AUGUSTA, Maine — State regulators pressed FairPoint Communications officials on Thursday to explain why they have failed to make more progress fixing the technical glitches and customer service problems that have beset the company for months.
But while questioning from the Public Utilities Commission was at times pointed, it was not aggressive enough for representatives of Maine’s Public Advocate’s Office who continue to hear from exasperated customers.
“Nothing happened today that pointed to when these problems were going to end,” said William Black, deputy public advocate.
FairPoint executives said again Thursday that the company has made considerable progress addressing call center, billing and service order problems. But they acknowledged that serious issues persist and in some cases have flared back up in recent weeks due to system instability, weather and other factors.
Company officials said they hope the business and call centers will be operating normally by the end of August. Fixing some of the other problems, such as the data gaps that are delaying service orders, could take longer.
“In every area, we have made progress and in every area we have more to do,” Executive Vice President Jeff Allen told members of the PUC during a briefing.
Yet commissioners expressed frustration that they were still hearing many of the same explanations in mid-July for problems they discussed with FairPoint officials in April.
“We’ve had the same conversation for months, with different variations on the same theme,” Commissioner Vendean Vafiades said after one exchange.
North Carolina-based FairPoint bought Verizon’s land-line telephone and Internet business last year for $2.3 billion. But the switch-over from Verizon for FairPoint has been anything but smooth.
Some customers continue to report having to wait weeks for their service orders to be completed. Other customers who left FairPoint complain they still are being billed.
Last month, company officials warned that it might be forced to seek bankruptcy protection unless creditors allow it to delay payments and restructure its debts. Earlier this week, Vermont’s consumer protection division asked regulators to investigate whether FairPoint should be allowed to keep its license to operate as a regulated utility.
Now, some of the smaller, rival telecommunications companies in Maine — many of which lease FairPoint’s infrastructure — say the company’s problems are dragging down their businesses, too.
On Tuesday, Nicholas Winchester with Mid Maine Communications wrote in a letter to the PUC that FairPoint is either intentionally underreporting problems or is simply unable to meet its obligations in the wholesale business.
Additionally, Winchester wrote that employees at Mid Maine and CRC Communications of Maine have put in thousands of additional hours addressing the problems rooted in FairPoint’s system. The key, he said, is FairPoint taking the time to fix the back-office problems that are causing system instability.
“Maine consumers and businesses deserve a vibrant telecommunications industry,” Winchester wrote. “Maine’s economy cannot afford to be held hostage by the continuing problems plaguing FairPoint’s retail and wholesale services.”
Mid Maine and the other telecommunications companies were not given time to address the PUC on Thursday. Commission staff said those companies and the public will likely get a chance to address the PUC in the near future.
But when asked about Winchester’s charge that FairPoint may be underreporting problems, a FairPoint executive disagreed, saying that was only Winchester’s perception.
FairPoint wasn’t the only company taking heat on Thursday, however.
Commissioners repeatedly questioned FairPoint officials about whether the firm Capgemini was doing enough to improve the stability of the back-office computer and network systems. Capgemini, a worldwide consulting and technology services firm, was hired to integrate the back-office systems.
“Sitting here, it seems to me that Capgemini has been responsible to a great deal for the failings,” said Commissioner Jack Cashman.
FairPoint officials said Capgemini staff continue to work with the company, but added that the issues are sometimes with the other vendors that supplied software or pieces of the network.
In a letter filed Thursday with the PUC, the Maine Public Advocate’s Office called on the commission to investigate the extent to which Capgemini’s back-office computer systems are causing the problems.
In the same letter, the advocate’s office unsuccessfully petitioned the commission to allow customers’ representatives to address the gathering.
Speaking afterward, consumer advocates said they were surprised and disappointed that the commissioners didn’t express more frustration and urgency.
“The commission asked a lot of questions, but they didn’t get to the real issues … identifying the problems within FairPoint’s back-office systems,” Black said.