Vt. bashes FairPoint filing, wants expedited probe

Posted Sept. 19, 2009, at 1:42 p.m.

MONTPELIER, Vt. — A day after FairPoint Communications told Vermont regulators its performance was improving, the state of took aim on the company again Friday, saying its assurances lacked substance and asking regulators to order it to justify why its operating certificate shouldn’t be revoked.

In a four-page letter to the state Public Service Board, the state’s Department of Public Service — a separate entity — bashed FairPoint for providing an inadequate explanation of how it will address continuing customer service problems and failing to take the state’s complaint seriously.

The state also asked the board to halt “informal workshops,” in which FairPoint representatives gave monthly updates to the board, and to expedite the investigation about its fitness.

The letter was sent in response to a filing Thursday in which the Charlotte, N.C.-based company asserted that it had made big strides in solving problems.

“The Department does not dispute that FairPoint’s filing precisely reflects to the letter that which it was asked to provide,” public advocate Sarah Hofmann wrote. “Unfortunately, it also precisely reflects FairPoint’s inability and unwillingness to address the managerial, systemic and service quality issues in a manner upon which the Department, or ultimately, the greater public, can rely.”

FairPoint customers have been plagued with problems since the company took over Verizon Communication’s land-line and Internet business in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont earlier this year after a $2.3 billion buyout in 2008.

On July 14, the Vermont Department of Public Service — which acts as advocate for ratepayers — urged the Public Service Board to investigate whether the company should be allowed to continue operating in Vermont.

In its reply filed Thursday, FairPoint said it had reduced wait times for consumers who call in and sharply cut the number who hang up while waiting for someone to answer.

But state officials weren’t impressed, saying FairPoint’s filing lacked detail and that its remaining problems stem from “faulty processes and management.”

“What I want is a viable phone franchise where customers are happy and the network is being supported with adequate investment,” said Public Service Commissioner David O’Brien in an interview Friday. “It’s our belief that they don’t get it. They don’t realize how serious we are, and that we are after results and results only. Anything else is secondary.”

FairPoint spokeswoman Beth Fastiggi said the company would provide any additional information the state wants. A Sept. 30 status conference is scheduled for FairPoint representatives to appear before the board.

But she noted that so far, the board had not opened a revocation proceeding.

“Of course, we take the Department of Public Service’s actions seriously. And we certainly can provide additional details on the progress we’re making to the DPS,” she said.

Fastiggi said FairPoint has been working with Liberty Consulting — an outside party hired by the three states — to improve its processes.

“It’s unfortunate that that’s not recognized, because FairPoint’s employees are completely dedicated to providing the best possible customer service and have worked tirelessly over the last several months to make the dramatic improvements that we’ve seen,” Fastiggi said.

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