AUGUSTA, Maine — Members of the Maine Public Utilities Commission expressed concern Tuesday that FairPoint will not meet its required goal of offering broadband access to 83 percent of the area it serves in the state by Dec. 31.
“I think it is imperative that we get the ball rolling on this,” said PUC Chairman Jack Cashman. “I was somewhat not only dismayed, but somewhat stunned at the resistance by FairPoint to answer questions on the record concerning the numbers that are going to be used to make this determination.”
He said a major reason why the PUC approved FairPoint buying the northern New England landline services of Verizon was the promise to improve access to broadband to 90 percent of its service area. As part of the FairPoint bankruptcy proceeding, that target was lowered to 87 percent, with the first target set at 83 percent by Dec. 31, 2010.
“A lot rides on this,” Cashman said. “If we determine that they have not met the 83 percent threshold, then their obligation to total build out goes back to 90 percent.”
The issue is what baseline numbers will be used to determine whether FairPoint has reached the goal. The only numbers submitted to the PUC so far have been confidential and given to staff.
Public Advocate Richard Davies said his office has seen the initial numbers put forth by FairPoint but cannot disclose them because of the confidentiality provisions set by the PUC. Davies agreed with Cashman that so far they do not have a set of numbers all can agree to use to measure FairPoint’s progress.
“The issue really revolves around: How do you measure that?” he said. Davies said the purpose of the proceeding Tuesday was to launch a formal investigation by the PUC, which would require FairPoint to respond publicly to the PUC.
But the move by Cashman to start the investigation failed on a tie vote. Commissioner David Litell was in Washington, D.C., at a conference and Commissioner Vandean Vafiades said she was not ready to take that step and wanted to give FairPoint another week to provide answers to the questions she and the other commissioners have raised about measuring its broadband penetration.
“If they have not responded by next week,” she told Cashman, “I will join with you next week on this order.”
FairPoint spokesman Jeff Nevins said the company is “making very good progress” toward the 83 percent goal and have brought in additional work crews from other states to work on expanding the company’s broadband facilities.
“Every day we are turning up new areas and providing high speed Internet to customers that did not have it before,” he said. Nevins said the company is optimistic it will meet the goal by the end of the month.
Davies said the issue is important to economic development in the state because in parts of the state FairPoint is the principal broadband provider. That was underscored last week at a forum held by the Maine Business Association Roundtable on state regulations.
Gov.-elect Paul LePage took the opportunity to ask the group how important broadband access is to economic development and got several responses that access to broadband is as important as phone service was a hundred years ago.
“The tourism industry in the rural parts of the state, we are repeatedly told, if we don’t have broadband access, people will not come,” said Matt Polstien of the New England Outdoor Center in Millinocket.
The PUC may take up the matter again next Tuesday.