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 Tuesday.

In a special meeting, the three commissioners referred to the results of an informal, day-long meeting Monday between FairPoint, the PUC staff and the Public Advocate’s Office. That meeting focused on technical details of how to assess FairPoint’s progress in achieving a pre-set goal for broadband.

Following recommendations from the meeting, the PUC decided there’s no need to open an investigation into the issue, an action that it considered.

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 appears to be in reach, the PUC’s staff determined.

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

To prevent that, the commission asked its 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 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 to 87 percent. The PUC agreed, but added that if FairPoint fails to reach 87 percent in March of 2013, it will be ordered to hit 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 are 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 will continue to meet with the PUC staff and the public advocate to update them on progress.

Tuesday’s deliberations had a different tone from 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 Maine’s broadband access had risen from a low 60 percent range before the sale to 83 percent.

 

Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at:

[email protected]