The Frontier Bankruptcy

To nobody’s surprise, Frontier declared bankruptcy. What is somewhat ironic is that the company blamed their problems on the lack of fiber – something that the company had the last decade to address. The company lost 6.3% of broadband customers and 21% of video customers in 2019.

People that live in rural areas in the Frontier service areas know them as a dreadful ISP. They probably don’t know the company’s history. Frontier was originally Citizens Utilities based in Minneapolis. The company decided to grow by acquisition. The company first acquired 500,000 telephone lines from GTE starting in 1993 – customers that had originally been served by Contel. In 1994 they acquired 117,000 telephone lines from Alltel – properties that were originally operated by CP National. The company picked up another 187,000 rural access lines when GTE merged with Verizon since Verizon wasn’t interested in acquiring more rural customers. In 1999, Citizens purchased Rochester Telephone that served Rochester, New York. In 2001 the company acquired the assets and customers of Global Crossings, which included local telephone customers, a long-distance network, and long-haul fiber. In 2006 the company purchased Commonwealth Telephone in Pennsylvania.

The biggest acquisitions came in 2009 when Frontier purchased the Verizon customers in thirteen states for $8.6 billion. This was followed by the purchase of Verizon customers in California, Florida, and Texas in 2016 for $10.5 billion. In 2014 the company purchased AT&T’s customers in Connecticut, which had formerly been called the Southern New England Telephone (SNET). Everybody I talked to who was knowledgeable about acquisitions thought that Frontier massively overpaid for the last three purchases. The prices paid per customer were high considering the condition of the properties they were purchasing.

There is probably no better example than West Virginia. When Frontier purchased the customers in that state, Verizon had already had the market up for sale for over a decade. During that time Verizon had stopped doing maintenance, had cut staff and had taken the normal steps to ‘dress-up’ the bottom line to enhance a sale by cutting costs wherever possible. Frontier bought a telco in West Virginia that was already in dreadfully bad shape, as were many of the other properties purchased from big telcos.

Frontier’s shortcomings were recently addressed in a 164-page report by Schumaker and Company that was funded by the West Virginia Public Service Commission. The report looked in detail at Frontier’s problems in West Virginia – a state where Frontier is the only ISP for the vast majority of the state.

Unfortunately, the current version of the report is highly redacted since Frontier claimed that details of their operations in the state are proprietary. Hopefully, the redactions will be overruled due to the fact that the company is the carrier of last resort in a state where there are still huge areas with little or no cellular coverage. However, even with the redactions it’s clear from the report that the Frontier spends little money in rural areas, has cut staff significantly in recent years, and has done very little to upgrade the networks since the original purchase. Frontier recently sold some of their properties in the Northwest as a way to raise cash.

The Frontier bankruptcy plan asks for a quick restructure and the ability to walk away from $11 billion in debt. I’ve read several analysts who are skeptical that the bankruptcy will be that easy. If the company keeps losing customers at the current pace, I find it hard to think there will be many lenders willing to front big loans for the company to rebuild.

A giant telco comprised of huge rural areas never made sense. I predicted that Frontier would eventually fold when they purchased some of the most neglected telco properties in the country. It took a decade, but those purchases finally brought the company down.

Any restructuring is not going to help the rural properties served by Frontier. The best possible solutions in terms of benefits to customers would be to restructure Frontier to just operate in its larger markets and to force it to divest of rural properties to the highest bidder – even if that offer is pennies on the dollar. New owners of the rural properties would be more likely to tackle upgrades, while Frontier is not likely to care about rural America even should they start over out of the bankruptcy.

The Frontier Bankruptcy

Bloomberg reported that Frontier Communications is hoping to file a structured bankruptcy in March. A structured bankruptcy is one where existing creditors agree to cut debt owed to them to help a company survive. There is no guarantee that the existing creditors will go along with Frontier’s plan, and if not, the bankruptcy would be handed to a bankruptcy court to resolve.

It’s been obvious for a long time that Frontier is in trouble. Three years ago, the stock sat at over $51 per share. By January 2018 it had fallen to $8.26 per share, and to $2 per share a year ago. As I write this blog the stock sits at 59 cents per share.

Frontier has been losing customers rapidly. In the year ending September 30, 2019 the company lost 6% of its broadband customers (247,000), with 71,000 of the losses occurring during the third quarter of last year.

For those not familiar with the history of Frontier, the company started as Citizens Telephone Company, a typical small independent telco. The company grew by buying telephone customers from GTE, Contel, and Alltel. The company became Frontier when they bought the remains of the Rochester Telephone Company from Global Crossings. Since then Frontier went on a buying spree and purchased large numbers of customers from Verizon.

Frontiers woes intensified in 2016 when they bungled the takeover of Verizon FiOS customers while taking on huge debt. There were major outages in some major markets that drove customers to change to the cable company competitor. However, Frontier’s biggest problem is due to operating a lot of rural copper networks. The copper networks they purchased had been maintained poorly before acquired by Frontier. For example, Frontier bought all of the Verizon customers in West Virginia, and Verizon had been ignoring the market and had been trying to sell it for over fifteen years.

Frontier got a small boost when the FCC gave them $1.7 billion to upgrade rural DSL to speeds of at least 10/1 Mbps. This month Frontier reports that it has not fully met that requirement in parts of thirteen states. Customers in many places where Frontier has supposedly made the upgrades are saying that speeds are not yet at the required 10/1 Mbps.

Frontier’s real problem is that their rural properties are being overbuilt by other ISPs. For example, Frontier properties are the targets of funding for many state broadband grants. Most of the rural Frontier network is going to be targeted in the upcoming $16 billion RDOF grants this year. It would not be surprising to see the company quietly disappear from rural America as others build better broadband.

Meanwhile, other than in properties that formerly were Verizon FiOS on fiber, the company’s networks in towns are also providing DSL. We’ve seen every telco that offers DSL in urban areas like AT&T and CenturyLink lose a lot of customers year-after-year to the cable companies. It’s increasingly difficult for DSL to keep customers with speeds between 10 Mbps and 50 Mbps when competing against cable products of 100 Mbps and higher.

Last May, Frontier announced the sale of its properties in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana to WaveDivision Capital. That sale was for $1.35 billion, which doesn’t make a big dent in the company’s $16.3 billion in long-term debt. Frontier has also shed 10% of its workforce in an attempt to control costs.

Frontier may get the structured bankruptcy they are seeking or may have to give up more to survive this current bankruptcy. However, restructuring their debt is not going to make up for the huge amounts of its network that sits on dying copper. They are not the only company facing this issue and CenturyLink has even more rural copper. However, CenturyLink has a thriving business in big cities and would be stronger if regulators ever allow it to walk away from rural copper.

The harder question to answer is if there is a viable company remaining after Frontier finally sheds or loses its rural customer base. I don’t know enough to make any prediction on that, but I can predict that the company’s problems will not be over even after making it through this bankruptcy.