What’s needed from FairPoint Communications are fewer questions and more answers. If the company is not going to fulfill its promises to Maine regulators, it must be upfront about it. There have been enough unpleasant surprises following its takeover of Verizon so far without more to come.
A smooth transition was unlikely. That FairPoint was acting aggressively with its acquisition of telephone lines in Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire was obvious; for its plans to succeed, the company needed to leverage itself greatly, with hopes that revenue from ex-Verizon customers would balance the load.
Nobody predicted the economic conditions that followed, which turned this leverage into ballast that just may sink FairPoint into “restructuring.” Utility regulators in northern New England know the company’s bleak fiscal picture; New Hampshire just allowed FairPoint to take $50 million it had escrowed with the state for capital expenses to improve it.
Yet FairPoint’s finances are not the chief concern. (Most everyone knew it would be strapped.) The reliability and customer service failings of FairPoint after the switchover from Verizon are more troubling because they have been so much greater than expected.
Customers don’t expect much from public utilities except steady, reliable service, and quick fixes when broken. When they cannot provide service, regulators must step in, and the utility must be upfront about its failings. It is, to turn a trite phrase, a moment of truth. Well, this is now the moment of truth for FairPoint.
It’s times like these when customers and consumers care little about promised future investments, caring most instead about immediate plans. FairPoint’s vows for broadband expansion in Maine — which are buoyed by federal stimulus payments — are cold comfort to those who cannot regularly get a dial tone or Internet connectivity.
The Maine Public Utilities Commission has said FairPoint’s fiscal commitment to Maine is “on track,” according to confidential, internal documents. FairPoint has said normal operations will come by July, according to the Bangor Daily News. In the meantime, though, the company’s credit rating is down, while executive bonuses have been plentiful.
Frustrated consumers should not take solace in claims of summertime normalcy (especially firms whose summer business must be built today) and vague financial trends from a company credit-raters think is a prime candidate for default. This isn’t about the future of FairPoint anymore. It is about the present.
The company must be transparent about its service problems, and offer complete plans for fixing them. Otherwise, it risks further alienating a customer base that is rapidly turning sour on FairPoint. The company’s success would be good for Maine, particularly by achieving the lofty goals of rural broadband access.
Yet focusing on tomorrow cannot come at the expense of today. Not when there are calls to be made, and business to be done.

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