CHARLESTON - Frontier Communications' disgruntled internet customers are getting mixed results in their early arbitration battles over alleged poor service.
Consumer lawyers are representing more than 150 Frontier subscribers who allege the company failed to provide the high-speed internet it advertised. The customers have complained that Frontier throttled internet service, providing slower speeds to save the company money. The complaints are being heard one at a time.
So far, Frontier has won one case and lost another.
West Virginia arbitrator James Rowe dismissed a Frontier customer's complaint in December, ruling that the Lincoln County man had agreed to the company's "terms and conditions." Those terms provided no guarantee that customers would get advertised internet speeds. Rowe, a former circuit judge, concluded that Frontier's dissatisfied customers could stop subscribing to the company's internet service to settle their disputes.
In a separate case last May, arbitrator Lew Brewer ruled against Frontier, finding that the company violated state consumer protection laws by advertising internet speeds that it didn't deliver to a subscriber in Greenbrier County. The customer's download speed bogged down when his neighbors -fellow Frontier subscribers - also were using the internet.
In 2014, Frontier customers filed a class-action lawsuit, but the West Virginia Supreme Court dismissed the suit three years later. The court's ruling forced customers to settle their disputes through arbitration - not in a court of law.
The arbitration process limits legal claims for damages to $10,000. Frontier's customers stood to gain significantly more in damages through a jury verdict or settlement.
The customers claimed the company buried the arbitration provisions in multi-page monthly bills, using print so tiny that nobody saw it. Frontier's lawyers said the contract terms were in bold type.
Frontier has said that its customers got the internet service they paid for. But Brewer found that Frontier "continued to subscribe customers when there was no reasonable expectation of anything close to high-speed internet." The internet provider could have avoided consumer law violations by upgrading its equipment, wrote Brewer, former executive director of the state Ethics Commission.
Nonetheless, Brewer suggested Frontier was "probably doing its best" and not trying to gouge customers.
"The evidence demonstrates that (Frontier) is working within the limits of financial resources to keep up with the rising demand for internet access in the communities it serves," Brewer wrote in a 38-page decision.
Brewer awarded Frontier's customer $870 in damages - the amount paid over a 29-month period during which the company provided inadequate internet service at speeds to slow too stream movies and play online games.
Frontier spokesman Javier Mendoza said the company does not comment on "ongoing litigation" such as arbitration proceedings.