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Sudden Disconnections Rattle Thousands of Maine Telephone Customers
05/22/2013   Reported By: Tom Porter

More than 2,000 Maine telephone users should be getting reconnected today after a stressful 24 hours. On Tuesday afternoon some 2,200 customers of United Systems Access Telecom, also known as USA Telephone, were without warning disconnected. Well, perhaps not completely without warning: They knew that the financially-troubled carrier was planning to terminate operations, but in a letter sent last week, customers were told they had until June 14 to arrange a replacement landline and Internet service. Tom Porter reports.

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 Duration:
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Falmouth House of Pizza's George Sotiropolous, who found telephone service at his eatery suddenly disconnected.

Many of the affected customers are small businesses, and for them, the sudden loss of phone service is more than an inconvenience.

"My name is George Sotiropolous. I work here as the owner of the Famouth House of Pizza. We've been here for 38 years, and in my 38 years experience, we've never had any issues with our telecom system."

IMG_0515Until Tuesday afternoon, that is, when USA Telephone discontinued service - more than three weeks ahead of schedule. It's frustrating, he says, because had he even gotten one day's notice, he could have forwarded the number to his cell phone.

"We are dependent on our phones here to operate sales," Sotiropolous says. "Over 50 percent of our business is from the phones. Also our credit card machine doesn't work. In today's world over 75 percent of our transactions are done through the credit card system. And I've lost over 50 percent of business right now in the last two days."

USA Telephone - which filed for bankruptcy protection three years ago - operates out of Kennebunk. According to its Web site, the company offers local access and long-distance services in 12 states on the eastern seaboard from Maine to Maryland.

A phone call to their headquarters Wednesday afternoon was not picked up, but there was a message:

"You have reached USA Telephone. First, let us apologize for the disruption in your service. Our management team has been complying with the FCC and the state regulatory procedures in shutting down service to all of our customers as of June 14th. But yesterday we were informed that Fairpoint has chosen to terminate all the services as of yesterday."

The voice goes on to apologize for the inconvenience, but says the situation is beyond their control. Fairpoint Communications owns the telephone lines that USA Telephone uses, and according to company spokesman Jeff Nevins, USAT has substantial financial obligations to Fairpoint going back several years.

"We had been in a longstanding dispute with them," Nevins says. "We had been working to try to collect payments and trying to find a situation where we could work together to collect the payments that were due us."

No progress was made, says Nevins, and Fairpoint informed USAT last month that it would be terminating its services on May 21. For some reason, though, USA Telephone did not tell this to their customers.

"Understandably, the customers were reading the notification from USAT thinking that they had 'til June the 14th to make the choice in the new carrier," Nevins says.

"The rules should not leave a gap whereby 2,200 - or any number of - customers could be disconnected suddenly from their phone service at no fault of their own, and with no notice," says Wayne Jortner, senior counsel at the Maine Office of the Public Advocate, or OPA - a state watchdog which looks out for the interests of some utility consumers.

State officials, Jortner says, began hearing from angry USAT customers - many of them small business owners - who had been disconnected. Jortner says USAT is no longer under the purview of state regulators, but Fairpoint is. And so Jortner's office requested that Fairpoint reconnect the service to USAT customers and enable them to transfer to a new carrier.

Fairpoint duly complied, saying it aimed to have all 2,200 phone lines working again by the end of play on Wednesday.

From Maine's Deputy Public Advocate William Black - an audible sigh of relief. "We are happy that Fairpoint was willing to take this step as a wholesaler to provide service to customers that otherwise had been disconnected without sufficient notice," Black says.

But Black is not happy with the current regulatory climate, one in which much of the state's telecom industry, he says, was deregulated last year, eliminating the state's authority over competitive local exchange carriers like USA Telephone.

Black says state officials will continue to pressure lawmakers to address what he calls this gap in regulation, and hopefully prevent a situation like this from happening again.

Photos: Tom Porter




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