FairPoint Communications is on target to provide high-speed Internet access to 83 percent of its customers by year’s end, the Maine Public Utilities Commission determined today.

In a special session today, the three commissioners referenced the results of an informal, daylong meeting on Monday between FairPoint, the PUC staff and the Maine Office of Public Advocate. That meeting focused on technical details of how to assess FairPoint’s progress in achieving a preset broadband goal. As a result of recommendations from the meeting, the PUC decided there’s no need to open a formal investigation into the issue, an action it was considering.

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.

That first benchmark seems to be in reach, the PUC’s staff determined.

At Tuesday’s deliberations, Commissioner Vendean Vafiades expressed concern that FairPoint now would turn its attention to broadband expansion in New Hampshire and Vermont, and lose focus on its next benchmark in Maine.

“I really don’t want to get in this position again when we get to the 85 percent goal,” she said.

To avoid that, the commission asked the PUC staff to meet with FairPoint and the public advocate to work out a way to measure future benchmarks.

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

Initially, FairPoint agreed to reach 90 percent of its customers in five years. But FairPoint filed for bankruptcy reorganization in October of 2009, a process that’s still under way.

In the midst of 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, for 90 to 87 percent. The PUC agreed to this, but added that 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’s why measuring the first, 83 percent benchmark was a critical determination.

After the deliberations, a FairPoint spokesman said crews were hooking up new areas every day.

“This will ultimately mean that more than 260 new sites will be turned on statewide by the end of the month, and an additional 40,000 new households and businesses will now have access to high speed Internet,” said Jeff Nevins.

Nevins pledged that FairPoint would continue to meet with the PUC staff and the public advocate to update them on progress.

Tuesday’s deliberations had a different tone than an initial hearing last week, during which the PUC’s chairman, Jack Cashman, expressed frustration with his inability to determine whether FairPoint was on target. This time, the commissioners generally were complimentary of FairPoint for meeting the 83 percent goal, despite its financial difficulties.

They also stressed the importance of broadband access to the state and its economy, with Cashman noting that the state’s broadband access level had risen from a low 60 percent range prior to the sale to 83 percent today.

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


Reported at 9:51 a.m. today

FairPoint Communications is on target to provide high-speed Internet access to 83 percent of its customers by year’s end, the Maine Public Utilities Commission determined today.

In a special session this morning, the three commissioners referenced the results of an informal, daylong meeting on Monday between FairPoint, the PUC staff and the Maine Office of Public Advocate.That meeting focused on technical details of how to assess FairPoint’s progress in achieving a preset broadband goal. As a result of recommendations from the meeting, the PUC decided there’s no need to open a formal investigation into the issue, an action it was considering.

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 2012, and 83 percent by the end of 2010.

Commissioners complimented FairPoint for meeting the 83 percent goal, despite its financial difficulties, and stressed the importance of broadband access to the state and its economy.