Regulators open case against FairPoint
07/27/09 5:50PM By John Dillon
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(Host) State regulators have stepped up the pressure on FairPoint Communications by opening a formal investigation into its ongoing service quality problems.
The case could lead the board to pull the company's license to operate in Vermont.
VPR's John Dillon reports:
(Dillon) Nina Mazuzan's experience with FairPoint is one reason the company is in trouble with regulators.
The Burlington resident switched her phone service from FairPoint to Burlington Telecom. That was in mid-February. But just last week, FairPoint sent her another bill - for service that she hasn't used in five months.
(Mazuzan) "We're done with service. I just want this -- it's almost $200 worth of unnecessary charges that I want off of our financial records."
(Dillon) It's stories like this - multiplied hundreds of times - that have frustrated customers, and state consumer affairs specialists. Billing errors - like Mazuzan's - are a common problem at FairPoint. Other issues include difficulties in activating service for new businesses or seasonal customers.
Earlier this month, the Douglas administration asked the three-member Public Service Board to force FairPoint to show why its license to operate in Vermont should not be revoked.
The board has now decided to launch a formal investigation. But FairPoint spokeswoman Beth Fastiggi said the company doesn't believe the investigation is necessary. She said FairPoint continues to make headway in fixing the problems.
(Fastiggi) "And although we've improved, we're still not delivering the exceptional customer experience today. And to accomplish that, we need to improve our systems."
(Montefusco) "I personally, and the union I work for, really has no satisfaction in being able to say, ‘We told you so.'"
(Dillon) Ralph Montefusco is an organizer with the Communications Workers of America, one of two unions that represent FairPoint employees.
The union repeatedly warned regulators that FairPoint was a risky bet to take over Verizon's northern New England territory. The CWA said the North Carolina company lacked the financial capital and the technical expertise to make a smooth transition.
But Montefusco said that was then. Now, he said, the union wants FairPoint to survive.
(Montefusco) "And so we've got no interest in seeing the company crash and burn and go out of business. That isn't good for our members and it isn't good for the communities they live in."
(Dillon) But Montefusco says FairPoint may not be the only one to blame for the current problems.
(Montefusco) "They have some systems, some computer systems, that they paid a lot of money for, that are failing them. So, there is a certain amount of culpability with the company that provided these systems."
(Dillon) In New Hampshire, the state advocate for ratepayers wants the FairPoint investigation broadened to include this software company. The advocate also wants the probe to include a consultant hired by the states who said that FairPoint could handle the transition.
But Vermont Public Service Commissioner David O'Brien wants the focus to stay on FairPoint.
(OBrien) "They hold the license to operate in Vermont. And I don't want to spend time in the weeds trying to sort out where things went badly for them, I just want them to fix it."
(Dillon) O'Brien said the Vermont case will put FairPoint executives under oath and on the witness stand. He said the legal proceeding should keep information accurate -- and should result in improved performance.
For VPR News, I'm John Dillon in Montpelier.