Thursday, January 18, 2018
Business

Frontier Communication's takeover of Verizon FiOS still causing headaches on Saturday

TAMPA — Frontier Communications might be looking for a second chance to make a first impression after its bumpy takeover of Verizon's FiOS Internet and TV service in Tampa Bay.

Customers throughout the region said they experienced lengthy Internet outages and other problems Friday that continued into Saturday.

And in an age when the lifeblood of many companies flows through fiber optic data lines, some businesses appeared to be hit hard by the loss of service that made it impossible to swipe credit cards, take online customer orders or to check Web-based real estate records.

Frontier officials insisted Friday that problems were not widespread and were perhaps not as serious as depicted by the media. By Saturday, their tone had shifted as the company's regional president, Mike Flynn, acknowledged, "I know we stubbed our toe a little bit here."

Even so, Flynn said most major problems appeared to have been resolved, though individual trouble spots may continue. He said many complaints Saturday may be just normal, everyday issues that are not necessarily tied to the transition.

Flynn also confirmed that a service outage for AT&T customers Friday was caused by Frontier when a piece of equipment on the fiber-optic network was improperly set, leading to a service interruption for some larger commercial customers. That was fixed Friday morning.

While many businesses reported a resumption of service by Saturday morning, some residential customers told the Tampa Bay Times and posted on social media about continued Internet blackouts.

Chris Graser, who operates computer repair and Web design businesses in Bradenton, had to close his office Saturday for lack of Internet, though by afternoon his connection was restored.

"When I got to the office at 8 a.m. expecting to work and get things done, I couldn't do anything," he said. "Then I go home, and I found out I still didn't have service there. This is incredibly frustrating."

It adds up to a fiery public relations test for Frontier, a company that had promised a smooth transition its customers would hardly notice.

"This is a public relations nightmare," said telecommunications analyst Jeff Kagan, who said perhaps even Verizon deserved some of the blame as it worked with Frontier to prepare for the switch-over. "This is a black eye that Frontier didn't want. I don't know if the company could have avoided it or not. All I can say is that companies want to avoid stepping in the doo-doo. And Frontier has certainly stepped in it."

Frontier could not provide an estimate on how many of its more than 500,000 customers in the Tampa Bay area experienced service interruptions. Company officials, however, indicated it was relatively small.

So what happened?

Frontier officials said a fiber optic cable was cut Friday morning by a third party drilling a hole for a pole. That issue, the company said, was quickly resolved that morning. A coding error in software discovered late Friday night caused outages to 400 to 500 business customers. Again, Frontier said that had been resolved by Saturday.

Kirk Maust, CEO of Solar Direct in Sarasota, said his company lost Internet and its Web-based phones all day Friday before service returned near midnight. His employees could not take new orders for solar products when service was down.

"I easily lost $12,000 to $15,000 in sales from it being down the whole day," Maust said Saturday morning. "They're just toying with peoples' livelihood."

Some customers in California and Texas also lost some service, but Flynn said the transition in those states mostly appeared to go smoothly.

One ongoing problem for many residential customers was a disruption of video on demand service, Frontier said. Ray Sillence Sr. of New Port Richey said he could not access about 40 movies he had purchased while a Verizon customer.

"This was supposed to be an easy transition," he said. "But it's not. Good God. Something has to be done."

Matt Helsing, a South Tampa optometrist, said his office Internet was out all day Friday. All his patient records are online, he said. He was forced to use his smartphone to create an Internet hot spot so he could use office computers. He could not run patient credit cards, so he took down the card information and will charge customers later.

Like many customers, he was irate that Frontier downplayed problems and suggested they were just the normal issues and not connected with the provider switch.

"I couldn't believe they said that," said Helsing, whose office is normally closed on the weekend. He did not know if service had yet been restored. "That's crazy to me."

In fact, Flynn pointed out that the number of people who called Frontier's customer service line was 106 percent of what would be expected on a normal business day.

"There is going to be a tendency for people to blame everything of what happened in the first 24 hours (on the transition from Verizon), when it may not be the case at all," Flynn said.

Still, he said he did not want to minimize problems people were still facing and noted it is possible some outstanding issues are being caused by the takeover.

"There still might be some lingering challenges that we want to make sure we address," Flynn said. "We're routing technicians to those locations and really digging in. We really don't want to make any assumptions, that we think we've got this nailed but we really don't."

Frontier switched service for 3.5 million customers in the three states, with most issues occurring in Florida, said Frontier spokesman Bob Elek. Very few people, he said, experienced outages.

Bright House Networks, Frontier's major competitor in the region, appears to be jumping to make the most of its rival's woes.

That provider's account representatives were fishing for new customers on message boards on some popular websites, such as downdetector.com, where folks can monitor service outages.

"Does your provider work for your business on the weekend?" said one Bright House representative. "Call me if you need Phone, Internet or TV service ASAP due to recent outages."

With a pending acquisition of Bright House by Charter Communications expected to be finished by spring, Flynn noted it may be Bright House/Charter's turn very soon.

Said Flynn: "They're going to undergo the same sort of things."

Contact William R. Levesque at [email protected] Follow @Times_Levesque.

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