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PSC staff starts inquiry into allegations against Frontier

By Eric Eyre, The Charleston Gazette

The West Virginia Public Service Commission’s legal staff has started a preliminary investigation into allegations that Frontier Communications is trying to shut out competition for high-speed Internet in the state.

The PSC review follows a complaint filed earlier this summer against Frontier by Citynet, a Bridgeport-based Internet provider.

Citynet alleges that Frontier won’t honor a 2003 agreement that allows Citynet to lease unused fiber-optic cable from Frontier. Citynet wants access to the fiber lines to bring Internet service to additional customers.

Citynet also alleges that Frontier won’t release engineering maps that show the location of its expansive fiber network.

"Through this [PSC] proceeding, we hope to compel Frontier’s compliance with its obligations to competitive carriers," Citynet CEO Jim Martin said Wednesday. "It is clear that Frontier is doing everything it can to maintain its monopoly status in rural West Virginia communities to the detriment of the people throughout the state."

Frontier has denied violating the 2003 agreement, which the Public Service Commission approved. Frontier officials would not comment Wednesday.

After completing the review, the PSC’s lawyers will recommend whether to refer the matter to an administrative law judge and hold a hearing.

In response to Citynet’s complaint, Frontier said the "route and plate" maps requested by Citynet include confidential and proprietary information.

In a letter sent last week, PSC staff members asked if Frontier could black out the confidential information, and then release the maps. The PSC also wants Frontier to disclose if it has other maps that would show its high-speed Internet fiber routes.

Frontier has said it offered to create the fiber-route maps for Citynet but that Citynet wouldn’t agree to pay for the work. Citynet said it offered to pay. The PSC has asked Citynet to turn over documents that would prove that assertion.

In its July 21 complaint with the PSC, Citynet alleges that Frontier — and predecessor Verizon, which sold its West Virginia landline and fiber network to Frontier in 2010 — have rejected two-dozen requests to lease unused fiber across West Virginia.

Citynet believes Frontier has done the same to other Internet providers, according to the complaint.

"Enabling competition into the rural markets by requiring Frontier to honor their interconnection agreements will result in better and more readily available telecommunications services throughout the state," Martin said.

Citynet said Verizon should have an ample amount of extra fiber to lease following the completion of a $40 million federal stimulus project that aimed to expand high-speed Internet in West Virginia. Frontier used the federal funds to construct more than 550 miles of fiber. In 2010, state officials promised a 2,400-mile fiber network.

The PSC has asked Frontier to provide details about how it used the stimulus money and if the federal funds were designed to help all Internet carriers expand broadband in West Virginia.

Citynet repeatedly has accused Frontier of using the stimulus funds to build a fiber network that solely benefits Frontier.

"As many people have pointed out in the past, Frontier only built a fraction of the intended amount of fiber, and the fiber it did construct fails to benefit the public at large," Martin said.

In letters to the companies last week, the PSC staff also asked Citynet and Frontier if their 2003 agreement covers voice-over-Internet protocol services, such as Skype, that deliver voice communications via the Internet. The PSC wants to know if Citynet, which primarily serves business customers, plans to use Frontier’s fiber lines for such services.

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