2016-08-04 / Front Page

Changes are coming to Biddeford landlines

By Ben Meiklejohn
Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD – The Maine Public Utilities Commission held a public hearing last week to both inform the public and receive input about legislation going into effect that allows basic phone service, provided by FairPoint Communications, to be deregulated in up to 22 communities in coming years.

The hearing, held at Biddeford City Hall on Thursday, July 8, was one of seven hearings scheduled in the first seven municipalities that will be deregulated in August 2017. The first seven cities to be deregulated will be Auburn, Bangor, Biddeford, Lewiston, Portland, Sanford and South Portland.

Director of Telephone and Water Jeff McNelly explained to the audience what deregulation of basic landline phone services means.

“In a year from now, your ability to get calls and service won’t change,” McNelly said. “Your basic landline will not be going away.”

McNelly said the law only means that the PUC will no longer have jurisdiction over FairPoint’s ability to set rates for basic, or “point of last resort,” landline phone services. Although the PUC will no longer have oversight of the service, FairPoint will still be required under law to provide the service.

“This started in 2012 when the Maine Legislature made sweeping changes to how FairPoint was regulated,” McNelly said. “Point of last resort is essentially barebones phone service allowing you to make local calls.”

With 21,000 customers statewide, the 22 communities that may be affected include roughly half of those – 10,000 customers.

Amy Gallant, an associate staff director for advocacy for AARP, who lobbied for changes to the legislation as it was being crafted, said at the hearing, “For someone who has basic landline service who wants to keep this service, if FairPoint chooses to increase the bill, how will I know about it? Will I get notice? And if I have complaints, how will that look like down the road?”

FairPoint’s Senior Director of Government Relations Sarah Davis said the company would provide 30 days notice of any future rate increase, delivered in the same format as each customer has chosen to receive their bill.

“One of the things FairPoint has agreed to is greater provider of service quality … It’s a good piece of deregulation and I think it allows FairPoint to do more. Right now, if FairPoint wanted to offer a Labor Day special, they couldn’t do it,” said Rep. Martin Grohman (D-Biddeford), who is on the Legislature’s Energies, Utilities and Technology Committee.

McNelly said the legislation also addressed what would happen if FairPoint chose to abandon the service.

“If FairPoint contemplates abandonment of service, they can’t just do it overnight. They need to have conversations with the PUC,” McNelly said.

Davis said the law strengthened the process for abandonment, but allowing for abandonment isn’t itself a new provision of the law.

“Abandonment always existed,” she said. “People think it allows them to abandon. Well, they always could.”

Biddeford resident Richard Livingston, who is also president of the Maine chapter of AARP, said the legislation also requires higher service quality standards before the next 15 municipalities can be deregulated, which would happen in waves of five towns every six months after the first year.

“There’s an incentive built in now for FairPoint to meet standards because subsequent deregulation can’t happen until they’re met,” Livingston said.

Gallant said current service quality guidelines are not enforceable but new service quality requirements must be met to proceed with deregulation.

“The repair of basic dial tone service currently existing requires a 24- hour time frame and the new requirement is 48 hours, but we would rather address service quality standards that were never met and make them enforceable,” she said.

Livingston said FairPoint will be required to meet the service standards for two consecutive quarters before proceeding to deregulate the next five municipalities.

Under existing rules, FairPoint was expected to realize a trouble report rate threshold of 1.52 network troubles or less per 100 customers, but under the new guidelines, the network trouble rates could increase to three per 100 customers.

Gallant said the loosening of standards was a tradeoff to making the standards enforceable in some manner. The legislation as originally proposed, would have allowed FairPoint to eventually deregulate the service in the entire state, but Gallant said AARP was able to successfully limit deregulation to Maine’s 22 most populous cities and towns.

In a talking points Gallant shared with legislators, she wrote, “The quality of FairPoint’s basic local exchange service directly affects AARP members – AARP members are likely to rely disproportionately on FairPoint’s telephone service relative to the general population. Households that rely solely on wireless service are referred to as ‘cord-cutters.’ Over the past decade, there has been a significant increase in cord-cutting in the general population, although approximately half of households nationwide still maintain some form of wireline access.

“National statistics show that cord-cutting is far more common among youth than among older consumers … despite national cordcutting trends, the vast majority of households with older members continue to rely on landline telephone service.

Moreover, older residents are more likely than is the general population to rely on FairPoint’s traditional voice telephone service, rather than the landline telephone service that cable companies offer. Older households’ greater reliance on FairPoint’s facilities relates to the fact that, thus far, they have been slower than households with younger residents to adopt broadband Internet access, which provides an alternative platform for landline voice telephone service. As age increases, the likelihood of the household subscribing to broadband Internet access declines.”

In additional to the hearing on deregulation, McNelly announced that Biddeford would get a new public payphone to be located in the area of 10 Jefferson St.

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