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Judge Recommends Frontier Take Remedial Steps

March 28, 2019
BY LAUREN MATTHEWS - EDITOR (LMATTHEWS@WETZELCHRONICLE.COM) , Wetzel Chronicle

Editor's Note: Bill Hughes stopped by our office a few weeks ago to share some information concerning a case he had before the Public Service Commission. We were finishing up the story on Monday, March 25 when we received the news that he had passed away. We were uncertain about publishing the story so soon after his passing, but his family gave their blessing for such, noting it was important information for the public to have. Thus, we have decided to go ahead and publish our story. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family and friends of Bill Hughes, who was a passionate champion of many causes.

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Recently, the Public Service Commission's Division of Administrative Law Judges (ALJ) passed down a Recommended Decision, stating that Frontier Communications of West Virginia "undertake certain remedial steps in the Reader Exchange."

Article Photos

Photo by Bill Hughes
Pictured is one of the many photos submitted by Bill Hughes as part of his case against Frontier Communications, before the Public Service Commission.

This decision, signed off by Matthew J. Minney, Deputy Chief Administrative Law Judge, comes as the result of Case No. 18-1106-T-C, William J. Hughes (Complainant) vs. Frontier Communications.

On December 11, 2018, an evidentiary hearing was held in the case. At the Dec. 11 hearing, Hughes presented testimony from five witnesses and tendered exhibits; Frontier elicited testimony from two witnesses. The assigned Staff, Utilities Analyst David Howell of the PSC Utilities Division, also offered testimony. After the hearing, briefs were then filed. The following information can be found on the PSC website, by researching Case No. 18-1106-T-C.

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Hughes' Witnesses:

One of Hughes' witnesses manages a detox and crisis stabilization center. She does not have cellular service at her residence, and described Frontier service as inconsistent and unreliable, including a number of outages. She said at times, the parties to her calls are unable to hear each other. She said she will contact Frontier each time her service is out, but the contact requires a 15 or 20 minute drive to use her cellular phone.

Hughes' first witness also claimed she was forced to temporarily relocate at times to "ensure telephone access for work or because of her medical needs."

Under cross examination, Hughes' first witness said her residence is 14 miles from New Martinsville and 15 from Reader. She said she lives in a very rural area. She said she had service at that point, but quality is still poor. She said the other party sounded "muffled." She claimed Frontier gives inconsistent repair information. She further stated she should not have to give detailed medical information for Frontier to expedite its repair service.

Hughes' second witness resides in the Wileyville area and formerly worked with the Wetzel County 911 and emergency management. He said his neighborhood often loses telephone service when it loses electrical power, and he said he hears "crosstalk" when using his phone. He said he does not have an alternative for telephone service, and cell phones do not work in his area.

Hughes' second witness said service reliability at the 911 center decreased once Frontier purchased the local telephone system. He said Frontier used portable generators to power its network during the 2012 derecheo, but the generators were stolen. He said Frontier has not been responsive in replacing old backup batteries. He also expressed frustration with a request he had for Frontier to move his service drop.

Hughes' third witness said his phone service was out for 15 days in September 2018, and 28 days in October 2018. He said he has had Frontier service for 15 years and has no other options, such as telephone service. He attributed some of his telephone issues to weather service, but noted he believes Frontier lost a repair ticket for one of his outages. The third witness said he and his wife require reliable telephone service, as they have medical issues. He said Frontier wasn't responsive during one of its extended outages, until he called the Frontier president.

Hughes also called his wife, Marianne to testify. Marianne said she and her husband have past hospitalizations and medical problems requiring telephone service and reliable fax line. She said she is incapable of loading Hughes in a vehicle by herself.

Marianne said rural residents are unable to call 911 when their telephone service is unavailable. She said sometimes Frontier representatives are unwilling to receive a trouble report from third parties, and she expressed frustration in having to drive to another location to report a telephone outage.

Marianne said telephone service has been unsatisfactory for many years, and her fax line which she uses to communicate with medical professionals - was out for nine days in September. She said her phone line was out of service for 15 days.

