Frontier Communications needs a lesson in how to redact documents.
Frontier is trying to hide large portions of an audit report from the public, claiming that details about the ISP’s broadband-network problems are trade secrets. But when Frontier made a redacted version of the report public, many of the blacked-out parts were still readable simply by copying and pasting from the document.
The Frontier-edited version of the 164-page report, which was ordered by the West Virginia Public Service Commission (PSC) and written by a consultant firm, includes about 80 redacted exhibits and many pages that have been fully or partially blacked out. Frontier seems to have successfully redacted the exhibits, including many charts, but the blacked-out text is easy to lift. (Update: It turns out some of the exhibits weren’t properly redacted, either.)
For example, one redacted sentence says that “Frontier WV’s copper network has at least 952,163 connection points that are susceptible to moisture, corrosion, loose connections, etc. that may cause interruptions of service to customers.” That “952,163” number was blacked out, but it’s still readable if you copy it from the document. We’ve uploaded the document to our server in case it gets taken down from the PSC website—you can view it here.
Describing the connection points, the report says, “Any electrically connected circuit has numerous points where connections are made. As systems and networks age, all of the connection points have the potential to cause service interruptions.” The 952,163 connection points include 376,897 overhead splices, 444,898 terminals, 4,508 crossboxes, and 125,865 pedestals. Copper networks were originally deployed with “a minimal number of splices,” but “later, splices have to be added as repairs are made,” the audit report said. “No installation date data was available for splices.”
The failed redaction of the number of connection points was coupled with failed redactions about the age of the network. The consultant firm’s report said that 46.8 percent of Frontier’s West Virginia network is between 36 and 47 years old. Both the percentage and the numbers of years were unsuccessfully “redacted” by Frontier.
Other unsuccessfully redacted information includes the number of customers and the number of miles of copper in the network. “Frontier WV has to operate and maintain a 49,402.1-mile copper cable network currently serving 309,088 customers that was originally constructed to serve over 2 million [customers],” the report said. Frontier’s fiber network in West Virginia is tiny by comparison, with just 8,077 miles of fiber-optic cable. Another “redacted” portion says the fiber “provides digital capability to portions of the copper network.”
Here’s what all that information looks like in the report:
Another redacted portion shows that Frontier repeatedly failed to meet a service-quality benchmark that 85 percent of outages should be fixed within 48 hours. The data shows that “Frontier West Virginia missed the metric 21 of the 60 months [from 2015 to 2019], with 14 of those months falling in the past 24 months.” While Frontier uses a 48-hour benchmark internally, state regulations say that outages should be fixed within 24 hours of customers reporting them, the report said.
It’s hard to imagine why Frontier redacted the number of customers, because it was already publicly known that the company had about 300,000 customers in the state. In another “redacted” portion, the audit report says that 175,131 of those customers subscribe to DSL Internet service. Many customers either buy phone service by itself or a bundle with phone and Internet, but Frontier’s customer base has dwindled over the years.
Other “redaction” decisions make even less sense. One completely blacked-out paragraph merely states the Federal Communications Commission’s broadband-speed standard of 25Mbps downstream and 3Mbps upstream, and it quotes from an FCC report that said 93.5 percent of the United States has broadband access, compared to 84.6 percent in West Virginia. That FCC report is publicly available, yet Frontier wants quotes from the report to be treated as a Frontier trade secret.
Regulator ordered report
The West Virginia PSC previously ordered the third-party audit of Frontier’s operations in the state in response to widespread outages and complaints from customers and a labor union. The resulting audit report was submitted on March 18 by consultancy Schumaker and Company, but the completely un-redacted version is under seal for now.
Frontier on March 25 made its redacted version of the report public and filed a motion seeking confidential treatment of the redacted details. “The redactions primarily are of information that, if known to competitors, would provide them with key competitive insights into Frontier’s business and, conversely, would place Frontier at an undeserved competitive disadvantage, likely resulting in harm to Frontier,” the company told the PSC.
The PSC is considering calls to make an un-redacted version public. West Virginia Public Broadcasting reporter Emily Allen filed a Freedom of Information Act (FoIA) request for the full, un-redacted report, and the PSC’s staff urged the commission to reject many of Frontier’s redactions.
