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Frontier often under fire for its services
Company being sued by over 150 customers

HUNTINGTON — In West Virginia, Frontier Communications has been routinely under fire for its internet service and its landline phone service, with dozens of formal complaints being lodged against the company just in recent weeks.

Currently, the company is being sued by at least 150 disgruntled internet customers, it has been ordered to conduct an audit of its operations by the West Virginia Public Service Commission and the company has been on the radar of both state and federal officials over alleged poor service. Many actions date back several years.

Monty Fowler was so upset by his internet service from Frontier Communications at his Huntington home that he recently filed a formal complaint with the Federal Communications Commission.

"I would like the FCC to hold Frontier Communications accountable for both its poor DSL (internet) service and its nonexistent customer communication when there is a problem," he said.

Fowler said his internet service became very slow around June 20 and it took over a month to get some service restored.

"The internet is mostly working, but occasionally quits for a few minutes, freezing web pages or whatever I'm working on," he said. "This is beyond pathetic."

Fowler was one of more than 200 people across the state who emailed, messaged or commented about Frontier services after The Herald-Dispatch sought feedback from Facebook users regarding Frontier. Many said they have been without internet or telephone landline service for days, weeks and even months in some cases. Many said they have reported the issues to Frontier, but have received no resolutions to issues ranging from daily service outages to poor customer service and more.

Joe Fincham, of Lesage, said slow internet speeds and continuous outages are routine with the Frontier internet service he receives.

"Internet speed tests routinely show slower than paid-for speeds," he said. "Service is routinely unavailable about four to eight times per day for 15 to 30 minutes at a time. Also, service routinely cuts off every time it rains."

Vickie Finlay says she moved from the Westmoreland area to the Southside neighborhood of Huntington and had problems when she tried to get internet service at her new location.

"Frontier was supposed to send a tech with a modem on July 3. They blew me off," she said. "Then I get a message that they will be there on the 15th. I waited. They blew me off again."

After several other broken promises by Frontier, according to Finlay, she said she canceled her account.

Connie Walker Laishley, owner of Appalachian Forest Herbs in Huntington, says Frontier's internet outages happen to her business on a daily basis.

"Facebook is the main venue for my business, and we have outages three and four times a day," she said. "Also my security system is down without the internet."

Kristy Watts lives on Cotton Hill Road in Fort Gay and has both Frontier internet and telephone landline service.

"My landline phone service goes out every time it rains, and I have filed many complaints," she said. "My internet doesn't go out, but it's so slow it's not worth having. My mother and my sister live around me and they have the same issues. It's just so aggravating."

Hundreds of others reported similar issues with both Frontier's internet and telephone landline services.

Bob Elek, director of public relations for Frontier Communications' South Region, says it's not uncommon for there to be some type of outage every day.

"Some outages are minor. Some are not. But if we don't have specific customer information about the alleged problem, it's difficult to respond to what may or may not be happening," he said. "In our large, mountainous, rural territory in West Virginia, service interruptions happen. There are hundreds of service requests daily, often in difficult-to-maintain areas."

Elek said the company works to promptly address service interruptions that occur from time to time because of severe weather events, vehicle accidents and third-party construction damage to Frontier's facilities, as well as many other causes.

"Uncontrollable events like severe weather, construction crews cutting cables, cars hitting telephone poles or equipment cabinets or a variety of such causes can cause service disruptions and delay response-and-restore efforts," he said.

Elek says Frontier serves approximately 300,000 of the 2.26 million voice customers in the state and it serves the most costly and difficult-to-serve areas.

"Frontier provides service in the most rural areas of West Virginia where other providers choose not to invest to deliver service and where the challenges of remoteness are greatest," he said. "We continue to evaluate and execute strategies to improve our service."

Complaints about Frontier's internet speeds can be a challenge, too, Elek added.

"For internet service, we strive to deliver the highest speeds, but the available speed depends on multiple variables, including, especially in rural areas, the distance that the customer's location is from our internet equipment," he said. "All areas where Frontier provides service are open to competition from any provider that chooses to invest in and provide service there, including several satellite providers that serve nearly all areas in West Virginia. We price our services very competitively and offer a high-value option."

According to the West Virginia Attorney General's Consumer Protection Division, the agency has received 230 complaints against Frontier so far in 2019.

