Maine sees ‘dramatic spike’ in FairPoint complaints, but public advocate says state lacks ‘any real leverage’

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AUGUSTA — On Nov. 1, an ice storm broke a telephone pole and took down two FairPoint Communications telephone lines on Monhegan Island, laying them across the community’s main drag, Blackhead Road.

FairPoint workers rigged a temporary fix that restored phone service, but they couldn’t immediately replace two broken telephone poles. Sheets of plywood were placed over the downed wires to protect them when vehicles drove on Blackhead Road, and that’s how it’s remained ever since.

Town officials have contacted Tim Schneider, Maine’s public advocate, with worries that the situation could cut off access to two year-round residences and numerous seasonal residences as well as a building that houses emergency equipment.

The lingering problem on Monhegan exemplifies the growing frustration that Schneider said consumers and municipal officials are feeling about delays in FairPoint’s response to service requests. Meanwhile, a strike by two unions representing the company’s technicians and line workers, which started on Oct. 17, stretches into its third month.

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A FairPoint spokeswoman did not immediately respond to the BDN’s questions Friday afternoon.

“Our main concern is that with the arrival of snow, the phone lines obstruct the path of the municipal snowplow truck,” said several town officials in a Dec. 8 letter to FairPoint. “Access to the building which houses the primary municipal fire engine and emergency medical equipment will be blocked in any snow conditions requiring plowing, threatening all island residents and their homes.”

Monhegan Island is located off the coast of Port Clyde in Lincoln County and has about 40 year-round households. There are many more seasonal residences.

Schneider, who received a copy of the letter Friday, said he reached out to the Bangor Daily News because he has little other recourse in his quest to pressure FairPoint into fixing the problem.

“We don’t have any real leverage to do anything about this,” said Schneider. “It’s been more than a month and a half.”

Jes Stevens, the island’s deputy emergency management director, said island dwellers are used to dealing with adversity and that for many, the downed lines aren’t causing problems day-to-day, especially because the phone service still works.

Stevens said even the plow truck could deal with the obstacle in less than a few inches of snow by lifting its plow blade, driving over the wires and plywood carefully, and continuing to plow. The worry is a heavier snowfall and the prospect of too much snow for the plow driver to lift the blade and then drive through without getting stuck or tangled.

“We’re used to waiting for things to get repaired, especially when it is associated with an off-island entity,” said Stevens, who estimated that two damaged telephone poles need to be replaced. “It’s not usual for the phone lines to be down for over a month, especially when they go to several residences.”

Schneider said utility customers do have some recourse. Individuals can file complaints with the Maine Public Utilities Commission’s Consumer Assistance Division, which keeps a record of complaints, or call Schneider directly at 287-2445.

Situations with safety or medical issues are prioritized, and the PUC has the ability to fine a utility provider for poor service quality. FairPoint and other utility companies are required to report their service quality metrics periodically, and the next deadline is Jan. 15, 2015. Schneider said the PUC fines used to be automatic, but changes in the law by the Legislature have changed that.

“We’ve seen a dramatic spike in the number of calls regarding FairPoint service quality problems,” said Schneider. “We have raised this issue with the company, alerted the staff of the PUC, and it’s been mentioned in a newspaper article two or three weeks ago. When the lines are down directly in front of the fire station in a small community like this, it’s not like they can just go to the next block over.”

In addition to the strike’s effect on FairPoint, the company recently lost a bid at the PUC for a subsidy to help it maintain service in less populated areas where it doesn’t make a profit. The company is required to maintain land-line telephone services under “provider of last resort” regulations.

During the upcoming legislative session, FairPoint officials plan to advocate for access to subsidies through the state’s Universal Service Fund, which is supported by charges on Mainers’ cellphone bills. FairPoint has about 630,000 customers in its service area.

Stevens said she sympathizes with the striking workers and that most of the island residents know FairPoint’s local technician personally.

“We’re quite aware that FairPoint employees have been on strike, and the one that most often comes out here to help us is among those people,” she said. “It would help me sleep a lot better at night to know that there isn’t a phone line that could keep the fire truck from getting down the road.”

More than 1,700 workers are on strike in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. About 800 are in Maine.

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