Frontier sued over Internet speeds, outages

Frontier Communications customers have filed a class-action lawsuit against the company in West Virginia, alleging Frontier failed to provide the high-speed Internet services it advertised.

Customers also complained about frequent Internet outages, and having to repeatedly turn their modems off and on to restore broadband service, according to the lawsuit filed last week in Lincoln County Circuit Court.

Frontier advertised a service called “High-speed Internet Max,” which provides speeds up to 12 megabits per second. But the company “throttled” back Internet speeds, particularly in rural areas, without properly notifying customers, according to the lawsuit. Some customers were receiving speeds below 1 megabit per second, but paying for the faster service, the suit alleges.

Frontier’s “false advertising” violates the West Virginia Consumer Credit and Protection Act, according to the complaint.

“The Internet service provided by Frontier does not come anywhere close to the speeds advertised…” wrote Benjamin Sheridan, a Hurricane lawyer who filed on the lawsuit on behalf of three Frontier customers.

Frontier spokesman Dan Page said the customers suing the company got the Internet service they paid for.

“Although we cannot guarantee Internet speeds due to numerous factors, such as traffic on the Internet and the capabilities of a customer’s computer, Frontier tested each plaintiff’s line and found that in all cases the service met or exceeded the ‘up to’ broadband speeds to which they subscribed,” Page said.

Frontier shared the information with the customers and their lawyers, Page said.

“Nonetheless, the plaintiffs filed their case in Lincoln County, where none of them lives,” he said. “If necessary, we are prepared to defend ourselves in court and bring the facts to light.”

In the lawsuit, the customers say Frontier’s alleged dialing back of customers’ Internet speeds – a practice known in the industry as “provisioning” – saves the company a “fortune” in costs that Frontier must pay Internet wholesalers such as Sprint and AT&T.

“…Frontier’s practice of overcharging and failing to provide the high-speed, broadband-level of service it advertises has created high profits for Frontier but left Internet users in the digital Dark Age,” Sheridan wrote.

Frontier, the state’s largest Internet provider, has “a monopoly on Internet services in most of West Virginia,” according to the lawsuit. In rural communities, Frontier is often the only Internet service option, and customers in those areas get slower Internet speeds, the suit alleges.

“As a result, students are prevented from being able to do their homework, and rural consumers are unable to utilize the Internet in a way that gives them equal footing with those in an urban environment,” Sheridan wrote.

The lawsuit also criticizes Frontier for taking $42 million in federal stimulus funds to install high-speed fiber-optic cable across the state. The fiber network serves schools, libraries, county courthouses, jails, 911 centers, State Police detachments and other public buildings. State officials overseeing the project promised that Frontier’s competitors would be able to use the network to serve homes and businesses.

That hasn’t happened.

“Frontier’s deceptive scheme is compounded by the fact it has used enormous sums of public money to promote its own ends without regard to the needs of its customers,” Sheridan wrote. “Frontier’s acceptance of public funds to create this monopolistic exploitation of rural West Virginians is a violation of our public trust.”

The lawsuit alleges only 12 percent of Frontier’s customers receive Internet speeds that meet a state and federal download speed standard of 4 megabits per second. By contrast, 80 percent of Suddenlink and Comcast subscribers have Internet speeds that meet the standard.

The lawsuit has three plaintiffs so far: April Morgan, a Frontier customer who lives in Marion County; and Greenbrier residents Trisha Cooke and Michael Sheridan, who is Ben Sheridan’s father. The three subscribed to Frontier’s “High-speed Internet Max” service for about $40 a month.

That product’s Internet speeds weren’t sufficient to view YouTube videos and streaming video services such as Netflix, according to the lawsuit.

The complaint alleges that Frontier didn’t have the Internet network capacity to provide its faster speeds to all customers.

After Michael Sheridan complained to Frontier General Manager Dana Waldo about poor Internet service, Waldo wrote back, “If as you suggest, we ‘opened up the throttle’ for every served customer, it could create congestion problems resulting in degradation of speed for all customers,” according to an email exchange cited in the lawsuit.

The three customers also complained about “innumerable” Internet service outages. Morgan alleged she had to restart her DSL modem five to 10 times a day to connect to the Internet. Sheridan said Frontier had to replace his modem “many times just to maintain a basic connection to the Internet,” according to the suit.

“…The service provided by [Frontier] is plagued by outages, disconnections and other problems rendering it extremely difficult to use and often unavailable…” the lawsuit says.

The suit notes that Frontier’s “terms of service” agreement includes a clause that forces customers to settle any disputes with the company through binding arbitration or small claims court – not through individual lawsuits, class-action cases and jury trials.

The lawsuit alleges the agreement is only available online, so it’s not available to people signing up for Internet service. Frontier gets customers to agree to its terms without securing “informed written consent,” according to the lawsuit.

The Hurricane law firm of Klein, Sheridan & Glazer is handling the lawsuit. The case has been assigned to Lincoln Circuit Judge Jay Hoke.

Although the three plaintiffs don’t live in Lincoln County, lawyers can file class-action suits in any West Virginia county where a defendant does business. Frontier has customers in Lincoln County.

Sheridan would not comment last week for this report.

Last month, the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Inspector General started an investigation into the $42 million fiber-optic cable network that Frontier built with federal stimulus funds in West Virginia.

Federal investigators have told state officials to turn over Frontier’s invoices and thousands of other documents related to the high-speed Internet project. A letter sent to the state suggests the Inspector General is looking into whether Frontier padded invoices with unnecessary costs — and whether high-ranking state officials turned a blind eye to any fraudulent billings.

Reach Eric Eyre at ericeyre@wvgazette.com, 304-348-4869 or follow @ericeyre on Twitter.

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