BANGOR, Maine — If anything was clear during the first of seven public meetings about changes to FairPoint Communications’ price-controlled, basic landline phone service, it was that there is confusion among customers about how they may be affected when those changes kick in next month.
A session held Thursday evening at Bangor City Hall drew about 30 people, the vast majority of them senior citizens concerned that they might lose access to their landlines, their Lifeline services or both.
None of the above are the case, according to representatives from the Maine Public Utilities Commission and FairPoint as well as the state’s public advocate.
“I’m one of the older people who does not use a cellphone or the internet. It just seems to me that you are leaving us in the lurch,” said a Bangor woman who did not identify herself.
“I was recently up at East Grand Lake and last night the electricity and the power went out. You can’t use a cellphone there and I’m not sure you can use a cellphone everywhere in Bangor. … I just wondered what we’re supposed to do. It doesn’t seem quite logical to me to get rid of phone service which has worked a long time.”
Public Advocate Timothy Schneider said no provider is allowed to withdraw basic landline services without permission from the PUC.
“There may be competition that’s just as effective, keeping quality of services high and costs low,” he said. “This is one of the things we’ve done in a very measured way because we wanted to be sure there’s reporting obligations in this legislation that would allow the Legislature to see what’s happening. And if we’ve made a move that’s too aggressive or service changes in a way that we didn’t anticipate, the Legislature has the authority to act.”
State officials will be receiving reports showing what changes in service have occurred, Schneider said.
MPUC staff attorney Jody McColeman agreed.
“That’s a good point and I think it’s worth repeating that the deregulation of the [provider of last resort] service does not equal landline service going away,” he said, noting that FairPoint also is required by state and federal law to provide Lifeline service.
A law passed during the last legislative session phases out regulated landline service in 22 of Maine’s largest communities, starting with a group of the state’s seven largest communities, on Aug. 28. Those landline plans are called provider of last resort, or POLR, service. The no-frills plans allow only local calling and have no features, such as voicemail.
A FairPoint spokeswoman who attended Thursday’s meeting did not immediately know how many such accounts the company has in Bangor.
The first seven cities — Bangor, Portland, Auburn, Biddeford, Lewiston, Sanford and South Portland — were chosen because FairPoint has a number of competitors there. While the changes essentially deregulate the price, Schneider and other state officials believe that competition among providers will keep the cost low.
Another 15 communities will be phased in over the next 18 months.
More meetings on the change are planned in Portland, Lewiston, South Portland, Auburn, Biddeford and Sanford.