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Communication workers union defends Frontier to FCC

CHARLESTON — The union representation of the state and nation’s telecommunication workers is siding with Frontier Communications as Republican lawmakers call on the Federal Communications Commission to closely scrutinize Frontier’s winning bid for rural broadband projects.

Ed Mooney, the vice president of the Communications Workers of America District 2-13, wrote a letter to the FCC encouraging the federal agency to reject the calls by congressional and state lawmakers to review the winning bid by Frontier in phase I of the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction.

“CWA has been a long-time leader in advocating for expanded broadband access, improvements to Frontier’s services quality in West Virginia, and accountability for customers,” Mooney wrote. “Frontier is a major broadband provider in West Virginia and has the resources and experienced workforce necessary to deploy service to additional locations. It would be unrealistic to achieve large scale build-out of broadband in the state without Frontier.”

Frontier was one of nine companies awarded winning bids to expand high-speed broadband internet service to 119,267 unserved Census tracts in West Virginia — a $362.1 million investment in the state over the next 10 years. Frontier was the largest recipient of RDOF dollars, winning $247.6 million.

U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., wrote a letter Dec. 9 to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai expressing concerns about Frontier’s winning bid. Capito questioned Frontier’s ability to deliver on their RDOF projects and urged the FCC to reject Frontier’s application if issues are discovered.

Second District Congressman Alex Mooney, R-W.Va., also sent a letter to the FCC on Dec. 18.

Capito’s letter was followed by two letters Dec. 16 by a bipartisan group of state senators and delegates. The state lawmakers pointed to an audit by the Inspector General’s Office for the U.S. Department of Commerce that accused Frontier — a sub-recipient of a 2009 federal grant — of marking up invoices to the state by as much as 35 percent and charging the state millions in indirect costs that were not allowable. The state was forced to repay $4.6 million in 2019 to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Lawmakers also raised concerns about Frontier’s bankruptcy filing. Frontier filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in April in an effort to reorganize $10 billion in debt and $1 billion in interest expenses. The company is expected to emerge from bankruptcy in early 2021.

CWA Vice President Mooney said bankruptcy alone should not disqualify Frontier from participating in the RDOF auction and expressed concerns that any deal could harm West Virginia during phase II of the RDOF auction, which will focus on underserved parts of the state.

“It is wrong to assert that Frontier’s recent Chapter 11 bankruptcy should be a cause of concern,” Mooney wrote. “Rejection of Frontier’s long-form application over these unfounded concerns would delay disbursement of funds until the Commission decides through rulemaking whether these blocks will be included in Phase II of the RDOF auction. This could slow much needed broadband deployment in West Virginia by several years.”

The CWA is a party to a proposed settlement agreement released Dec. 18 between Frontier, staff of the West Virginia Public Service Commission, and the PSC’s Consumer Advocate Division to accept Frontier’s bankruptcy reorganization plan. If approved by the full commission on Tuesday, Jan. 19, West Virginia would be the 12th state to accept Frontier’s bankruptcy reorganization plan.

According to the proposed agreement, Frontier’s operations in West Virginia would be known as “InvestCo.” As part of the designation, Frontier agreed to voluntarily deploy gigabit broadband services to no less than 150,000 locations in West Virginia by Dec. 31, 2027.

The locations will allow Frontier to deploy fiber to homes and businesses when people subscribe, also called FTTP. Frontier set a goal of FTTP broadband deployment to 75,000 locations three years after they emerge from bankruptcy. Frontier said their RDOF phase I projects would count towards their FTTP goal.

“Frontier’s business plan will prioritize new investment in fiber deployment for West Virginia,” Mooney wrote. “In addition, CWA believes that the December 18, 2020 Joint Settlement to resolve the PSC proceeding overseeing the bankruptcy imposes meaningful commitments on Frontier that will lead to large-scale upgrade of the Frontier plant in West Virginia. The conclusion of the bankruptcy case coupled with the ‘InvestCo’ designation will result in a financially stronger company that is capable of making investments in West Virginia.”

More than 8,000 of CWA’s union members are employed by Frontier, including more than 1,200 employees in West Virginia.

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

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