Stonington residents upset over Internet blackouts; FairPoint says it’s working on a fix

Posted Aug. 23, 2012, at 6:14 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 24, 2012, at 9:13 a.m.

STONINGTON, Maine — An Internet service provider is scrambling to fix faulty equipment in Blue Hill that’s causing days-long disconnections for residents and business owners in Stonington, some of whom claim the outages have cost their companies thousands of dollars.

The outages, which last from a few minutes to two days, began this spring, according to Stonington residents and FairPoint spokesman Jeff Nevins. There was a reported five-day blackout in July.

Outages don’t just keep residents and vacationers from checking their emails and watching Netflix; they also render useless credit card machines, preventing businesses from accepting plastic, which ultimately hurts the bottom line.

“We’ve structured our business around the Internet,” said Doug Johnson, owner of Green Tree Communications, a public relations company. “We use cloud computing, so when it goes down, we’ve got nothing.”

Town Manager Kathleen Billings-Pezaris said she’s fielded multiple calls from residents complaining about Internet and phone service interruptions, and she’s been in talks with FairPoint. Still, she says, it’s unacceptable for businesses to be cut off.

“That’s a way of life now, all the commerce [is] transmitted that way,” she said Thursday. “It’s a real tough situation when we don’t have access to the rest of the world.”

DSL broadband travels across the same twisted copper wires that transmit telephone communications. The network includes central offices, which feed out to remote terminals and, ultimately, to homes and businesses.

Stonington and Deer Isle have their own central offices, Nevins said, but all FairPoint communications from the island communities ultimately must pass through Blue Hill, where a bad coaxial cable is likely causing the service interruptions.

“We know there’s an issue there, and we’re working on it,” he said. “Right now, we’re not definitely sure exactly what the problem is, but we’re doing diagnostic work.”

Nevins said that while the problem in Blue Hill isn’t helping, the increase in bandwidth demands is probably also a contributing factor, effectively overloading the circuits. He said the rise of streaming Internet video services such as Hulu and Netflix are a lot to handle without upgrading the system.

A good metaphor for understanding Internet traffic is the interstate highway, with each central office as a lane of traffic and each user as a car, Nevins explained. Bigger cars and fewer lanes mean stop-and-go traffic. Stonington is sometimes stopped.

“Sometimes, if you have four lanes of traffic going to three lanes, you’re not gonna have the speed,” Nevins said. “And with people watching video, it’s like all the traffic is double-wide trailers. They take up a lot of space.”

Nevins also said FairPoint was working to increase bandwidth through systemic upgrades in Bangor, Winter Harbor, Jonesport and Eddington. That — plus fixing whatever issue is causing snarls in Blue Hill — should provide some relief to Stonington, he said.

While Stoningtonians will be pleased to know a fix is on the way, they’re upset at how long it’s taken. Many said they’d been made to sit through pointless diagnostic tests every time they’d called to complain about an outage. They say its taken FairPoint far too long to realize there’s a systemic problem.

Some people are considering switching to Time Warner Cable for their broadband needs. Billings-Pezaris said she already had, and Hugh Reynolds, owner of Green Head Lobster, said he might change providers too.

Reynolds was without Internet for five of the past 25 days and said the outages “cripple the business.”

Green Head Lobster relies on the Internet to print shipping manifests, invoices and other communications necessary to ship lobster domestically and overseas. Reynolds said that during outages, missed orders likely cost his company thousands of dollars.

In Maine, the Internet is not a regulated utility, so the Public Utility Commission doesn’t handle complaints such as those coming out of Stonington. But the Attorney General’s office does handle consumer complaints and offers mediation.

The AG has taken two complaints against FairPoint in the past year, said spokeswoman Brenda Kielty. One of those was unresolved, and the other is currently in mediation. Kielty couldn’t say whether the complaints were about FairPoint’s DSL service, but noted that complaints about its telephone lines would go to the PUC.

Johnson, the public relations business owner, said he’d been in touch with the Attorney General’s office and was urging other Stonington residents to do the same.

“I really don’t want to make trouble for FairPoint, and it doesn’t serve Maine well to create the impression that we’re living in some third-world Internet system,” he said. “But there’s a company there, selling me a service, that clearly has a problem.”

Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.

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