Just under 10 years ago, the Verizon company sold its Ohio landline telephone business to a company called Frontier Communications.
The announcement was a little bit alarming to me, because one does not want his already limited telephone service in the hands of a rustic-sounding company that might respond to repair calls by dispatching a technician in a covered wagon. But my worry was unfounded. Soon I received notice that high-speed Internet via DSL was now available in my area from the phone company – something that for years Verizon had said was absolutely impossible.
During the next several years, Frontier was a dream of a telephone provider. On the rare occasions when there were issues, a quick call to the company got the problem resolved expeditiously and happily. I remember thinking how rare it was for a person to actually love his phone company.
Over time the bill grew a bit – by about 70 percent, actually – but I was getting, I thought, value for money. I didn’t complain, because the service was very good.
Then things started going pear-shaped. First came the notice, on April 17, 2017, that Frontier had farmed out its email service to a reprehensible outfit called “Oath,” whose privacy notice said they were sworn to read and take anything of use they could find from my private email communications.
They would be “[a]nalyzing content and information (including emails, instant messages, posts, photos, attachments, and other communications) when you use our services. This allows us to deliver, personalize and develop relevant features, content, advertising and services [and l]inking your activity on third-party sites and apps with information we have about you. . . . Oath and its affiliates may share the information we receive among Verizon . . .” I immediately signed up for the excellent Protonmail and Proton VPN services (both of which have free versions), which deny Oath access to what I write and those to whom I write it, as well as what others write to me. Screw ’em.
Another bothersome sign came last year. There is no cellular service in much of the area, including the part of the county where I live. But I discovered that my cellular provider – the excellent (for now, anyway) T-Mobile – offered a gadget that would draw from the Internet and act as what amounted to a home cellular tower. I got one and hooked it up. It didn’t work, and from much research I learned that certain communications ports needed to be opened to allow the cellular service to be passed over my Internet connection. It might be necessary, I was told, to ask my phone company to open those ports on my line, a simple procedure.
(I’ll digress for a moment. I’ve said it before, and it is no less true now: cellular phone service has become essential, and it’s a crime that there is any place in the country that doesn’t have it. I herewith pledge my support to the candidate for statewide office who promises to bring about universal cellular coverage here, which could take the form of tax breaks, assistance in providing towers – with the requirement that they be made available to all carriers – or something else. It could be that an aggregation could be organized toward this end, in the way that local governments have aggregated to purchase and resell lower-cost electricity.)
I got on the phone, and at the third or fourth level of tech support I got a Frontier technician who told me that he received calls like mine every day and that he had been forbidden even to talk about opening ports for such devices. No, he said, it wasn’t because those devices are not secure. No, he said, it wasn’t because it was difficult to open those ports. “I agree with you, and I wish I could help you,” he said, “but my hands are tied.” I did not know it at the time, but it was the last occasion I’d speak to someone from the company who was actually located in the U.S.
Then, a couple of months ago, there was a problem with my Frontier-supplied router. I phoned tech support and was on hold for a very long time. When someone, “David” he said his name was, came online in a very heavily accented voice (he was overseas, I believe), he read a script to me for a while. I finally was able to explain the problem. He read another script at me. I explained that it didn’t address the issue. Then, weirdly, he went off script and told me that he could nearly double the data throughput on my connection for only a dollar a month added to my bill. Sounded good, so I said fine.
“OK,” he said. “First, I need to get some information from you. What is your Social Security number?” Every alarm possible went off. I cannot prove it, but I believe that “David” was running an identity-theft scam on the side. Internet throughput has nothing in the world to do with your Social Security number. I asked him why he needed it, and he would not answer.
I ended the call and phoned the company back. After just under an hour on hold, I got someone else, also apparently in a distant land and also reading a script in nearly undecipherable English. Ultimately, on the fourth or fifth call – which consumed most of the day – I received actual help with the problem, in the form of a new router which did not work. (I managed finally to fix the old one.)
Having followed the company’s decline as summarized above, I was not surprised when I saw last Tuesday that Frontier Communications has filed for bankruptcy. The announcement was festooned in all the usual flowery language about how bankruptcy would allow Frontier to do all kinds of things to bring its subscribers even better service. (Have you ever believed such a thing? Me neither.)
Apparently those to whom Frontier owes money were no more impressed than I was: “Frontier Communications Corp.’s senior lenders say the telecommunications company’s prearranged bankruptcy plan is a ‘fragile house of cards’ that won’t stand up in court,” began a report in The Wall Street Journal last Thursday. (I should note that the bankruptcy had been rumored for months and has absolutely nothing to do with COVID-19, in a time when telephone and Internet use are up, though I would not be surprised if the once-great company tried to glom onto the pandemic as an excuse.)
“Frontier's decline is partly due to the decreasing relevance of its copper networks and its failure to properly maintain those old phone lines," said a report in Ars Technica in January. “But Frontier has also provided poor customer service on its modern fiber networks.” Um, yes.
I really do hope that the powers-that-be can cook up a way to bring cellular phone and broadband to these far-flung precincts soon. Because we may before long need it more than ever.