A little more than three weeks from now, FairPoint Communications is supposed to have high-speed Internet service available to 83 percent of its customers in Maine.

Will that happen?

How can the exact numbers be determined?

Those are questions that state utility regulators pondered Tuesday as the Dec. 31 deadline nears.

FairPoint bought Verizon’s landline business in 2008 and became Maine’s largest phone company. As a condition of the controversial sale, FairPoint agreed to extend broadband service to 87 percent of its customers in five years. As interim steps, it must reach 85 percent by July of 2012 and 83 percent by the end of 2010.

At a special meeting Tuesday, the Maine Public Utilities Commission tried to determine whether FairPoint is on track. Commissioners decided, after some debate, to give FairPoint another week to document its progress.

The outcome is important to Maine. High-speed Internet service is as crucial to economic development and overall quality of life in the 21st century as the telephone was 50 years ago.

A FairPoint spokesman said after the meeting that the company is hooking up new lines every day and won’t know the exact total until Dec. 31. It already has invested $27 million in Maine for broadband expansion.

“We’re confident we’ll meet the percentage that was set,” said Jeff Nevins.

Extending high-speed Internet to rural areas over phone lines is expensive, and phone companies are reluctant to serve far-flung customers. Verizon had reached less than 70 percent of its customers before the sale.

States typically have little ability to force companies to roll out broadband, which is an unregulated service. But in approving the Verizon sale, the Maine PUC was able to extract concessions. 

Initially, FairPoint agreed to reach 90 percent of its customers in five years. But the early months of the switchover didn’t go well. FairPoint filed for bankruptcy reorganization in October 2009, a process that continues.

With its financial troubles, the company asked the PUC to delay the completion of its first phase of broadband expansion from April to December of 2010. It also asked to reduce the percentage of lines capable of carrying broadband from 90 percent to 87 percent, bypassing an estimated 15,000 customers. The PUC agreed to the requests in a 2-1 vote.

The commission also signaled its desire for strict enforcement. If FairPoint fails to reach the 87 percent threshold in March of 2013, it will be ordered to achieve the original 90 percent target.

That penalty shows why verifying this month’s 83 percent benchmark is critical – a point highlighted during Tuesday’s PUC proceeding.

“There’s a lot riding on this,” said Jack Cashman, the PUC’s chairman.

During the deliberations, Cashman expressed frustration with a recent attempt to get specific information from FairPoint. He wanted the PUC to open a formal investigation.

But Commissioner Vendean Vafiades said she sees evidence that FairPoint is making a good-faith effort to meet its obligations. She noted a letter last week from FairPoint, pledging to provide the requested data to the PUC staff and the Public Advocate’s Office. She suggested waiting a week, to see what can be gathered without the investigation.

With Cashman and Vafiades at odds, a third vote was needed to break the tie. But Commissioner David Littell was unable to attend the session, so definitive action was put off until next week.

In the interim, FairPoint is expected to work with the PUC staff and the public advocate. At issue will be the way FairPoint is counting total customers and the number of high-speed DSL connections to date.

The information isn’t available to the public. Also confidential is the exact location of new DSL connections, when they will become available, and the total number of landline customers.

That frustrates Wayne Jortner, a lawyer with the Public Advocate’s Office. When residents call to ask him if he knows when – or if – FairPoint will bring broadband to their street, he can’t say.

“There are places where FairPoint knows they’re never going to get to,” Jortner said. “They should let people know now, so they can look for alternatives.”

But Nevins said the company can’t say exactly when connections will be made at various locations.

or competitive reasons, and to manage expectations, it alerts customers and community officials only after the network is turned on. After that, customers can call to learn about prices and programs.

Since November, FairPoint has turned on 44 sites in communities ranging from Presque Isle to South Portland. That has made broadband available to 8,000 additional lines, Nevins said.

The company, he said, is ready to answer the PUC’s questions about progress and the pending 83 percent deadline.

“We’ve said all along we’d provide the data the PUC is looking for,” he said.

Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at: [email protected]