News 13 Investigates: The disconnect of internet service in the NC Mountains

Speed Test for Craig Marble's computer (Photo Credit: WLOS Staff)

Imagine not being able to check your email or get your medical test results online, even though you're paying for internet service.

In many mountain counties, that's exactly what's happening despite millions in taxpayer dollars spent for upgrades.

News 13’s Investigative Team looked into the many complaints about Frontier Communications, one of the few internet options for many rural families.

Many customers feel they should at least get what they pay for. They're fed up with promised upgrades they fear will never come their way.

The problems customers experience

The drive to Craig Marble's home isn't for the faint of heart, but his view makes up for it.

“After living in DC for 12 years, it's kind of nice,” said Marble from his back deck overlooking the mountainside.

Marble lives northwest of Murphy, walking distance to his parents, but getting online to work can be a challenge.

“It's just a comedy of errors except that it's not funny. It takes five minute to load a single webpage,” Marble said.

With his IT employer two states away, he telecommutes, but struggles talking with co-workers online.

“'Are you sharing, are you sharing? Yeah I'm sharing, just wait, it will get there eventually,' So, it's really difficult,” Marble said.

For years, he's paid Frontier for high speed service, up to three megabits download, but Frontier's own speed test shows he's not getting what he pays for.

“This should be 3.0, not .3,” Marble said. He showed News 13 various speed tests for his service, they came up .3 and .5, and .6 at various times throughout the morning and afternoon.

The complaints

Marble is not alone. News 13’s I-team received over a half-dozen complaints, many telling the station they’re at their "wit's end" because "their internet works about 60 percent of the time.” Another 56 WNC complaints were filed with the state's Attorney General's office, half of them over speed issues. There were 676 customers nationwide who gave Frontier one star on Consumer Affairs' webpage. There, people said they "never receive what they pay for," or get "15 percent of internet speed they originally sold me for 99 percent of the cost."

“If there are companies out there making representations to consumers that they can not back up and we hear from consumers, we will absolutely take action on their behalf,” Attorney General Josh Stein said.

Stein told News 13 he has reached out to Frontier on behalf of the state’s customers over speed issues, but hasn't received a response.

“If we determine that Frontier is not complying with the law, we'll hold them accountable, but there's a lot of work we still need to do,” Stein said.

Frontier declined to talk on-camera. When News 13 asked if they've over-promised service to mountains customers, their response, "Copper-based internet service is difficult to represent consistently as it is subject to distance limitations. That is why it is sold as offering 'up to' a specified speed," Frontier Representativessaid. They admit, “not all customers will have the same DSL service."

“If you can get good speeds in the middle of the night, but not during the day, I think that's deceptive advertising to be suggesting to people that they can get those speeds,” said Christopher Mitchell, director of Community Broadband Networks at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minnesota.

Mitchell says, companies shouldn't advertise what they can't offer.

“This is not something that is beyond the ability of the company to solve, this is a decision that they're making which is to market a service that they cannot deliver or are willing to deliver on reasonable terms,” said Mitchell.

Frontier's response

Frontier claims it has improved service thanks to federal improvement funds. More upgrades are planned through 2020 with another $14.4 million in taxpayer dollars paying for it. While that should increase speeds for customers, it doesn't mean anyone's checking or holding companies accountable.

“It's not always clear that anyone is actually following up on it to make sure that they're honest or that it's even achieving something measurable,” said Mitchell, who completed an entire study looking at broadband access in North Carolina.

Advocates say responsibility falls to states to make sure customers get what they pay for.

“We absolutely need states to be watchdogs,” Mitchell said.

Georgia reached a $600,000 settlement for customers in a false-advertising complaint with internet provider Windstream in 2014. Meanwhile, four other states already have class action lawsuits against Frontier. Attorney General Josh Stein says his office wants to see customers' speed tests.

“If the consumer's not getting what they are marketed by, what the representation by the company is, they have a legitimate gripe and they should let my office know,” Stein said.

Craig Marble has already sent that information to Stein and Frontier, but has seen little action from either other than letters shuttled back and forth. Marble said that the last time he spoke to Frontier representatives to complaint about service, they didn’t give him much hope.

“They said, several of them said, 'There are no plans for upgrades in your area, period',” Marble said.

Creating a dilemma, Mitchell says, could work towards depopulating mountain communities. Questions to mountain real estate agents aren't, "How good are the schools," but rather "Is there high speed internet?"

“It’s bad for our economy. We need to find ways for people who want to live in our rural areas can live there, and they can live good lives that will be economically productive,” Mitchell said.

The Survey

There is a state run agency called, North Carolina Broadband Infrastructure. Keith Conover is our liaison. He's conducting a survey to see who is not getting the service they pay for and who can't get service at all. Questions in the survey including, “does the speed meet your needs,” but they need customers to act. You have through the first of the year to fill out the survey. Here’s the link.

Also Email the I-team if you’re having internet problems or send us a 30 sec. video, showing your speed test.

