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Maine Regulators and FairPoint Resolve Broadband Dispute
08/13/2013   Reported By: Patty B. Wight

A long-standing dispute over FairPoint Communication's obligation to expand broadband internet access in Maine has finally been resolved as of today. As Patty Wight reports, the state's public advocate sees today's agreement as a win for consumers.

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When FairPoint purchased Verizon's landline operations in 2008, it agreed to certain conditions as part of the sale, such as expanding broadband service to 87 percent of its customers. After a few years, FairPoint said it had met that obligation, but Maine's Public Advocate disagreed.

Maine Public Utilities Commission Chairman Tom Welch says the dispute has been going on for a while now. "Ha! Depending on how you count, probably seven years."

It all came down to a lot of complicated math, and the PUC has subsequently issued a number of rulings on the matter. But after years of back and forth disputes between FairPoint and the Public Advocate, the two have worked out an agreement, which was approved by the PUC.

"We're glad that the commission approved the stipulation we negotiated, because we think that's a good deal for Maine broadband customers," says Tim Schneider, Maine's Public Advocate.

Schneider says there are three important parts to the agreement. First, FairPoint will expand its broadband service to 87 percent of its customers by April of next year. Second, the company will spend a substantial - but undisclosed - amount of money on broadband investment to benefit residential and commercial customers. Third, says Schneider - the company agrees to spend a certain amount of money and access federal funds to provide broadband service in unserved and under-served locations.

"We think what we've negotiated will provide service to places that don't have any broadband service right now, or places where FairPoint is the only broadband service, and it's not as fast as it needs to be," Schneider says.

FairPoint is applauding the deal as well. Spokesperson Jeff Nevins says the agreement benefits the most important party involved - Maine customers. "Obviously the thing that we hear most often now is that they want more broadband and they want it faster," Nevins says.

Nevins says FairPoint has already spent in excess of $200 million to upgrade its broadband network in Maine, and will upgrade 30 additional locations to improve speed and increase bandwidth. He says the agreement balances the interests of all those involved, keeping in mind the challenges a company like FairPoint faces.

"We've expanded broadband to the point where those who do not have it now - it's very costly," Nevins says. "So, we're at that point where, in terms of trying to develop a business case to expand beyond the current footprint, is very difficult just because, purely, the cost."

PUC Chairman Tom Welch says for consumers in some areas of Maine the agreement could encourage even higher speeds and lower monthly charges.

"In areas right now, for example, where a cable company offers a pretty high speed, the investment that FairPoint has committed to make here could provide a more competitive product from FairPoint in those areas," Welch says. "So in that sense it could make a difference."

FairPoint has a number of deadlines under the agreement, but all of its obligations should be met by the end of 2016.


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