Fairpoint frustrates Internet customers

Posted May 06, 2009, at 7:15 p.m.

CAMDEN, Maine — “Currently Offline. Check back soon.”

That is the message would-be diners saw for 13 days when they tried to use the Internet to reserve a table at the Camden Harbour Inn’s swanky restaurant, Natalie’s.

And it’s a message that left innkeeper Raymond Brunyankszki irate as he struggled to do crisis control after a FairPoint Communications glitch left the boutique hotel and restaurant without Internet access for nearly two weeks.

“It is unbelievable how many problems and costs we are having right now. In the current economy, it is outrageous that FairPoint is unresponsive,” the Dutch-born Brunyankszki, co-owner of the inn, said Monday before another company finally got the service up and running on Wednesday afternoon. “It’s unacceptable. It’s costing us so much money.”

As the cost of losing the Internet rose to at least $15,000, including lost reservations, accidental double bookings and extra labor charges for people to answer the phones, Brunyankszki heard many more stories from people who also had problems with FairPoint. And then he started to wonder.

“There are companies in Maine that have been six weeks without the Internet because of FairPoint,” Brunyankszki said. “I really don’t understand why the government is not interfering by now.”

Regulatory limbo

Many Mainers likely are wondering the same thing. The Charlotte, N.C.-based FairPoint Communications paid $2.3 billion for Verizon Communications’ land lines in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont in a deal completed on March 31, 2008, but it did not take total control until late January of this year. At that time, it transferred data from Verizon’s 600 computer systems to its new network of 60 computer systems — and triggered a blizzard of billing and service problems that angered customers and caused the company to issue credit rebates to nearly 20,000 people. FairPoint hired two outside consultants to help fix the problems and also filed a “stabilization plan” in March with the Maine Public Utilities Commission that detailed how it would get on track.

“There is ongoing, robust oversight to what the company is doing,” Fred Bever, spokesman for the Maine PUC, said Wednesday.That may be true for FairPoint’s telephone service, but Bever acknowledged there is no state oversight for the beleaguered communication company’s Internet side. The Federal Communications Commission provides some oversight, but the federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 intentionally deregulated Internet service providers such as FairPoint with the stated aim of preserving “the vibrant and competitive free market that presently exists for the Internet.”

That may sound pretty good, but it’s cold comfort to people such as Brunyankszki or businessman Michael Hurley of Belfast, who ran into frustration after frustration when he tried to switch to FairPoint for his Internet service.

“I have five businesses, all of which are 100 percent dependent on the Internet,” Hurley said Wednesday. “It’s like electricity at this point. If you don’t have it, you’re dead. What FairPoint has done is really reprehensible, in my opinion. They were so unprepared, and I blame the state of Maine for allowing them to do that. The state of Maine has a Public Utilities Commission which regulates this stuff. Somebody should do something about it.”

Making strides

Bever noted that complaint calls about the company began slowing down a month ago and have been “holding steady.” He also said that at the time of the sale, FairPoint committed to making $135 million in capital investments for broadband Internet in Maine over three years.

“The company’s confidential financial reports indicate that it is on track for that commitment,” Bever said. “This level of investment is a beneficial contrast to Verizon’s.”

And according to FairPoint spokesman Jeff Nevins, the company plans to be back at “normal business operations” by July.

“It was one of the most complicated transfers in telecommunications history,” Nevins said this week. “Now things are trending upwards, but we still have some issues. The Camden Harbour Inn is an example of one of those.”

While the company says it is working to resolve its problems, that may not be enough to reassure a business that has had difficulties with its Internet service, said Nory Jones, University of Maine associate professor of management information systems.

“There’s an expectation of 100 percent uptime, and that the quality of service is going to be absolutely perfect,” Jones said.

That expectation is realistic, she said, adding that most service providers have enough redundancy built into their systems to cushion the effect of potential problems to businesses.

“I think people are surprised, shocked and angry when something happens,” she said.

That is a good description of Brunyankszki’s response.

“For Dutch people, this is really a third-world country practice. It’s what you expect from Africa, not from Maine. We are really very irritated and frustrated about it,” he said. “International travelers are just blown away if you tell them that FairPoint in Maine is taking 10 days to fix this. Only people from Maine understand.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.