In a town hall meeting last Friday, Rep. Mike Clampitt, R-Bryson City, brought several speakers, including Susan Miller, Director of Governmental Affairs for Frontier Communications, to address his constituents’ questions and complaints.
“Thanks for not shooting me on sight — I know some of you have had issues with Frontier’s service,” Miller said, as members of the audience scoffed.
“You mean non-service,” one person yelled out.
Residents said they have been dealing with Frontier’s spotty cell and internet service for years. Some people said they haven’t been able to get any cell or internet service. It’s a complex and expensive problem, Miller said, but she reassured residents that Frontier is working to improve service.
“We do believe Western North Carolina is an important market, but it’s a difficult one to serve,” she said.
As a private business, Miller said, Frontier has to make business decisions that are profitable, and installing expensive broadband equipment to serve only a handful of people isn’t a profitable investment. While broadband service fees for customers help Frontier subsidize the cost of providing phone service — as required by the FCC — Miller said Frontier really doesn’t make a profit in serving rural WNC.
“In this area it’s pretty much a loss,” she said.
Miller said the good news is that Frontier is working in conjunction with the Federal Communications Commission to expand broadband in some of those “rural high-cost” areas.
Miller showed a map of Swain County and the pockets where the FCC was providing partial funding to deploy new infrastructure. Even so, the infrastructure going in won’t be the newest or the best technology. She said it would be more DSL infrastructure that would allow residents in those designated areas to at least get 10 megabytes of speed, which is the minimum requirement from the FCC program.
“If you have a surcharge on your bill, that’s a federal universal surcharge the FCC collects from all customers and it’s been dispersed to make telephone universally available — now it’s being directed to making broadband more available, but it’s only going to cover a portion of customers not served,” Miller said.
The FCC embarked on the project beginning in 2015 and Frontier has until 2020 to meet its obligation to install the needed equipment to get the designated areas covered. Miller said Frontier has already surpassed 40 percent of its goal with projects out toward Cashiers, Franklin and Murphy because those were the easiest to get done that cover the most people. The projects in Swain are the most costly with the least amount of people covered because of the terrain and sparse residents.
Based on the map Miller provided, it appears most of the new broadband equipment will be deployed in the Whittier area and along the Qualla Boundary.
“If you’re in one of the census blocks we’re supposed to cover and you’re not getting service — please call us,” she said.
Miller then opened it up to questions from residents who complained about dropped calls at home or their internet service going out every 10 to 15 minutes. Other customers said they didn’t understand why they couldn’t receive service from Frontier when they know Frontier has equipment just across the street from where they live.
Miller encouraged people to call Frontier and check on service availability in their area. She also took the opportunity to clear up what she called misinformation printed in a local newspaper article last summer when a Frontier costumer filed a complaint about not being able to get a landline phone from the provider.
“Frontier is obligated to provide telephone service to everyone who wants it,” Miller said. “If they call us and they’re willing to pay the rate and extra fee for construction if needed or to upgrade facilities — the idea we’re not going to provide phone service isn’t true.”
The truth is Frontier’s equipment only has so many ports for phone lines, so if all the ports are full on the equipment and a new neighbor moves into the neighborhood, they will have to wait for a port to open up. That only happens if someone else moves or disconnects their service. It’s not a huge problem in Bryson City where more people rely on their cell phone, but some rural areas of Swain County still need a landline because cell service isn’t reliable at their home.
After hearing everyone’s concerns, Miller took down names and numbers of customers with concerns and promised to bring their issues back to her senior management team to see if the problems can be addressed.