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April 20. 2014 11:33PM

Court case could determine 'basic' phone service

CONCORD — A Sanbornton man is taking his case against FairPoint Communications basic phone rates to the Public Utilities Commission, in the hope that the PUC can clarify once and for all what constitutes basic phone service in New Hampshire.

It’s been nearly two years since Gov. John Lynch signed into law legislation deregulating the telecommunications industry in New Hampshire, leaving only the most basic phone service provided by FairPoint under the jurisdiction of the PUC.

In June of last year, lawmakers passed a bill designed to clear up any confusion over what “basic service” means. The question is important to ratepayers because the basic rates are regulated. Beyond basic service, FairPoint can charge whatever it wants in the competitive telecommunications business.

The “basic” question apparently remains unresolved.

Bill Whalen of Sanbornton thought he had basic service from FairPoint until he saw his rates increase way beyond the levels approved by regulators.

FairPoint is telling Whalen and the Public Utilities Commission that he is not a basic service customer because he has two phone lines going into his home, even though each line receives basic service.
 
 
Basic service is essentially a dial tone. Any additional features like caller ID, voicemail, call-waiting or call-forwarding bump the consumer out of basic and into unregulated territory. Legal Assistance and PUC attorneys argued unsuccessfully last year for broader consumer protections.State law now defines basic service as “safe and reliable single-party, single-line voice service.” FairPoint has interpreted that to mean one line per household. Whalen maintains that it means one line per account.

The PUC has scheduled a hearing on May 7 to settle the matter.

“If you read the law, it says one line per person. It doesn’t say anything about per household,” said Whalen. “You can have more than one line coming into the home as long as it is in the name of two different people. We have two separate bills, and pay them separately.”

Representing himself

Whalen, who intends to represent himself at the PUC hearing, filed his complaint with regulators on March 24, regarding rate increases on two landline services — one called Unlimited Local and the other called Measured Service.

He claims that the Measured Service rate was $6.06 (per month) last year and has increased to $10.35, reflecting an increase of 70 percent, and that the Unlimited Local Service rate was $14.39 last year and has increased to $18.68, reflecting an increase of 30 percent.

The FairPoint rate increases exceeded the 10 percent annual cap applicable to telephone basic service as allowed in the 2013 statute, according to the PUC.

In response to the complaint, FairPoint maintained that, with two landlines serving his home, Whalen does not meet the definition of “single-party, single-line voice service.”

The PUC appears ready to use Whalen’s case to settle the matter in a way that could affect the thousands of FairPoint customers who think they have basic service.

Narrowing the field

Despite the migration to cell phones and Voice Over Internet (VoIP) services offered by multiple companies, 250,000 New Hampshire residents still use traditional copper landlines managed by FairPoint, which purchased the old Ma Bell franchise previously held by Verizon.

Of that number, only about 10,000 qualify for regulated rates under basic service, according to Ellen Scarponi, director of government relations for FairPoint.

To narrow the field even further, Scarponi estimated that only about 500 would be affected by the dual-line debate that Whalen hopes to resolve.

The impact may not be far-reaching, but Whalen said the savings would be meaningful to his family and others on a fixed income.

FairPoint, he said, seems determined to reduce the field of customers with PUC protection to the smallest number possible.
 
“It looks like they are grasping at straws here,” he said. “They didn’t think anyone would file a formal complaint. Most people just swallowed it and didn’t say anything. Now there is a formal complaint, and I have no problem representing myself and everyone else in the same situation.”

FairPoint executives say they are living up to the letter of the law.

“Since retail telecommunications services were largely deregulated, rates for non-basic service have been subject to market conditions and FairPoint has raised rates in certain cases. These rate increases were properly noticed to impacted consumers, in advance of the effective dates,” wrote FairPoint spokesman Jeffrey Nevins in an email.

“Deregulation was intended to level the playing field, eliminate regulatory burdens and enable all providers to compete equally,” he said. “Prior to deregulation, it’s important to note that the last known residential rate increase was believed to be in the 1980s.”

dsolomon@unionleader.com



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