During a hotly contested dispute, like the ongoing strike at FairPoint Communications by its northern New England employees, it’s hard to know whom to believe. Each side views the world through its own lens, and tends to see the worst in its opponent’s arguments while casting a blind eye to the flaws in its own.

In the FairPoint strike, the company is reportedly holding firm on its demand for $700 million in concessions that it says are needed for the company to be competitive. The 1,700 striking union members say they are willing to negotiate some concessions, but are not willing to give the company the right to hire nonunion contractors. The workers say they are the only ones who should be trusted with the communications network their people have built and maintained.

But while the stalemate continues, there is one source of information that we can rely on: the customers who depend on service from FairPoint while the usual workers are off the job. Their voices are starting to be heard, and they are supporting the union’s description of the situation.

The Maine Public Advocate’s Office reports being flooded with complaints about bad service from the state’s largest land-line company. FairPoint customers have reported extremely long hold times when they call for service, followed by their calls being dropped before they can speak with anyone. Lately, the public advocate has been getting complaints about the length of time customers have been going without service in weather-related outages.

“There have been unacceptable delays,” said Timothy Schneider, Maine’s public advocate. “Maine customers are pretty forgiving, but not after going without service for three days.”

During the now seven-week strike, FairPoint has been using a mix of managers and independent contractors to restore service. Customers have reported outages that last as long as two weeks. One Maine business reported a 17-day outage that ended when the business shifted its account to another phone company.

FairPoint knows about the complaints, but because of deregulation of the telecommunications industry, it is not held accountable for the disruptions. The old monopoly telephone companies were required to collect and publish complaint data and were automatically fined when certain benchmarks were hit.

That is no longer the case for FairPoint. Despite its pledges that there would be no disruption of service, service has not been adequate.

This lack of regulatory consequence gives the company tremendous leverage in the strike. No matter how bad the service FairPoint provides, the utility knows how much revenue it can expect to collect, because its rates are set by the Maine Public Utilities Commission.

In some markets, customers can choose other companies; they can get land-line service from a cable television provider, for instance, or rely on cellphones. But in much of the state, those options don’t exist, and FairPoint is the only choice. Competition is not enough to discipline the company to take care of the customers who can’t go elsewhere – that’s what regulation is for.

When the Legislature returns to business, restoring automatic fines for utilities that run up high levels of complaints should be on its agenda.

And in the meantime, FairPoint should get back to the negotiating table with its employees, so that qualified crews can get back on the road this winter.