Vt. regulators approve reworked FairPoint plan

Posted Dec. 23, 2010, at 5:49 p.m.

MONTPELIER, Vt. — Vermont utility regulators, the lone holdouts in signing off on FairPoint Communications Inc.’s plan to emerge from Chapter 11 bankruptcy, have agreed to a reworked version of it, clearing a major obstacle for the troubled telecommunications provider.

The state Public Service Board approved the reorganization plan Thursday.

FairPoint, which is based in Charlotte, N.C., filed for Chapter 11 in 2009, about 18 months after buying Verizon Communications’ land-line and Internet operations in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont in a $2.3 billion deal.

Regulators in Maine, New Hampshire and 15 other states where the company does business already had agreed to the reorganization plan.

But Vermont held out because of concerns about the company’s financial viability.

In June, the Public Service Board rejected FairPoint’s original plan to work itself out of bankruptcy by delaying broadband deployments and skipping penalties for poor service that were to be paid to ratepayers.

The revamped version approved Thursday contains changes to the company’s credit agreements — giving FairPoint more flexibility in amortizing its long-term debt — and eliminates up to $12 million in refunds to customers that had been ordered because of service problems that came during the changeover from Verizon.

Regulators said the new version of the plan was more conservative and realistic in its financial projections.

The revisions “demonstrate a reasonable likelihood that FairPoint will be financially capable and can thereby fulfill its obligations,” the board said in a 34-page order.

Mike Smith, the company’s Vermont president, hailed the approval as a key final step toward FairPoint’s emergence.

“We will return to U.S. Bankruptcy Court shortly and my expectation is that we will emerge from bankruptcy shortly as well,” he said in an interview.

How quickly? “That’s up to the U.S. Bankruptcy Court,” Smith said.

Many felt the company was biting off more than it could chew when it proposed the Verizon buyout. The Public Service Board initially rejected a $2.7 billion buyout, saying the price was too high and that FairPoint would be assuming too much debt in going through with it.

It ultimately approved the purchase after the price was reduced.

Vermont’s approval Thursday marked a big step.

“This is a pretty good Christmas present for a lot of folks in New England who’ve been waiting for a while to see if the telephone company that serves them will be able to continue to do so,” said Richard Davies, the Maine public advocate.

Davies said he understood Vermont’s reservations about FairPoint’s finances, and that regulators in Maine shared those concerns.

“FairPoint has certainly given ample reason to be concerned about its finances. We analyzed their numbers closely before we signed off on the Maine regulatory agreement. We had some reservations at the time, but we felt that the company had made a good enough case to give it an opportunity to get back on its feet and show us that it can survive as a company,” Davies said.

With Vermont’s approval, union workers expect federal bankruptcy court approval and hope to see the company emerge from bankruptcy in the first quarter, said Don Trementozzi, president of the Communication Workers of America Local 1400 in Portsmouth, N.H., which represents 450 workers in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont.

Associated Press correspondent David Sharp in Portland, Maine, contributed to this report.

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