Hughes himself testified and said he experienced an outage on May 18-21, 2018. He said he had to drive to a ridge top to contact Frontier by cell phone. He said the outage was caused by a subcontractor, and Frontier refused to allow him to report the outage for any other party. He said he didn't want to discuss other accounts but report a wider outage. He said outages occurred on June 28 and September 10, 2018, and interfered with communication with his medical providers.

Hughes' said he believes poor maintenance is the underlying cause of telephone outages and that a lack of maintenance creates a "vicious circle" of declining service.

During Hughes' testimony he showed several photos of telephone poles and lines in the area. Telephone facilities near his residence appeared to be in good condition, while other photos depicted the following: a broken pole and loose lashing wire (near Route 7), a broken pole tied with rope (near Pine Grove), a tree supporting a line, a branch holding a telephone line, telephone lines covered by tree limbs (along Routes 7 and 20), and trees supporting telephone lines (east of Pine Grove on Route 20).

Hughes' photos also included a section depicting the use of rope to make telephone repairs rope holding the broken part of a pole and rope tying the telephone line to a tree. Other photos depicted vegetation overgrowth, and further photos depicted low hanging cables, a cable unraveling because of its own weight.

Under cross-examination, Hughes admitted he had not presented the photos to Frontier before. It was also noted some of the photos depict telephone lines throughout Wetzel County, and the lines along Route 20 do not provide his service. During Hughes' testimony, he requested the PSC direct Frontier to improve its facilities maintenance and customer service, noting the latter should be more flexible in passing information to the right hands, such as the local technicians.

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Frontier's Witnesses

Frontier's first witness was its local manager for portions of Wetzel County and Morgantown. The manager said Hughes is served through the Reader central officer via a remote terminal in Green Acres.

The manager said Hughes' residence is located in a very rural area, quite far from the central office, and Hughes' service is provided through a very long loop a copper circuit delivering service. It was stated a longer loop provides additional opportunities to sustain damage to the facilities, and the signal has difficulty reaching its destination.

The manager said most of Hughes' service difficulties, as depicted through his trouble tickets, were due to falling trees or truck traffic outside of Frontier's control. During cross-examination, the manager said he was not familiar with the May 2018 outage at the Hughes,' because he wasn't employed by Frontier then. However, said Frontier moved a cable to accommodate a bridge project, and a splice was performed incorrectly, leading the outage. He said his technicians are not responsible for vegetation management, and a third-party is dispatched to perform tree removal. He said he is not familiar with Frontier contracting practices. He said relatching the support strand or reinforcing a pole requires specialized equipment, which Frontier utilizes outside contractors for.

The manager said he attempts to maintain communication with his technicians , who make him aware of service-affecting problems.

The manager said he believes Frontier is adequately staffed to address current service calls, and he said a Frontier technician works 40-70 hours a week. He said presently a technician will render service in two to three days, excluding a specific unexpected incident. He said he is not familiar with the process Frontier uses to address customer service calls until the trouble ticket reaches dispatch. He did note that Frontier uses algorithms to examine trouble tickets for a common cause that impacts multiple customers.He said eight Frontier technicians are assigned to the portion of Wetzel County supervised by him. He said he and his technicians regularly work overtime, and he is always on call.

The manager aid he believes the 17-day outage affecting Hughes was from the wires in his service drop crossing and shorting out. He said a 17-day outage is "towards the upper end of unusual."

The local manager said he believed the photos shown by Hughes are not representative of the facilities in the area of Wetzel County that he supervises. He said technicians report potential maintenance needs to him for further attention, and this occurs two to three times per week for his section of Wetzel County. He said he was unaware of any organized preventative maintenance program for Frontier.

He said Frontier has a dispatch program which provides him with an overview of his technicians and their assigned work for a particular day. He said there is also a list of unassigned work, which includes upcoming service orders and trouble tickets. He said he can review comments, including medical indicator or other reasons for expedited service. He said a ticket is automatically assigned by software, but can pass through him. He said the dispatch team operating with the software is located in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and he can intervene with the dispatch team to modify scheduling.

