Daily Archives: January 2, 2015

A Fair Point

A top Vermont pol not known for podium-pounding or rabble-rousing has sent some unusually fiery language in the direction of Vermont’s leading telecom provider.

House Speaker Shap Smith says he has doubts that FairPoint Communications will continue to provide telecommunications services to Vermonters for the long term as its workers continue to strike and service complaints pile up.

Smith, a Democrat, said he believes the company is looking to shed labor costs in order to sell.

You may have missed that little New Year’s Day newsflash, because it was written by the Mitchell Family Organ’s Neal Goswami, and appeared in the paywalled Times Argus and Herald. Nobody else has reported it so far.

FairPoint workers have been on strike since mid-October. Top Democrats have pressured the company to settle, but it has refused to budge. In fact, CEO Paul Sunu recently sent a response to those Dems, portraying his company as the willing negotiator and the unions as the hard-heads.

Smith told Goswami he was “insulted” by the letter, and said FairPoint was putting itself “in a tough place.” And he’s got capitalism’s weapon of choice in his pocket: money.

Smith said the state has provided subsidies to FairPoint in recent years to help it deliver service to rural areas. But the company is not likely to receive a warm reception from lawmakers in the new session, he said.

He accused FairPoint of “trying to basically bust [the] union[s],” and added that “they’ve got a real problem on their hands in the Legislature.”

FairPoint may also have “a real problem” with state regulators. It has proposed a new rate plan that would cap rates for basic phone service (the loss leader) while allowing FairPoint to raise other rates (advanced phone packages, business phones, Internet, satellite TV) without seeking regulatory approval.

Gee, that’d be a big fat giveaway, wouldn’t it now?

At a time when service problems have spiked since the unions walked out, and FairPoint has had one major interruption in its E-9-1-1 system, you’d hope that state regulators would be keeping an eagle eye on these mooks instead of giving them open access to non-basic customers’ wallets.

Beyond the immediate situation, Smith questioned whether FairPoint would still be in Vermont five years down the road — and whether it would be able to find a buyer for its northern New England business. And he’s got a (cough) fair point: the landline business is shrinking everywhere, and rural phone service means high maintenance costs and low profits.

That’s why Verizon dumped our business on FairPoint a few years back.

Smith wants state government to be proactive about the situation, rather than wait for FairPoint to bleed us and its workers dry and then dump the business entirely.

He said the Legislature should begin exploring options with the Public Service Department to ensure the state has quality telecommunications services in the future.

What might that mean? A quasi-public Vermont Telecom? Or a fully public one? Not sure what Shap has in mind, but it’s an important issue we should face before it turns into a crisis.