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How is Frontier Communications settling in after its troubled Tampa Bay debut?

The inside of an optical transport system at Frontier’s network operations center in downtown Tampa.
The inside of an optical transport system at Frontier’s network operations center in downtown Tampa.
Published Sep. 9, 2016

TAMPA — Frontier Communications called it a "rough-and-tumble transition period." Customers were far more judgmental in the wake of the telecom's takeover of Verizon's land line, cable and Internet services on April 1.

"The very worst company I have ever done business with." … "The nerve of these people, ignoring their responsibilities and just killing small businesses." … "The last 3½ months with Frontier is the customer service equivalent of waterboarding."

And those were just some of the printable complaints sent to the Tampa Bay Times after Frontier's disastrous switch-over in the wake of its $10.5 billion deal.

Local residents will get a more benign depiction of Frontier as it launches a series of campaigns designed to position — or reposition — the company with customers.

Frontier is the official presenter of country star Brad Paisley's Country Nation College Tour, which kicked off with a free concert Sept. 4 in Orlando. The company just signed a deal to become an official sponsor of University of South Florida athletics (it's also a Florida State University sponsor) and is the official residential Internet and TV provider for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

But it's not just through marketing deals that Frontier hopes to "polish up the brand after some very tough times," as the company said in a recent announcement. It is reporting better service numbers, which it hopes will keep its 500,000 broadband customers — the majority of those with FiOS fiber-optic broadband service — and 700,000 overall from jumping ship to other home entertainment and communications options.

Frontier said that in May it tracked 6.55 trouble reports per 100 lines; by July, that was down to 5.78. Repair commitments met was at 97.3 percent last month, a marked improvement from the 60 percent range in May.

It's a far cry from this spring, when Frontier's woes even caught the attention of the state Attorney General's Office, leading to the creation of an "action plan" to get the company on track. The Attorney General's Office had received more than 2,000 complaints from Tampa Bay customers in May and June.

Frontier spokesman Bob Elek and director of engineering and construction David Woods recently provided a tour of the company's downtown network operations center and discussed getting past the spring fiasco.

Can you clarify the concept of "throwing the switch?" What actually took place on April 1 as Verizon customers became Frontier customers?

Elek: We're talking about software and communications, equipment to equipment, machine to machine, what is transported through the network that makes (it) work. What language is it sitting there waiting for? It was waiting for one language from Verizon, now it's getting a different language from Frontier.

So there were some definite hiccups with that once the switch was thrown, and there was no way to know how that was going to work, really. There was some testing that was done, but the broad-scale work to get to all of our customers, to get through the switch, you really didn't know for sure.

Let's take the example of a local sandwich shop that we talked to, with no Internet service, no land line, and they couldn't swipe credit cards or take phone or Internet orders. How did that happen?

Elek: In the case of a number of small businesses shortly after the transition, there was a message sent to their routers as if they were dynamic routers (a different type that they actually had), which was a mistake. That would take them right out of service. It just took us awhile to uncover that error that had been made. Once we fixed that, all those businesses came back in service at pretty much the same time.

You've indicated that average trouble loads in Florida run in the 600-800 range per day. Could it have been a case where many of the complaints might not have been related to the switch-over, but people were hearing so much about it, they just reacted?

Woods: They would hear about things or read about things on the Internet, and they'd immediately jump to that as their solution. Whereas a lot of things happen that were business as usual.

I was dealing with a business (owner) saying, "We've got this problem, we can't do this, we can't do that," and on and on. I'm looking at the system and we're troubleshooting it, and I can't see anything wrong. I've gone through the path and everything looks fine.

And finally it just came to me. I said, "Is anything going on around your business?" He said, "Well, yeah, they just had the pole knocked down out back." That's a big problem.

Elek: I don't care if you're Bright House, if you're us, if you're AT&T, there are always issues going on in the network every day. Customers have issues and sometimes they're minor, a lot of times they don't even know they have one, because they're not home, they're not using things, and problems are fixed in the network. Other times you've got a problem with a router, and suddenly we've got a big Internet slowdown, maybe somebody put a wrong piece of software in there, you've got a cable that's cut, people are out.

In 17 years at Verizon, I can assure you, I've had people tell me, "Your service sucks. You can't do this, you can't do that." They don't understand … the complexity that's involved and why some times things just fall off the table. It's a human enterprise, too. We've got 3,000 people in this market, and to try to get them all rowing in the same direction at the same time doesn't always happen.

Did you experience any noticeable dropoff in customers?

Elek: We lost some customers. I don't know if you'd call it noticeable. The other thing that was happening, and this was going to happen no matter what, there were a number of customers — a large number — coming into a period where they were either leaving a promotion that they had when they joined, or they were coming to the end of a contract. So new terms were being proposed, and that's when you get people saying, "Oh, my God, my bill's gone up, and they want to give me the same service but they want to charge me this." Well, that's the business part of it. Now, we're open to negotiating, but there's a certain point where it's just business, and people make a decision whether they're going to stay with the company or move on.

Can you explain the customer service complaints, the problems with call centers and not being able to provide repair commitments?

Elek: Largely, that was due to an offshore call center in the Philippines, which we have acknowledged was not the right decision. That offshore center caused a great deal of trouble. About a month or so ago, we onshored all of that service. Frontier's goal was to have a 100 percent U.S. workforce, and that's exactly what we have now.

Google has been getting a lot of attention with its proposal to provide cities with 1-gigabit service. Could Frontier provide that?

Elek: Yes. FiOS has got that kind of capability. But the drawback has always been for us, previously and now, too: Is there market demand for it? I don't think there has been thus far. That's not to suggest larger businesses don't want that kind of service. That wouldn't necessarily come from the FiOS (broadband) network, but the company has the capability to create a network solution that can easily provide a gig (gigabyte).

So the transition problems are behind you?

Elek: Yes. I just saw some figures for service orders met during the month of August; we were at 97.3 percent. Obviously, you want to get as close to 100 percent as you can, but that's pretty good. Whereas we were probably in the 60 percent range during the transition.

Things have clearly settled down. We've gotten back to the normal, if you would, business operating mode.

Contact Jerome R. Stockfisch at jstockfisch@tampabay.com.