LIANE HANSEN, host:
The phone company that provides basic landline service in Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire is fighting to survive. FairPoint Communications faces massive debt and complaints about chronic poor service. Vermont is now challenging FairPoint's license to operate.
From Vermont Public Radio, John Dillon reports.
JOHN DILLON: All summer, state regulators have fielded calls from exasperated phone customers. Some businesses have waited months to get a new phone line. And other customers, like Nina Mazuzan of Burlington, dumped FairPoint for another carrier last winter, only to find that company billed her for months afterwards.
Ms. NINA MAZUZAN: We're done with service and I just want this, it's almost $200 worth of unnecessary charges that we want off our record.
DILLON: Mazuzan said that after nine months the billing issues are still not fully resolved. Frustration with FairPoint boiled over during an unusual hearing. The Public Utility Commissions from Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont got together to grill company executives.
John Burke of the Vermont Public Service Board had a very specific complaint. On the day of the three-state hearing, the phones went dead all over Vermont's capital city.
Mr. JOHN BURKE (Commissioner, Vermont Public Service Board): And for the first three business hours of the day today, if anybody tried to call the Public Service Board, they got the following message: You have dialed a non-working number. Please check this number and try it again.
DILLON: North Carolina-based FairPoint serves customers in 18 states. It has 1.5 million Internet and landlines in New England. FairPoint borrowed $2.4 billion to buy Verizon's landline business in the region, and now it's on the verge of bankruptcy. Technology has also been a challenge. The company says the switchover from Verizon was the most complicated transition ever undertaken by a phone company.
CEO David Hauser says the company has improved service. Now, when customers call a service center, they're kept on hold for less than 20 seconds. But Hauser says FairPoint needs another two months to come up with a comprehensive plan to fix all the problems.
Mr. DAVID HAUSER (CEO, FairPoint): I have a huge sense of urgency. I mean let's face it, Northern New England is what makes or breaks FairPoint.
DILLON: David O'Brien heads the Vermont agency that represents consumers. He says that while it's true that people wait on hold for less time, that doesn't mean that their problems are actually fixed.
Mr. DAVID O'BRIEN (Commissioner, Department of Public Service, Vermont): We're looking at instances where 30 to 40 percent of pending orders are late. And 40 to 50 percent of late pending orders are late more than 20 days. And these numbers that I'm sighting haven't improved since June.
DILLON: FairPoint says it's put a team in place to turn those numbers around. CEO David Hauser.
Mr. HAUSER: We have identified the areas that need further attention and have improvement plans in place for those areas.
DILLON: But O'Brien wants new management at FairPoint. He's hoping that if the company does file for bankruptcy, a buyer will come forward who can do a better job.
For NPR News, I'm John Dillon in Montpelier, Vermont.
HANSEN: This is NPR News.
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