Approximately 2,300 residential and business customers of USA Telephone in Maine had their service abruptly cut this week because of a long-standing dispute between the company and Fairpoint Communications, which owns the transmission lines used by USA Telephone.

Fairpoint spokesman Jeffrey Nevins said his company terminated service on Tuesday because USA Telephone had stopped paying Fairpoint to use its lines.

However, USA Telephone, which provides telephone and Internet service from “Maine to Maryland,” has been in and out of bankruptcy proceedings. It told Maine customers in a letter earlier this month that it was planning to end service on June 14.

However, Fairpoint did not authorize that date, Nevins said, and had already pushed back its own deadline from May 9 to May 21 at USA Telephone’s request. The messy dispute left customers in the middle, according to Wayne Jortner, an attorney in the Maine Public Advocate’s office.
“Obviously something went wrong. We got all kinds of calls from older folks and businesses,” Jortner said. “It’s a terrible way to do business. Everyone is pointing the finger somewhere else.”

The Public Advocate’s office on Wednesday encouraged Fairpoint to restore service at least until the June 14 date, to allow customers more time to make their own arrangements for phone and Internet service now that USA Telephone is going out of business.
Fairpoint agreed.
“It was a good business decision for us,” Nevins said, adding that the company hopes many of USA Telephone’s customers end up signing with Fairpoint.

Attempts to reach representatives of USA Telephone on Wednesday were not successful. One number listed for the company was disconnected. Another number, according to Jortner, has a recording that tells customers to contact Fairpoint.

“I don’t know what’s left of them at this point, but I assume they are out of business,” Jortner said of USA Telephone.

Although service to USA Telephone’s customers was expected to be restored by the end of the day Wednesday, it was a rough couple days for some.

Elizabeth Cox of Kennebunk said her 87-year-old mother got a letter from USA Telephone and assumed she had until June 14 to make arrangements with another phone company. Cox said her mother set a date of May 23 to have her service switched over to Fairpoint, which would have left her plenty of time. When her mother’s phones went dead on Tuesday, it was a shock.

“At her age, that phone is her lifeline,” Cox said. “What if she had to wait until someone knocked on her door?”

Nevins said Fairpoint contracts with several local carriers such as USA Telephone. He said there are often disputes over payments, but it’s rare to see them go this far.

Jortner agreed that such disputes “usually don’t lead to a dramatic cutoff for customers.”

Customers of USA Telephone will have service through Fairpoint at least until June 14, but those who have not made arrangements with another phone service provider should do so as soon as possible.

Staff Writer Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at erussell@pressherald.com

Twitter:@PPHEricRussell