve the company’s internet operations.
Frontier said it has already doled out refunds or credits for many of the Minnesota complaints. But the settlement beefs up the refund and credit framework, both for historical claims and future claims of poor Frontier service, Frontier and Commerce Department officials said Thursday.
The settlement also requires Frontier to develop a maintenance plan to better address and monitor system issues, including exposed lines, damaged poles and other broken equipment. Some Frontier customers have complained of unburied phone lines and exposed wires in broken equipment.
“Frontier Communications is committed to working to improve and to provide quality phone service in Minnesota — and the settlement agreement will do exactly that,” Kevin Saville, Frontier’s general counsel, told the PUC.
Katherine Hinderlie, a state attorney representing the Commerce Department, told the PUC “the settlement provides significant benefits to customers.”
PUC Commissioner John Tuma, like other commissioners, said he appreciated the efforts of both the Commerce Department and Frontier in crafting the settlement. But before voting for it, he said he was “really struggling with the settlement.”
In an interview later, Tuma said that despite Frontier’s promises of network improvements, “the service quality just isn’t there. Still, I was convinced we at least got something [with the settlement] to move forward.”
In PUC filings, the Attorney General’s Office had several criticisms of the settlement, saying its remedies were “paltry compared to Frontier’s alleged misconduct.” The office, however, did not make a recommendation either way on the settlement’s approval.
The office “played the role of devil’s advocate in this docket,” Max Kieley, an assistant attorney general, told the PUC on Thursday.
Under the settlement, Frontier phone customers can obtain credits or refunds essentially for complaints from March 1, 2015, through Oct. 31, 2018. The refunds or credits will cover a host of problems.
Frontier must notify all of its existing Minnesota customers by mail or e-mail of the opportunity to file a claim. Former Frontier customers also will be able to seek refunds.
The settlement proposal also sets out remedies for some future Frontier service issues, including certain outages; call quality problems; and call-waiting times of more than 10 minutes for customer complaints.