Bad Verizon data led to Frontier's customer call tsunami, legislators told

19 May 2016 by Steve Blum
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The problems Frontier Communications had as it took over ownership and operating control of wireline phone systems belonging to Verizon were chewed over in a California assembly committee hearing yesterday. Melinda White, president of Frontier’s west region, told committee members that the service outages experienced by some customers were primarily due to three causes:

  • Corrupt data in the customer records imported from Verizon’s system.
  • Records that said some customers’ equipment had one serial number when in fact it had another.
  • The need to train ex-Verizon employees on Frontier’s systems.

The mismatched equipment serial numbers seemed to be the trigger for most of the ensuing cascade of problems. Serial numbers are important because that’s how a central operating system – like Frontier’s – talks to individual pieces of equipment at customers’ homes and authorises them to receive particular services.

When Frontier cut over from Verizon’s platform, its central operating system connected with each customer box on the network and, in the vast majority of cases, smoothly took over control. But in few thousand cases – out of a total of 2 million new customer accounts – that message never got through. A similar problem occurred when the relatively small amount of corrupt data was fed into the system.

The result was several thousand customers were left without one kind of service or another – phone, Internet and/or TV – all at once. Which generated an unexpected flood of calls to Frontier’s customer service line.

White said that Frontier had planned for a large call volume, but not on the scale and with the degree of problems that they actually received. The plan was to bring in extra Frontier employees and use Verizon’s existing call center in the Philippines to handle calls while the ex-Verizon employees were being trained on the new system. There weren’t enough experienced Frontier employees to answer the phone, and the problems were beyond what the offshore call center could handle. White said they would have had the same problem if the ex-Verizon employees were on the phones, because they didn’t have the necessary system-specific training either.

At this point, White said, there are about 200 customers without phone service as well as others with Internet and TV problems, but “in ten days we’ll have all of the backlog cleaned up and we’ll move into business as usual mode”.

The rest of the hearing pretty much followed the standard script for such things. Members of the audience got up one by one and either excoriated or praised Frontier’s corporate citizenship, a representative from the California Public Utilities Commission explained the bureaucratic intricacies involved, and the committee members – including a couple of guest assembly members with particular axes to grind – exhibited their customary 20-20 hindsight.

The committee chairman, Mike Gatto (D – Los Angeles), also used the hearing as a platform to promote his plan to abolish the CPUC and turn its job over to other state agencies. I can’t say much was accomplished, although there was good information to be had.