Elon Musk, Please Save Me From Frontier

Elon Musk. (Photo source: Wikipedia)

Like many people living in rural Shasta County, I have had an uneasy relationship with our telephone company, Frontier Communications. We met thirty years ago when I needed a telephone and they were called Citizens. All they provided was plain old telephone service, and generally it worked, so at first we stayed on pretty good terms.

A few years later along came the internet. Like many other communications companies at the time, Citizens didn’t provide dialup internet access. I purchased that from an independent company in Redding. Until a local access number came along, Citizens happily collected the exorbitant “long distance” fee they charged for a phone call to Redding, less than 30 miles away.

Then dialup became DSL, transmitted over telephone lines, and Citizens was in the Internet access business, a potentially lucrative affair. The “high speed” DSL turned out to be better than dialup but slow, not in any way comparable to the cable connections available down in the valley, and the service suffered frequent outages, but there were no other options. Years went by, Citizens became Frontier and my need to be online grew and grew. Frontier and I were wed.

Twenty years later, people are still frustrated at what must surely be the worst telephone company in the US. We have had multiple petition drives to complain about Frontier and many FCC complaints have been logged. Social media is rife with people venting frustration. Consumer Affairs gives them a rating of one star (out of five). One frustrated customer put up a web site called frontier-sucks.com to provide a home for the torrent of complaints pouring in. Predatory billing practices, false advertising, long outages, dreadfully slow data transfer speeds, and a corporate culture of contempt for the customer. That’s the Frontier way.

How’s this for service: When PG&E started shutting off power due to the fire danger in 2019 the entire town of Manton lost telephone and internet service each time because Frontier couldn’t be bothered to run a generator at their Manton office.

It’s like a bad marriage. There is no love, there is a certain amount of hate, but circumstances keep us together. They need my money, I need to get online.

Some years back there was a story that Google was developing a way to provide fast Internet access to rural areas. I believe it involved balloons. It never panned out. Various satellite companies tried to convince us that their service was better, more reliable, faster, but the fine print told a different story. Fact is, satellite service has a latency problem (the latency of a network connection represents the amount of time required for data to travel between the sender and receiver.)

Then along came Elon Musk. The PayPal/Boring Company/SpaceX entrepreneur formed a company called Starlink to lick the latency problem. How? Well, in the simplest way possible, by moving the satellites closer to earth. The entrepreneur has told a conference that the Starlink low earth orbit network will have latency of about 20 milliseconds which could be comparable to cable company connections.

Starlink has been launching satellites into orbit for months, and is approaching the point where a beta test for US customers can begin in the fall. We don’t know for sure if the service can really provide the speeds they claim, and we don’t know for sure what it will cost ($80 a month is a number being cited, but this is not official.)

I hope Starlink isn’t teasing me. Elon Musk has made some great decisions, but he has also made some terrible ones, like his recent push to reopen Tesla despite the Covid-19 restrictions. It has been a long, irritating, tedious relationship with Frontier and now I want to believe I am near the end.

If Starlink works, and if it costs $80 a month or less, there will be a mass exodus from Frontier. Right now most Frontier customers in Shasta County are forced to buy telephone service in order to get Internet access, even though most of us have long since moved on to cell phones. I certainly don’t need or want a landline anymore but Frontier won’t sell me DSL unless I also buy their phone service.

It is hard to provide a comparison of costs because of Frontier’s billing practices. Nobody seems to pay the same price! My monthly bill has ranged from $75 to $95 for a phone line and DSL. Every year or two the monthly bill creeps into the $90 range and I call the billing department and complain for half an hour, threaten to cancel the account, demand a different plan, until they take $20 off the bill. Then month by month the amount ticks up again and the cycle resumes.

What really amazes me about Frontier is how little they have done in the last twenty years to invest in the product they sell. I am getting the same service, at the same speed, that I signed up for twenty years ago with Citizens. Of course you wouldn’t know that if you look at Frontier’s marketing materials which claim a range of data transfer speeds from 6 to 25 Mps. In fact, in Shingletown most customers get 3 Mps regardless of the plan they pick. It is maddening. No surprise to learn that in 2015, Frontier agreed to a settlement in West Virginia over a class-action lawsuit alleging that the company’s DSL services in the region did not meet the advertised speeds (such as advertising 6 Mps but only delivering 1.5).

Today I went to Starlink.com and signed up for email updates and a chance to beta test their service. I hope it works out. I live in a rural area but still want the kind of internet experience that city-dwellers have. If Elon Musk can bring Starlink successfully online, I will finally get divorced from Frontier Communications, the company I love to hate.

Graham Posner
Graham Posner was born in London, England, and arrived in San Francisco 40 years ago clutching a degree in Eng Lit. Everything after that is vague and blurry, but includes stints as a teacher in Osaka, Japan, and as a computer technician for PG&E in the Bay Area. Romance brought him to Shingletown, Shasta County, where he married, built a home, published an independent newspaper, and eventually opened an online business selling posters and art prints.
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