PSC staff wrote:
[I]nformation regarding Internet service is West Virginia-specific and does not mention any other areas in the nation where Frontier is offering services, so it is hard to contemplate how the information regarding Internet service, including federal programs which provide federal funding sources for the provisioning of broadband services and are readily available to other telecommunications providers, would pose any threat to a trade secret essential to Frontier’s operations.
The PSC requested that Frontier file a response to Allen’s FoIA request, and Frontier’s response came in yesterday. Frontier told the PSC that it operates “in a hotly competitive industry where it enjoys no protected service territory and no guaranteed rate of return whatsoever” and said it would be “damage[d]… by the release of its competitively sensitive information.” Frontier claimed that the “redacted information is limited to trade secrets and other protected information that is truly exempt from disclosure under FOIA.” Frontier also said:
In part, the redacted information includes nonpublic information about Frontier’s broadband business—over which the Commission explicitly has no jurisdiction under state law. This information was included in the report over Frontier’s objection and has no bearing on the eight explicit areas the Commission directed the Auditors to examine regarding Frontier’s voice telephone service—the subject over which the Commission has jurisdiction to conduct a focused audit. Releasing this information would only serve to harm the Frontier to the benefit of its huge wireless, satellite and cable broadband competitors.
As we previously reported, Frontier is preparing to file for bankruptcy after years of failing to invest properly in upgrading its copper-based DSL network to fiber broadband. The company’s poor maintenance of its copper phone and broadband network has led to investigations and complaints of chronic outages in New York, Minnesota, Ohio, and West Virginia.
When the Minnesota Commerce Department finished its investigation into Frontier’s extensive failures last year, the resulting report was not redacted. It accused Frontier of violating more than 35 laws and rules. Frontier eventually settled with Minnesota.
Report shows problems, despite redactions
Despite Frontier’s extensive redactions to exhibits, the West Virginia report still offers details about the company’s customer-service problems. Schumaker reported “negative trends” in six service metrics, namely outages, service problems, repair answer times, repair troubles, repair appointments met, and residential and business answer times. Unfortunately for subscribers, “Frontier does not provide customers credit in situations where the same trouble for the same service are reported on the same line within 30 days.”
Frontier’s maintenance processes are lacking, the audit report said. “Frontier WV does not have a documented process for performing preventative and corrective maintenance,” and the company “does not have a documented tree trimming policy and process.”
“Frontier has not had a pole inspection program that detects poles that do not meet strength requirements for a number of years,” the report said. “This lack of knowledge about the condition of the pole population may have created a significant backlog of poles that need to be replaced.”
Frontier has “no standardized procedure/process to be followed when determining root causes for the poor performance of any given wire center,” the report said. Schumaker also pointed out that Frontier “does not have a computer system or management process for performing preventative maintenance” but said the company was “in the process” of setting that system up while the investigation was ongoing.
“Overall capital expenditures have declined over the past nine years by 25 percent, from $65.9 million in 2010 to $49.4 million in 2018,” the report said in another portion that Frontier tried and failed to redact.
“Plant-specific operations expenses” are listed in the report without attempted redactions, with the annual amount steadily dropping in recent years, from $165.3 million in 2012 to $120.5 million in 2018.
Complaints to the PSC about Frontier service have been rising, from about 30 formal complaints in 2015 to almost 90 in 2019. Informal complaints rose from less than 600 in 2015 to more than 1,200 in 2018, before dropping to a little more than 1,000 in 2019.
More than 775 members of the public submitted comments for the state’s investigation of Frontier, Schumaker wrote:
Over half (51 percent) of the comments were related to DSL service, telephone service represented 29 percent and problems with both services were noted in 20 percent of the comments. Regarding the details of the comments, the vast majority of the DSL comments were complaints on the slow speed of Frontier’s service and delays in getting the service repaired. The major complaint with respect to the telephone service centered on out-of-service and the poor quality of the voice service (static on line).
In addition to blacking out huge parts of the report, Frontier said it objects “to certain findings and recommendations” and that it intends to “correct various factual errors and inaccuracies throughout the Audit Report.” Frontier has until April 20 to provide a full response to the findings.