FairPoint Communications has trouble. The company has assumed a tremendous amount of debt, undertaken the largest telecommunications system transition in the U.S., and has been battered by the recession. Still, this doesn’t exempt the company from meeting its obligations.

The company must be held accountable for its errors and missteps, like
what occurred before the Maine Public Utilities Commission last week,
when the panel declined to waive $845,000 in penalties for recurring
service problems. The company’s performance so far hasn’t earned it
leniency.

Northern New England states must continue to pressure FairPoint to perform and
fulfill its promises of service, broadband Internet expansion and
competitive prices for consumers. 

That’s easier said than done, nowadays. Over the past 18 months, banks and automakers have teetered under the weight of their debts, only to be stabilized by government dollars. And these were largely unregulated industries, far freer to maneuver in the markets than any public utility.

Government oversight of utilities is natural, which could lead to the natural reaction of government trying to direct management of a utility that’s faltering — like FairPoint. This is understandable; the government’s ultimate responsibility is to the customer, and if the utility falls apart, the customers would go unserved.

Yet FairPoint doesn’t need more help repairing its service in Northern New England. The company needs to fix what’s broken, and fast; not be slowed by bureaucratic demands, such as hiring an independent consultant to check its work, which is the recommendation of the Maine public advocate. A second opinion, though, doesn’t seem necessary.

The diagnosis and prognosis for FairPoint is apparent. It knows better than anyone what is and isn’t working with its systems in Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire. What FairPoint needs are swift, improving results, not further appraisals of its myriad challenges.

The state, or its regulatory agencies, or its lawmakers (hearings on FairPoint convene in Augusta before the Legislature’s Utilities Committee on Aug. 12) must resist trying to micro-manage FairPoint. This won’t help the company. And, the public has likely had its fill of government intervention into struggling corporations. 

State regulators and lawmakers are acting right in taking hard-line stances on FairPoint’s performance. Accountability for public utilities is crucial; their overseers must do everything possible to ensure utilities fulfill their public responsibility. Keep the pressure on them. 

But remember: The only entity that can really fix FairPoint right now is FairPoint.

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