AARP: FairPoint Proposal 'Beginning of the End' for Landlines

Originally published on February 26, 2016 7:01 pm

A seniors’ group is condemning a deal that could deregulate the price of basic landline service in 25 Maine cities and towns.

AARP says the proposal would hurt older Mainers who may rely on landline service for more than just phone calls.

When FairPoint Communications bought out Verizon’s service in Maine seven years ago, it agreed to be the state’s “provider of last resort,” to make sure that every customer who wanted access to a basic landline would be able to get it at an affordable price set by state regulators.

It’s a service that some 25,000 state residents, many of them senior citizens, rely on.

Now, FairPoint has negotiated a deal with the state’s public advocate that would allow the company to charge open-market rates for basic service in 25 municipalities where there are other providers competing to provide wireless or landline service. They’re mostly southern Maine areas such as Portland, South Portland and Kittery.

In return, FairPoint would have to limit what it charges for basic landline service in other municipalities to $20 a month, with a 5 percent annual hike allowed. And the company would be subject to more rigorous enforcement of quality standards.

“What we got in this bill is a guarantee that prices won’t increase in those places and that service quality will be maintained,” says Tim Schneider, the state public advocate. He says that after 18 months, state regulators would review the effects of deregulating landline prices in the 25 towns.

“The bill adds strong abandonment provisions,” Schneider adds. “So if FairPoint wants to pull out entirely from an area and not offer the landline service themselves, they would have to get approval from the Public Utilities Commission.”

FairPoint says the deal will help it provide service more effectively to all its Maine customers, and that competition in the 25 cities and towns will ensure fair prices.

But the state’s largest seniors group, AARP, says the proposal could hurt older Mainers who may rely on landline service for crucial functions such as linking a pacemaker to a doctor’s office or phone-based home security measures.

The group’s state director, Lori Parham, says that while there may be some competition emerging in the 25 municipalities, service quality is still spotty at best.

“It’s part of what we see as the beginning of the end for landline phone service here in Maine,” she says. “They’re starting here and then the goal is to move statewide, and until we develop a network in Maine that’s truly reliable and safer in terms of cellphone and broadband services, we don’t think we’re there yet.”

Lamwakers have yet to see a formal, printed version of the proposal.

AARP and officials at the union that represents FairPoint workers are calling for a full-fledged public hearing on the new deal. Public Advocate Tim Schneider says it’s late in the legislative session to get the public hearing process underway, but still worthwhile.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said FairPoint bought out AT&T's landline service in Maine. FairPoint bought out Verizon's.

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