Panel to hold FairPoint’s ‘feet to the fire’ Aug. 12

Posted July 30, 2009, at 9:38 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — A legislative panel will hold a hearing next month to discuss the problems Maine businesses and individuals have had as a result of FairPoint’s acquisition of Verizon landline and Internet business in the state.

“I am very, very concerned about the slowness with which the computer issues and the consumer complaints from both the businesses and from residences has been handled,” Senate President Elizabeth Mitchell, D-Vassalboro, said Thursday. “I know that FairPoint has been trying, but the public deserves some answers.”

She said lawmakers have heard a lot of complaints since FairPoint took over from Verizon earlier this year and that the Legislature’s Utilities and Energy Committee has decided to hold a hearing on Aug. 12 to address the matter.

Sen. Barry Hobbins, D-Saco, the co-chairman of the panel, said the committee will invite the public advocate and FairPoint officials to attend the hearing and update the panel. While all such hearings are open to the public, no time has yet been set aside for public testimony at the Aug. 12 hearing. That may occur at a separate committee meeting in the future, according to Hobbins.

“I think you have got to hold their feet to the fire,” said Gov. John Baldacci of FairPoint officials. “I think it is a good idea [lawmakers] are holding a hearing. When they are affecting businesses and residential customers in Maine, that is impacting us because that is business not happening in Maine or being delayed in Maine.”

The governor said it is not good enough for the company to say it is addressing the problems; the problems need to be solved.

“We need to make sure they are running on all cylinders,” Baldacci said.

North Carolina-based FairPoint bought Verizon’s landline telephone and Internet business last year for $2.3 billion, which includes operations in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont.

Some customers continue to report having to wait weeks for their service orders to be completed, both for phone and Internet services. Other customers who have discontinued their FairPoint service complain they still are being billed.

The Public Utilities Commission has also heard from several small telecommunications companies in the state that rely on FairPoint’s infrastructure. They have told regulators that FairPoint’s problems are costing them business and that the problems are continuing.

FairPoint is also being hurt financially by its inability to properly handle its business operations. The PUC earlier this week refused to let the company off the hook and imposed penalties for not providing service in a timely manner to the independent telecommunications companies.

FairPoint officials argued to the PUC that the company’s problems stem from the unprecedented complexity of transitioning more than 600 systems used by Verizon to handle business and network operations to FairPoint’s 60 systems and networks. While admitting bugs still exist in those systems, FairPoint officials say the company is making progress, but PUC rejected the company’s arguments that it has done all it can to address the problems.

“I agree with what the PUC has done,” Baldacci said. “The public wants us to make sure all of the accountability and transparency is there.”

Both he and Mitchell also support the public advocate’s request to have a third party study and review the company’s “back office” computer systems. FairPoint has acknowledged that those systems are a major source of the problems in both its residential and wholesale businesses.

Company officials have opposed the independent review sought by the public advocate. Spokesman Jeff Nevins said Thursday that FairPoint believes progress is being made and resources would be best used in fixing the remainder of the problems rather than hiring an independent consultant.

“We have made significant progress correcting some of the problems we had,” he said. “For many of our customers, it is business as usual. Now, having said that, there are some areas where we still have problems.”

Nevins said FairPoint has always responded to requests by regulators and lawmakers to provide information on the company and its operations.

“We want to make sure people understand that we are making progress,” he said. “We are more than willing to sit down and talk with people and explain what is going on.”

Hobbins said the Utilities and Energy Committee hearing on FairPoint on Aug. 12 will begin after the panel completes unrelated confirmation hearings.

“I think the committee will have a lot of questions,” Hobbins said.

Nevins said FairPoint will have officials at the hearing to answer those questions.

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