‘Transparent’ review of FairPoint sought

Posted Aug. 12, 2009, at 8:19 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Representatives of the Maine Public Advocate’s Office on Wednesday called for a more transparent review of FairPoint Communications’ efforts to fix the problems that continue to stymie the company.

FairPoint officials responded by assuring lawmakers that state regulators will have “unfiltered” access to the reports of independent consultants hired to help identify and address the issues.

“I believe in transparency and we will find a way to give you more information on a timely basis,” said Peter Nixon, FairPoint’s president.

Nixon made his comments Wednesday during a Utilities and Energy Committee meeting that was largely cordial but did include some frank assessments of the company’s failures both by lawmakers and FairPoint officials.

“It seems to me that FairPoint’s biggest problem is that people may be fed up with being fed up and customers can get off of the treadmill,” said Rep. Herb Adams, D-Portland.

There appears to be an emerging consensus that many of the problems that have plagued FairPoint since it took over Verizon’s telephone and Internet business are rooted in the company’s “back office” computer systems and networks.

State regulators in Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire have been flooded with complaints from people frustrated by unreasonable service delays, dropped or misdirected calls, repeated billing errors and excessive waits when calling FairPoint’s customer service center.

Those issues have only exacerbated the company’s financial trouble as customers cancel with FairPoint and sign up with competitors.

“The greatest issue we face is providing services to our customers and retaining our reputation candidly,” Nixon said.

FairPoint’s decision to hire outside consultants to examine those back office systems and recommend fixes was welcomed by the Public Advocate’s Office and the legislators. The advocate’s office had formally proposed as much in letters to the Public Utilities Commission earlier this summer.

But representatives from the advocate’s office also told the committee that they were concerned about aspects of the PUC’s handling of the FairPoint case. They repeated concerns that the commission has not allowed either the public advocate or representatives from the smaller, competitive telecommunications firms that rely on FairPoint’s infrastructure or information to participate in hearings so far.

“There are companies out there that are afraid they are going to go down with FairPoint if things don’t get fixed,” said Wayne Jortner with the public advocate’s office.

“We believe regulators in Maine and the Northeast have to be more active in making sure these problems are identified and fixed,” added William Black, deputy public advocate.

That prompted committee co-chairman Sen. Barry Hobbins, D-Saco, to warn that if the PUC was not going to regulate, the Legislature would get involved.

A little-known meeting held earlier this week between FairPoint’s top executives and the PUC may have added to those concerns about transparency.

FairPoint Chairman and CEO David Hauser and other company officials briefed the three commissioners on Tuesday about the company’s plans to hire a consultant and file regular updates with regulators.

But while the PUC meeting was technically open to the public, the commission was not required under current law to notify anyone about the session. Hauser also briefed Gov. John Baldacci in a separate meeting.

For the most part, Wednesday’s legislative meeting was low key. Lawmakers pressed Nixon for assurances that the company is working to improve its bottom line and avoid bankruptcy.

“We believe that the principles of the business that brought us here still exist today,” Nixon said. He also updated the committee on progress reducing order delays, billing problems and long waits within the call center while acknowledging that the company still has areas that need improvement.

The only fireworks came at the end of the meeting from a representative of the Office of Information Technology who said FairPoint’s ongoing problems have significantly increased work for employees in his office.

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