Below are the questions News 13 asked Frontier and their answers below: CAF are Connect America Funds, grants from the federal government. According to the FCC this is what the funds are for, “Broadband has gone from being a luxury to a necessity for full participation in our economy and society – for all Americans. For that reason, the FCC has adopted comprehensive reforms of its Universal Service Fund (USF) and Intercarrier Compensation (ICC) systems to accelerate broadband build-out to the approximately 23 million Americans (as of December 31, 2013) who lack access to infrastructure capable of providing 10/1 Mbps fixed broadband. This reform will expand the benefits of high-speed Internet to millions of consumers in every part of the country by transforming the existing USF into a new Connect America Fund focused on broadband. Consumers everywhere – both urban and rural – will benefit. Reform will not only drive economic growth in rural America, but will expand the online marketplace nationwide, creating jobs and businesses opportunities across the country.”

File a Complaint with the NC Attorney General's Office.

If you want to file a complaint about your internet service with the Attorney General's Office click here.

Q &A:

Question: How many customers does Frontier service in the following counties: Buncombe, Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Henderson, Jackson, Macon, Madison, Mitchell, McDowell, Polk, Rutherford, Swain, Transylvania, Yancey? Answer: I’m not familiar enough with cities in counties etc. We have customers in the following towns: Andrews, Bryson City, Buncombe, Cashiers, Cherokee, Cullowhee, Fontana, Franklin, Garden City, Glenwood, Hayesville, Highlands, Madison, McDowell, Mitchell, Murphy, Robbinsville, Suit, Sylva, Weaverville and Yancey. Of those we serve, some are only telephone customers, some internet only customers and still others both phone and internet customers. While we do not provide market specific customer counts in any of our operating areas for competitive reasons, it is fair to say that our customer count in the areas I referenced is in the tens of thousands.

Question: How is Frontier using the Connect America Funds in western North Carolina? What’s being done to upgrade or add service? How is the money being spent? Answer: Frontier is installing fiber into network support buildings or units in western North Carolina to enable more capacity over our existing copper network.

Question: How many new customers has Frontier been able to provide service to, as a result of Connect America funds? Are the funds being used more for acquiring new customers or is it more upgrading service for existing customers and in that case, what have the service improvements been like? Answer: It starts with upgrading the network to provide a minimum of 10 Mbps service identified as CAF households to meet the requirements of the CAF Fund as established by the FCC. Customers along the path of these improvements, both existing and those who are currently not customers, can take advantage of new broadband upgrades though not necessarily at the 10 Mbps threshold. However, it is not designed to extend the network to different operating areas.

Question: How much funding has Frontier received in Connect America funds for upgrades to broadband service in those western North Carolina counties? Answer: As of 2016, Frontier began receiving approximately $3.6 million a year from the CAF to expand and upgrade the company's network to more than 11,000 locations in North Carolina by the end of 2020, to include areas in western NC. In total, Frontier has accepted the FCC’s CAF II offer of over $330 million annually across 29 states during the six-year program, and must meet annual benchmarks for each state beginning in 2017 for passing a specified percentage of designated households.

Question: In which counties has Frontier received funds and is using them to improve or add service? Answer: We have previously used CAF II funds in Macon, Clay, Jackson and Swain counties.

Question: What projects/upgrades have been completed to date, since Frontier started receiving Connect America funds? Answer: In addition to the counties referenced above, representative counties in this latest round in 2017 included households in Cashiers, Cherokee, Franklin and Hayesville. By the of this phase of CAF II funding the intention is to have touched all of the counties we serve in Western NC, barring anything unexpected.

Question: Has Frontier over-promised service in areas in any of the above mentioned counties? If service has been over-promised, what problems is that creating and what is the remedy for solving that problem? Answer: I’m not sure what this question is asking. I would say that copper-based internet service is difficult to represent consistently as it is subject to distance limitations. That is why it is sold as offering “up to” a specified speed. However, CAF funding should have a positive impact on the end user experience.

Question: What is the best way customers who feel they’re being underserved or not getting the service that they’ve paid for can reach out to report a problem? Answer: They should call 1-800-921-8101.

Question: Has the state of North Carolina, through the state’s Attorney General office or Consumer Protection Division reached out to Frontier over service issues, failing to deliver on service promises made by the company and if so, what’s been the response back to the state? Answer: We receive individual customer complaints from these agencies, usually revolving around availability of service or insufficient internet speeds. Our marketing for internet service and our terms of service recognize that some customers may not have the same experience as others, largely because of the distance limitations of DSL service or congestion in the network. We are attempting to address both of these issues through a combination of normal capital budgets and the additional CAF II funding.

Question: What are some of the issues Frontier runs into in expanding or improving broadband service or internet access and speed issues in western North Carolina? Answer: Mostly there are geographic challenges. However, customer density is also a challenge, or lack thereof. Balancing the significant cost of expanding broadband availability in rural areas versus the potential return on that investment is always a challenge. However, we are grateful for the Connect America Fund to help spur some of that investment and know that those customers who have been impacted by the expanded capacity appreciate the service.

Question: Anything you would like to add about the Connect America funds? Answer: We are fortunate to be a participant in the CAF funding process and grateful to the FCC for making it possible. Our hope is that customers in Western NC will have better internet connectivity experiences as we move along toward the culmination of this funding in 2020.

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