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West Virginia Public Service Commission says lawmakers tied hands on Frontier broadband

Frontier West Virginia’s offices in Charleston along the Kanawha River. (Photo by Steven Allen Adams)

CHARLESTON — Multiple Democratic lawmakers have written letters to the West Virginia Public Service Commission asking them to put pressure on Frontier Communications to expand fiber for broadband internet expansion.

The problem: the same West Virginia Legislature tied the hands of the commission when it comes to regulating internet services in the state.

Members of the West Virginia Broadband Enhancement Council heard a report Thursday morning from Lee Feinberg, an attorney with Spilman Thomas and Battle representing the council on commission matters.

Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison, future state Sen. Mike Caputo, D-Marion, and Delegates Chad Lovejoy, D-Cabell, Rodney Pyles, D-Monongalia, and Randy Swartzmiller, D-Hancock, all wrote separate letters to the commission between Sept. 26 and Tuesday.

In the letters, the Democratic lawmakers call for the commission to require Frontier to submit to a binding agreement requiring the company to invest in improved broadband services as a condition of the commission agreeing to an application for Frontier seeking approval to emerge from bankruptcy.

“I want Frontier to be successful, I want to see them continue to provide good paying jobs with benefits to their employees as well as provide the dependable services that their customers expect and deserve in the 21st century,” Swartzmiller wrote. “Also, I want to emphasize the importance of holding them accountable in providing the Northern Panhandle citizens, especially in rural areas, with dependable high speed broadband internet.”

The lawmakers expressed concerns with a proposal by Frontier for a “virtual separation,” which would involve dividing their service areas into two categories: an “InvestCo” category that would involve additional deployment of fiber for broadband, and an “ImproveCo” category that would involve improvements to its copper network.

“I am asking that the PSC obtain a detailed explanation from Frontier about what ‘Virtual Separation’ means for West Virginia and how they plan to improve service across the state, including building a high-speed fiber network,” Lovejoy wrote.

Linda Bouvette, a commission staff attorney, sent written responses on behalf of the commissioners to all five lawmakers since the commissioners are precluded by law from responding on the active case. According to Bouvette’s letters, Frontier has indicated West Virginia would be an InvestCo state, though Feinberg said Frontier hasn’t released additional details to the commission.

“(Frontier) made clear that in no matter how many questions they got, including from the commission, they said until they’ve completed their reorganization … and until they get done studying all the other states that would be part of InvestCo, they don’t know how much money they’ll have to spend, where it will be spent, how it will be spent, what will be spent,” Feinberg said.

While the commission has authority over issues arising from Frontier’s phone service, Bouvette said a law passed by the Legislature in 2015 prevents the commission from forcing Frontier to improve internet services.

“The commission has no authority to order Frontier to designate West Virginia as an InvestCo state or require it to install fiber to improve its broadband service,” Bouvette wrote. “In the 2015 general session, the Legislature specifically excluded internet services from the commission’s jurisdiction.”

Senate Bill 576 prohibits the commission from having jurisdiction over internet protocoled-enabled services and voice-over-internet-protocol-enabled service. The bill passed the state Senate unanimously in 2015, with the House of Delegates voting 75-23 in favor of the bill. Caputo, one of the letter writers, voted against SB 576 at the time, while Romano voted yes.

Frontier filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in April in an effort to reorganize $10 billion in debt and $1 billion in interest expenses. Frontier is expected to exit bankruptcy by early 2021, with 10 states already approving its restructuring plan.

West Virginia has yet to approve Frontier’s plan. In a commission order dated Aug. 30, 2018, Frontier was required to undergo an audit after the Communications Workers of America filed a complaint against Frontier West Virginia and Citizens Communications, the previous name of the company. The union asked for a review of Frontier’s copper network and infrastructure, as well as revenue since acquiring Verizon Inc. in 2010.

The Communications Workers also sought a review of phone line maintenance, repairs, installations, staffing, and quality of service, and isn’t the only group unhappy with Frontier. The commission has hundreds of letters complaining about Frontier service, both in rural parts of the state and in larger cities. Bouvette said the commission will be entering an order in the case in the near future.

Steven Allen Adams can be reached at sadams@newsandsentinel.com

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