The Universal Notebook: FairPoint takes a shot in the dark

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Just when you thought it was safe to do business again with FairPoint Communications, the telecommunications midget threatens to cut the Internet connections of 20,000 Great Works Internet customers.

GWI is my Internet service provider and I couldn’t be happier with their service. And FairPoint has been nothing but trouble for Maine (and New Hampshire and Vermont) since it took over Verizon’s Northern New England assets. But if I lose my Internet connection, a pox on both their houses.

GWI and FairPoint have been battling for several years over whether FairPoint is obligated to provide dark fiber loops (unused fiberoptic lines) to GWI and other local exchange carriers and, if so, what rate can be charged. FairPoint insists it doesn’t have to provide access and that GWI owes it more than $3 million for past use of the dark fiber.

FairPoint apparently came up with the figure by jacking the dark fiber rate up from $50 a mile to $1,100 a mile and then making the rate retroactive to before it even bought the Verizon lines. GWI insists FairPoint does have to provide access and that the $3 million is an obvious overcharge.

FairPoint had threatened to cut off connections for some GWI customers as of Jan. 17. GWI filed a petition asking the Maine Public Utilities Commission to investigate FairPoint’s billing, collection and disconnections policies and to impose a moratorium on disconnections. The Maine Public Advocate Office sided with GWI.

“It’s not like GWI is a deadbeat customer,” senior counsel Wayne Jortner of the Public Advocate Office told me last week. “It pays its bills every month. GWI is doing everything it can (to avoid the disconnections).”

In a comment to the PUC on Jan. 13, Jortner wrote that “at the same time that FairPoint’s problematic operational systems have caused substantial harm to its wholesale competitors, primarily in the form of billing errors and delayed order provisioning, FairPoint has also embarked upon an ill-considered and unduly harsh policy of billing enforcement and overly aggressive interpretations of applicable law governing its provisioning of wholesale elements.”

The Public Advocate Office also expressed concern “that FairPoint’s failure to resolve good faith billing and wholesale provisioning issues will result in massive disconnections of service to customers of GWI.”

Concerned that I might be one of those GWI customers disconnected, I spoke with FairPoint spokesman Jeff Nevins, who reassured me that FairPoint has now extended the disconnection deadline to Feb. 12. Nevins also told me that GWI really only owed $2 million and that “it is very unlikely that it (a disconnection) will impact residential customers.” In fact, FairPoint is just threatening to disconnect 14 of GWI’s largest institutional customers, among them Bowdoin College, Colby College and the University of Southern Maine.

So let me get this straight. FairPoint, a company going through bankruptcy in order to get its own debt written down from $2.7 billion to $1 billion, thinks it would be good business to disrupt the telecommunications of major Maine educational institutions in hopes of collecting $2 million that it may or may not be owed? Sounds to me like a company in the dark.

In hindsight, we can all see that it was a huge mistake for the PUC to have allowed a little phone company from North Carolina to take over all of the Verizon landlines in Maine. Now, we can only hope that the PUC sees fit to look into FairPoint’s billing, collection and disconnection practices and grants the emergency moratorium on wholesale service disconnection that GWI is seeking.

Otherwise, we all may end up in the dark.

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The Universal Notebook is Edgar Allen Beem’s personal look at the world around him.