AUGUSTA — The FairPoint work stoppage has shown how much Mainers still rely on landline service.

Since October, when about 1,700 FairPoint workers in northern New England went on strike, FairPoint customers across Maine have been the unwitting and unwilling test subjects for a massive experiment: What happens when the landline telephone network stops working?

Some have argued that this network is antiquated and no longer necessary, and that without it, consumers can simply switch to one of a host of competitors, including cable, wireless and even satellite phone companies for their phone and Internet service. The past three months have proven this theory wrong.

By now, FairPoint’s difficulties in continuing to provide reliable phone service while its workers are on strike are well known. At the Office of the Public Advocate, we’ve heard from wave after wave of customers who’ve suddenly found themselves without their FairPoint telephone service, in some cases for weeks or months at a time.

Many of these people live in rural parts of the state without reliable cellphone reception, or use services or devices that need a landline to function. In many places, the same FairPoint network also provides the only high-speed access to the Internet, via DSL.

The past three months have been an education in the sometimes unexpected ways that people across the state continue to rely on the traditional, copper-based telephone network. We’ve taken calls from:

 A young family in Stonington that was without phone and Internet service for over a month and were unable to call a doctor when their infant took ill.

 An elderly woman in Mattawamkeag, without phone service for two months, who needed her landline to update her pacemaker.

 An owner of a camp in Sedgwick who had no way of knowing whether her pipes had frozen after the line connecting her freeze-alarm system went down in December.

 A Brunswick man who could no longer call to check in on his 85-year-old mother in Dresden when her phone was out for 10 days.

 An auto repair shop in Harrington that was unable to communicate with customers and parts dealers for nearly a week and a half.

In each case, these customers found themselves without ready substitutes for phone service that would meet their needs. Many had to drive several miles just to get reliable cellphone reception to call customer service in the first place.

Not surprisingly, customers were frustrated or confused when FairPoint customer service representatives would offer to forward their calls to a cellphone until service was restored. Their landline service is crucial precisely because cellphone service is not a viable option in their location.

FairPoint and its unions are now in their fourth week of mediation, and we hope that the two sides are able to reach agreement. But resolving the strike is unlikely to be the end of Maine’s telephone troubles.

Even before the strike began, the quality of FairPoint’s service, as measured by the company’s own reports to the Public Utilities Commission, had deteriorated markedly. And FairPoint has consistently argued that in order to continue to meet its obligation to provide basic telephone service, it must receive a state subsidy, or else be relieved of that obligation.

The Legislature is likely to take up the future of landline telephone service this session, as it grapples with how best to ensure universal access to telecommunications services at just, reasonable and affordable rates.

This discussion is likely to include proposals to eliminate the obligation for companies like FairPoint to provide basic telephone service, or to further weaken or remove the already feeble rules holding that service to minimum standards of service quality.

These changes would leave rural Maine in particular without any assurance of safe, reliable phone service. Any path forward must take to heart the lesson we have learned these past months: that for many Mainers, traditional landline telephone service is still essential.