"Fifty-one of those complaints were filed in June and July alone," said Curtis Johnson, press secretary for the office.

Johnson reported the agency received 312 complaints during the 2018 calendar year.

Between 2013 and 2015, the Attorney General's Office reported receiving multiple complaints from customers paying for Frontier's high-speed service, which advertised internet speeds up to 6 megabits per second.

West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey sued Frontier and announced a $160 million settlement with the company in December 2015.

In August 2017, Morrisey gave an update saying the agreement with Frontier marked the largest independently negotiated consumer protection settlement in the history of the Mountain State. It required Frontier to invest at least $150 million in capital expenditures to increase internet speed in the affected areas and give those customers lower monthly rates.

According to the update in 2017, the company spent $83.9 million in capital expenditures, which allowed increased internet speed for 11,192 customers in the state.

Due to several continuing complaints, the West Virginia Public Service Commission, or PSC, filed an order in August 2018 for an audit of Frontier operations. The PSC ordered a focused management audit of Frontier to determine if Frontier was operating efficiently, utilizing sound management practices and to identify those areas where Frontier was operating inefficiently.

After the PSC withheld approval of the auditor chosen by Frontier, this past Friday the company filed a recommendation for a supplemental "request for proposal," or RFP.

"Frontier engaged in an objective bid award process weighing all factors; however, the PSC felt pricing was overemphasized in the evaluation," Elek said. "We will act in good faith to comply fully with the PSC's directives."

The PSC has not responded to the filing as of Monday, according to Susan Small, a spokesperson for the PSC. Additional information is available on the commission website at www.psc.state.wv.us by referencing Case No. 18-0291-T-P.

In July, U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., sent a letter to Ajit Pai, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), to discuss the incorrect broadband coverage maps of West Virginia and the formation of a public feedback system to better assess broadband coverage across rural states like West Virginia.

In the letter, Manchin included the results of speed tests taken in Cabins, West Virginia, showing that the coverage provided by Frontier Communications in the area is well below the FCC's definition of broadband coverage.

Manchin also reported receiving several complaints regarding the company's telephone landline service and sent a letter to Frontier Communications Corp. CEO Dan McCarthy to address the issue.

"In times of crisis, no one should ever have to think twice about whether he or she will be able to call for help. Unfortunately, I have been alerted of several instances where my constituents who utilize Frontier's landline service have not been able to complete calls due to service outages," the letter said.

Elek confirmed that Frontier did receive Manchin's letter.

"Frontier shares Senator Manchin's dedication to safety and takes its commitment to serve West Virginians and support 911 services seriously," Elek said. "One key problem we must resolve together is that while Frontier only serves about 10% of the 2.26 million telephone lines in West Virginia, Frontier has 100% of the obligation to provide traditional telephone voice service to customers in the most rural, remote and high-cost areas of the state. Frontier is actively working with the West Virginia Public Service Commission and other state officials to address the continued availability of quality, affordable landline service in these high-cost areas."

Follow reporter Fred Pace at Facebook.com/FredPaceHD and via Twitter @FredPaceHD.

FILING SERVICE ISSUES, COMPLAINTS

• Frontier customers can call Frontier's toll-free customer service telephone number to report service issues at 800-921-8101.

• Customers concerned with issues about service they receive from a public utility can file a complaint with the Attorney General's Consumer Protection Division at 800-368-8808. or visit http://www.wvago.gov.

• Complaints about a public utility's service can be sent to the West Virginia Public Service Commission, c/o executive secretary, 201 Brooks St., Charleston, WV 25323.


FUN TIMES IN CABELL COUNTY
County fair continues with variety of events

MILTON — The Cabell County Fair continues at Pumpkin Park in Milton this week with offerings for all ages and a variety of interests.

Thursday is gospel night, with music starting at 5 p.m. The Demolition Derby will also take place at 7 p.m. On Friday, Gabe Dixon & Whiskey River perform from 7 to 10 p.m., with both the 4-H/FFA Livestock Sale in the show ring and the rodeo in the track area of Pumpkin Park also set to begin at 7 p.m.

Saturday is chock-full of entertainment, including a performance by Cabell Midland High School's Rhythm in Red Show Choir, the mud bog, and Mad-House performing at 5 p.m., with Blackfoot at 8 p.m.

