Yesterday evening, internet service provider Frontier Communications announced it was filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, a move in which it said it expects to “reduce the Company’s debt by more than $10 billion and provide significant financial flexibility to support continued investment in its long-term growth.”
It plans to sell its operations in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana to Northwest Fiber for $1.4 billion by April 30th, and it will keep offering service in another 25 states, which includes California and New York. Frontier says that its bankruptcy filing will not affect the service it provides to its current customers since it has “sufficient liquidity to meet its ongoing obligations.” According to Ars Technica, Frontier has “2.6 million Internet subscribers, with 1.4 million on DSL and 1.2 million on fiber” in those 25 states.
Earlier this month, Frontier told investors that much of its financial trouble stemmed from not investing enough in fiber broadband deployment across the US, and according to the Wall Street Journal, it went $17.5 billion into debt buying wirelines from AT&T and Verizon, among other infrastructure to become one of the largest telecom companies. However, Frontier received nearly $284 million from the US government as part of the FCC’s 2015 Connection America Fund to expand its broadband availability in all of the 29 states it services, especially rural areas.
In a January 2020 letter to the FCC, Frontier admitted that it “may not have met” its required “deployment milestone” in thirteen states: Arizona, California, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Utah, Washington, Wisconsin, and West Virginia. Frontier was supposed to provide hundreds of thousands of locations in those states with at least 10/1 Mbps internet with that FCC money, yet failed to do so. (It should be noted that the Connect America Fund is paid for by Americans through fees on their phone bills.) Just a month prior, Frontier had written the FCC to argue against increasing the minimum broadband deployment speed to 20 Mbps, saying that 10 Mbps speeds would “make limited Rural Digital Opportunity Fund dollars reach further” and that a “20 Mbps upload target provides little to no additional benefits to the end-user customer.”
Frontier’s official bankruptcy filing, alleged mismanagement of FCC funding, customer service complaints, and abysmal job of maintaining its existing network of copper phone and broadband networks can help argue in favor of turning internet service into a utility. Limited internet provider choices, poor download/upload speeds, and lack of access to high-speed internet in key regions are just some of the other arguments for breaking the private ISP stranglehold on internet services. However, it seems like each state will need to address those things on their own at the moment.
California recently introduced legislation that would provide everyone in the state with access to high-speed broadband through what the EFF calls “open-access fiber entities.” This bill would allow private companies or local governments to build their own wired networks and lease the use of them to ISPs. The bill would also use state funds to expand high-speed wireless services and ensure that infrastructure is open to all wireless entities. Currently, ISPs own and maintain their own broadband lines, and laws prevent local municipalities from building their own networks or they find that it’s prohibitively expensive to do so; The 1984 Cable Communications Policy Act allows cable service to be determined by each municipality, so that’s why many cities in the US have limited or only one option when it comes to available internet providers—and why many are stuck with Frontier as their only ISP option.