Of Hughes' photos, the manager said poles should not lean, but rope is potentially a viable means of suspending lines. He said lines should not be a few feet from the ground, and vegetation can be difficult to control but the removal may be unnecessary. He said he is not aware of a vegetation control program.

Frontier's second witness was a Frontier manager for government and external relations for West Virginia. She said she gathers information to formulate an answer to the PSC and attempts to resolve complaints amicably. She said she has not previously received any of the information Hughes has presented, and she said she worked with the local manager to restore Hughes' service and will work with him to address problems set forth in Hughes' evidence. She emphasized the need for customers to advise Frontier of service problems.

Under cross-examination, the Frontier manager said she would accept information from Hughes regarding his neighbors but said she is not a general customer service representative.

**

PSC Staff Testimony

The PSC Staff called David Howell, utility analyst for the PSC, to testify. He said he has 25 years of experience with the PSC. He said Case No. 17-1435-T-C may be a possible course of action to adopt in Hughes' case including a preventative maintenance plan. He said the circumstances in that case are similar to Hughes. Under cross-examination, he said he does not have a background in the technical aspects of telecommunications.

Recommended Decision, Discussion, & Order

It was noted that the PSC has established a number of standards "relating to the quality of telephone services," and telephone utilizes are required to "employ prudent management of engineering practices that allow them to maintain physical plant and equipment in a good state of appear."

It was "Local telephone service should meet satisfactory transmission quality at least 99 percent of the time," and "That service should be free of excessive distortion, noise or cross-talk."

It said a telephone utility should continually review its operations and adopt a preventative maintenance program. "In the event that a telephone customer loses service, the telephone utility should generally resolve an outage within 24 hours and handle the service request with courtesy and consideration."

"The testimony and exhibits presented at hearing support the conclusion that Frontier telecommunications facilities in the Reader exchange have deteriorated beyond the scope of a single customer and no longer meet the service quality standards"

It was noted Hughes' photos support the testimony that witnesses had when noting their service quality has declined over several years."

Also, the local manager's testimony supported that of Hughes' witnesses, in that the manager noted his technicians are working an average of 50 hours and lack a number of maintenance capabilities," and " Extended outages described by (Hughes') witnesses are also consistent with both Frontier staff operating at their full capacity and declining physical plant."

It was noted the conditions described justify addressing the individual service problems, as well as "formulate and execute a preventative maintenance plan." It was noted the plan that should be implemented was outlined in Case No. 17-1200-T-C, in which a process employed by Frontier in other instances involved targeting a specific location with a preventative maintenance crew that reviewed the outside plant on an area-area basis or replace damaged facilities.

The plan is be developed and filed within 90 days. An update was requested 180 days and one year from the filing of the plan.

However, it was stated the plan would include only the Reader exchange, as the the evidence supported issues in the Reader exchange.

It has not yet been determined if the Recommended Decision has become the PSC's Final Order.

Notably, Hughes has filed exceptions to the Recommendation, arguing the location should include Pine Grove, as some of his photographs were taken in the Pine Grove exchange area, and two of his witnesses are on the Pine Grove exchange. Hughes recommended the Recommended Decision be expanded to include at least Pine Grove and Reader exchanges.

**

Other PSC action involving Frontier:

The Recommended Decision involving Hughes' cases against Frontier comes after the Public Service Commission, on Jan. 30, encouraged Frontier West Virginia to revise and complete its filings in the Focused Management Audit of Frontier's operations.

After receiving numerous and increasing complaints regarding Frontier's quality of service, on August 30, 2018, the Commission ordered a focused management audit of Frontier to determine if Frontier was operating efficiently, utilizing sound management practices and to identify those areas where Frontier was operating inefficiently.

Frontier informed the Commission on January 23, 2019, that it had missed several Commission imposed deadlines, including the scheduled issuance of the RFP for the Audit.

Additional information is available on the Commission website: www.psc.state.wv.us by referencing Case No. 18-0291-T-P.

 
 
 

 

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