The fair will conclude with fireworks at 11 p.m. Saturday.

Visit Cabell County Fair WV on Facebook for a full schedule.


Potency of pills rose as opioid crisis grew

WASHINGTON — In 2012, as the death toll from the nation's opioid crisis mounted, drug companies shipped out enough of the powerful and addictive painkillers for every man, woman and child in the U.S. to have nearly a 20-day supply.

In some counties, mostly in Appalachia, it was well over 100 days.

An Associated Press analysis of drug distribution data released as a result of lawsuits against the industry also found that the amount

of opioids as measured by total potency continued to rise early this decade even as the number of pills distributed began to dip.

The reason: Doctors were prescribing — and the industry was supplying — stronger pills.

"It shows it wasn't just the number of pills being shipped that increased. The actual amount of opioids being prescribed and consumed went up," said Anna Lembke, a Stanford University professor who researches opioids and is serving as a paid expert witness for plaintiffs in the litigation.

"We know that the higher the dose of prescribed opioids, and the longer patients are on them, even for a legitimate pain condition, the more likely they are to get addicted."

The AP found that the overall amount of opioid medication shipped to pharmacies, medical providers and hospitals increased 55% from 2006 through 2012. The number of pills rose significantly over that period, too — but that increase was lower, about 44%. (The amount of medication was calculated using a standard measure of potency known as a morphine milligram equivalent, or MME.)

In 2006 and 2007, the counties at the very top of the list of those receiving the most opioids were scattered about the eastern half of the U.S. By 2012, they were all in the Appalachian region. And the numbers were up dramatically.

For instance, in 2006, Tennessee's Hamblen County received the most opioid medication per person in the country — about 70 days' worth of a typical prescription for every man, woman and child. By 2012, the top county was Norton, Virginia, and the number of days' worth of opioids was a staggering 134.

In calculating days of medication, the AP used 50 MMEs as a daily dosage. That is the upper limit beyond which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urges doctors to use caution.

The data comes from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration's collection of information from pharmaceutical companies about how controlled substances were distributed down to pharmacies, doctors and hospitals. It's a key part of the case for some 2,000 state, local and tribal governments suing the industry over the opioid crisis.

The first of the federal trials, involving claims from Ohio's Cuyahoga and Summit counties, is scheduled to start in October.

Last week, a judge agreed to make public the data covering 2006 through 2012. During that period, opioid overdose-related deaths in the U.S. increased from about 18,000 a year to more than 23,000. Since then, the number has doubled, and opioids have overtaken automobile accidents as the top cause of accidental death in the country.

Heroin and even stronger illicit drugs such as fentanyl drove the increase for most of this decade. Studies have found that most new heroin users started with prescription drugs that had been prescribed to them or to someone else.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuits claim drugmakers overstated the benefits of opioids and downplayed their addictiveness, persuading doctors to offer the drugs to more patients and in higher amounts.

The origins of the opioid crisis are largely traced to the mid-1990s, when Purdue Pharma introduced OxyContin. Up until then, opioids were generally reserved for surgery or cancer patients in extreme pain.

The government lawsuits also say the companies violated DEA policy by shipping orders even when they believed them to be "suspicious" because they were far larger than normal.

For example, an e-mail chain from Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, showed an employee flagging an order at 4:15 p.m. on Oct. 27, 2009, from drug distributor Cardinal Health because it was nearly twice as big as the customer's usual 12-week order of a certain dosage. The order was worth close to $293,000.

It was approved at 4:16 p.m., the emails show.

The e-mail was part of a new trove of industry documents made public this week. They also include a transcript of a testy deposition earlier this year in which an executive at Cardinal Health — one of the nation's largest drug distributors — said the company has no obligation to the public when it comes to the opioids it ships.

Cardinal Health counsel Jennifer Norris was asked by a lawyer whether the company wants to "ensure that it does what it can to prevent the public from harm?"

She answered: "I don't know that Cardinal owes a duty to the public regarding that."

She went on to say, "Cardinal Health has an obligation to perform its duties in accordance with the law, the statute, regulations and guidance."

A Cardinal spokeswoman said the comment was made only in a legal context.

Mulvihill reported from Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Associated Press data journalists Larry Fenn, Meghan Hoyer and Justin Myers contributed to this article.