FairPoint in Perspective

Posted May 25, 2009, at 4:25 p.m.

FairPoint Communications clearly has a lot of work to do to meet customer expectations, but it is worth remembering that its predecessor, Verizon, had little interest in retaining land line service in northern New England, let alone improving it. That doesn’t mean that regulators shouldn’t keep a close eye on FairPoint and ensure it meets the goals set out in its stabilization plan as well as its commitment to improve and expand broadband service.

The plan, which the company gave to regulators in Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire in late March, came in response to problems that occurred during the transition from Verizon to FairPoint. A major problem during the early February transition was that customers couldn’t get through to service centers and had long waits before getting assistance. Many customers had trouble with the e-mail conversion. FairPoint pledged to hire additional help and have the problems resolved by June.

Shortly after the transition, FairPoint was receiving 85,000 calls a week at its service centers. That has now dropped to about 37,000 calls a week, slightly above the normal volume.

Still, customers have reported going weeks without Internet service. An inn in Camden said it lost $15,000 because of the outage. Others have been waiting weeks for telephone service.

In an area where there is little choice of phone service providers, forcing a business or residential customer to wait weeks before getting a phone or data line activated or fixed is bad business at best, dangerous at worst.

FairPoint should have a lot of motivation to fix these problems. The company has lost nearly 9 percent of its telephone customers in the last year. Some of this may be due to the migration to cell phones, but some of it is likely due to poor customer service. Lost customers mean lost revenue, something FairPoint can’t and shouldn’t tolerate.

The company’s credit rating was downgraded earlier this month after FairPoint said it was hiring a financial adviser to explore a possible restructuring. Like others, the company also has had financial difficulties because of the national recession.

While FairPoint has many difficulties to overcome, it was not clear that Verizon would better serve customers in Maine. Verizon paid more $3 million in penalties since 2001 for service- related problems. Those penalties were for violations such as repair appointments not met and residential troubles not cleared within 24 hours.

On high-speed Internet access, despite the problems, FairPoint is ahead of schedule in improving the region’s broadband network, which will include more capacity to more places. This will especially benefit business and education customers.

The PUC must still ensure that FairPoint quickly puts the service problems behind it and meets its broadband commitment, but the company must be compared to what existed in Maine before the takeover, not what many wished existed.

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