CONCORD, N.H. (AP) – FairPoint Communications on Tuesday pledged to invest more than $13 million for rural broadband access in New Hampshire if state panels in three Northern New England states approve the company’s purchase of Verizon Communications’ phone lines.

If state regulators in New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine approve the $2.7 billion deal, FairPoint would provide broadband service to 100,000 more homes by January 2010.

“The bulk of those end up being in (New Hampshire’s) North Country,” said Walter Leach, FairPoint’s executive vice president.

The company would add high-speed Internet service to 19 New Hampshire towns for the first time and then expand lines in 55 underserved towns during the next two years. The company plans to offer broadband capability to 80 percent of its New Hampshire customers by early 2010. It’s all part of a $44 million investment pledge for the region.

Fred Kocher, president of New Hampshire High Technology Council, said the latest move to boost service is welcome after a number of failed attempts. “This is probably the best proposal I’ve seen to expand and enhance broadband in New Hampshire. This has been an issue has been around for decades. It’s one that has not been solved,” he said. “Frankly, I’d like to see New Hampshire have as close to 100 percent broadband connectivity as possible.”

The sale would make FairPoint the eighth largest telephone company in the United States. The deal hasn’t been without its detractors. The unions representing the bulk of Verizon employees have gone to arbitration, claiming the plan violates their contract. The 3,000 workers in the three states fear the $1.7 billion in debt the Charlotte, N.C.-based FairPoint would assume could hinder promised investments and imperil benefits and pensions.

Company officials have dismissed the concerns and have promised to add 600 new jobs in the three states. FairPoint has promised 250 new jobs in New Hampshire and would keep the existing 1,100 existing Verizon employees in the state.

“People say, ‘Verizon couldn’t afford to do this, how can FairPoint afford to do that?’ That’s not the right conclusion,” Leach said. “Verizon could afford to do this. Verizon could very well do exactly what we’re doing … Verizon is spending its dollars elsewhere. Verizon is taking money generated in these three states and putting it elsewhere.”

Verizon is retaining ownership of its wireless network in the three states.

AP-ES-07-24-07 1310EDT