Vermont readers are no doubt familiar with Fairpoint Communications, the North Carolina-based company that was allowed by State and Federal regulators to purchase the communications infrastructure and systems (phone lines and internet services) of Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine from Verizon last year. Despite ample evidence that Fairpoint was never fiscally or organizationally prepared for such a huge endeavor- and despite ample evidence that they’d screw over Verizon’s unionized worker’s and fail miserably at lofty promises to bring high speed internet to rural outposts in Northern New England still operating with the steam engine equivalent of internet access, State and Federal bureaucrats charged with protecting and securing the public interest did neither; they easily bowed to Fairpoint’s desires to become a corporate behemoth and to corporate behemoth Verizon’s desires to liquidate physical assets (and the blue color labor required for their upkeep) in order to invest more in digital (and retail) communications.
I’ll regal you with my own account of having to deal with Fairpoint: when we wanted to set up a phone, fax, and high speed internet account for the Three Penny Taproom, calling Fairpoint to open the new account became a daily game of calling their 800 number and sitting on hold for hours. For literally almost two weeks we’d call, sit on hold for at least an hour, and either have to simply hang up and get on with the rest of the day or- insanely enough- after sitting not very patiently on hold for 45 minutes, an hour, maybe 90 minutes, all of the sudden the call would just disconnect. Poof! an hour of your life entirely wasted. Eventually we did get through to set up the account, but the person on the other end of the line got off the phone without setting-up a date for the technician to come and install everything! we had to call back and go through the same hours of being on hold madness just to say “So, when can I expect someone to come turn my phone on?” When, 2 weeks later, the tech did come, he knew nothing about internet or fax, buy only had a service order to turn on a phone line. His solution? he told us to connect the black to the black, the yellow to the yellow, and then engage in a thoroughly confusing and non-sensical series of phone jack splitters off of splitters to get fax and DSL lines going. After a couple of calls back to them to try and figure out why we had no internet connection (“it’s your computer, not us” I was told) I finally got a guy on the line from their tech support who heard my whole story and called it “truly bizarre”. He noted a) that we weren’t given a modem, so of course there was no internet and b) if he sent a service person out to fix/complete the instal we’d be charged something like $160 for the person to simply show up and another $85 an hour thereafter. But he was also very helpful, and said that he’d put in the service call and told me that when the bill comes in to simply dispute it and refuse to pay- that all of this debacle was noted in their computer and it should all be fine. The tech who did come to get things going did get our fax up and running, and did get the internet going with a modem I had to buy. He said Fairpoint provides its customers with a modem for free, so he’d have one sent to us so I could return the one I bought. After 3 calls to Fairpoint wondering where that modem was (“my computer says you received it already”) I gave up on that.
And people I’ve told that story to say it sounds pretty much like their own experiences with Fairpoint.
So when I read that Fairpoint is now asking the bondholders who payed for them to purchase the lines and services in VT, NH, and ME to defer some payments on that debt or else Fairpoint may be forced to file bankruptcy, I thought “thank fucking god- someone kill this corporation”. In it’s absence I can think of two ways to fill the vacuum and ensure that the people of Northern New England have affordable, reliable communications services. The first option, which is actually what I think should be the second option, is for a public-owned utility to be created. Burlington, VT has had a fair amount of success (though not without some pitfalls) into their experiment with a municipally owned telecommunications utility. Where I live we have a co-op electric utility, stemming from the turn of the last Century when no corporations were interested in running power to rural areas but rural people wanted electricity (hmm, kinda flies against that whole “supply and demand” formula, don’t it?). This set-up is simple enough and could be exactly the same with a telecommunications network: as a member of the co-op, I take part in electing a board of directors who oversee the management and servicing of the local electric grid. Done and done. My power is affordable, the service I receive fast, friendly, reliable. If I had the time or interest I could even serve on a committee of some sort or run for a board seat and actively partake in the operations of the “business”; and none of my money goes into the pocket of some CEO living in North Carolina or some other such foreign country (OK, well, I get that my electric co-op buys power from corporate owned power generators and that money does go into some CEO’s pocket, but you know what I mean).
The other possibility, the one that I like even better that that idea, is for the workers themselves to simply take over the company and run it. Let the people who answer the phones, work on the lines, maintain the systems just own and operate it. Let them elect management and a board of directors and let them set rates in a manner that would allow them each to make an honest and livable wage yet not syphon my money to line the pockets of an elite class of people. I’m sure they could do a better job than Fairpoint has- hell, a fifth grade class could do a better job at running the phone and internet systems than Fairpoint does.
Of course, there’s a third way: for another company to step-in and buy what Fairpoint bought from Verizon and give it their own go. Hopefully for obvious reasons I don’t have much faith that this can be accomplished smoothly or with the public’s best interests at the fore; and at the very least, I posses zero confidence that government entities like the Public Service Board are capable or even interested in doing their supposed job and overseeing that such a third party could get it right.