FairPoint CEO makes promises in wake of Verizon buyout

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MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) – The CEO of the company taking over Verizon’s local phone exchanges in northern New England vowed Thursday to invest $200 million in the region in the next 18 months and to be much more aggressive deploying broadband Internet service to rural areas.

Gene Johnson of FairPoint Communications also said his company would keep all Verizon’s roughly 3,000 employees in the region, “work collaboratively with the union” representing workers on a new contract when the current one expires next year, and add 600 new employees in three new call centers in the region.

“The key to dealing with customers is employees,” Johnson said. “If you want to have happy customers you need to have happy employees.” He said employee pension plans would be fully funded when the merger closes, expected at the end of this year.

He said he didn’t know how many of the new jobs would go to union members. Many of the jobs will be professional-level positions, Johnson said, including accountants, information technology professionals and others. Where the 600 new jobs would go would depend in large part on the availability of skilled workers to fill them, Johnson said.

Despite the explosion in wireless phones in recent years, “We think the landline business has a lot of life left to it,” Johnson said. Many wireless calls cover parts of their distance on the landline network. Wired networks also have a bright future in moving video and data, he said.

Johnson’s news conference and visit with Gov. Jim Douglas on Thursday followed similar appearances in Maine and New Hampshire. In all three states, Verizon has been criticized for slowness in deploying a high-speed Internet network called DSL in sparsely populated rural areas.

Johnson at first would not commit to a specific percentage of customers to have DSL available by a specific date. But told of an agreement the state of Vermont had struck with Verizon that 80 percent of customers would have it available by 2010, he said FairPoint would exceed that benchmark.

He noted that the North Carolina-based company currently serves about 5,000 customers in a handful of rural communities in Vermont, and that 93 percent of those customers have DSL available.

Johnson said he understood why government officials in the three states are pushing to have more of their territory covered with high-speed Internet access. Speaking to reporters in Concord, N.H., he said, “The state of technology is so critical to have any kind of economic development,” Johnson said.

He praised recent announcements by Douglas and Maine Gov. John Baldacci of plans to provide state support for expanding high-speed Internet. He said it will take cooperation between his company and state governments to move the region toward universal access to high-speed Internet service.

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