While Maine, Vermont investigate Consolidated, New Hampshire’s hands are tied
2012 law removed PUC authority to probe most complaints of poor phone service
Officials in Maine and Vermont are formally investigating hundreds of complaints about poor telephone service from Consolidated Communications, even as the company says it is trying hard to do better.
But the Public Utilities Commission in New Hampshire – where complaints are also up – has fewer options when it comes to helping angry customers.
In Maine and Vermont, the public utilities commissions can conduct formal investigations and require a company to improve service.
But to a large extent, New Hampshire’s PUC is limited to referring complaints to Consolidated and urging the company to do better.
“It is more of a cooperative relationship than a regulator relationship,” said Amanda Noonan, the PUC’s director of consumer services and external affairs.
One factor in that lack of regulatory vigor is Senate Bill 48, sponsored by then-Sen. Bob Odell, a Republican from New London.
It was signed in 2012 by then-Gov. John Lynch over the opposition of the PUC, which said “it removes the obligation of telephone companies to provide safe and adequate service and facilities.”
In short, the bill reduced the PUC’s authority to regulate complaints about poor service. The exception is for the small fraction of customers who have the most basic phone service – no add-ons such as Caller ID or internet service.
“The law makes FairPoint Communications exempt from most review of prices as well as review of terms and conditions of service,” the PUC said after Lynch signed the bill. “Customers will now rely on competition between telephone providers to promote low prices and reliable service.”
Consolidated acquired FairPoint in 2017.
Lack of competition
Competition may work in much of the state, but the problem in areas like the North Country is that there’s not a lot of competition, PUC officials concede.
“It significantly restricts the Public Utilities Commission's authority to help residential users resolve service complaints,” Susan Chamberlin, a former head of the state’s Office of Consumer Advocate, told NH Business Review.
Noonan said there are, however, things New Hampshire residents can do, although internet issues are the responsibility of the federal government. A call made directly to the PUC (1-800-852-3793) is sent to Consolidated.
“Our hope is it would get more attention, better attention, than a customer who was just calling into the call center,” she said.
Consumers can also send complaints to the Attorney General’s Office (1-888-468-4454 or 603-271-3641 or DOJ-CPB@doj.nh.gov.) Then they will be forwarded to Consolidated along with a request for a response, said Lisa English, a senior assistant attorney general and chief of the Consumer Protection and Antitrust Bureau.
But there is one possibility that would allow the PUC to take stronger action: 911 calls, said Noonan. If a lot of consumers complained that poor service problems prevented them from having access to 911, the PUC could argue a safety concern gives it the latitude to get involved.
“I think it does change the scenario,” Noonan said. “I think that the commission would be more aggressive in its efforts with the company, that we would also enlist others in state government. Homeland Security. The 911 Commission. Local safety groups to come together as one concerned entity to put pressure on the company to correct the issue immediately.”
Consolidated acquired FairPoint in July 2017 for about $1.3 billion after promising regulators in all three states that it would provide excellent service. But some consumers say that excellence hasn’t materialized.
In Vermont, enough consumers complained that the PUC there opened its investigation.
Between July and September, that agency received 143 complaints about “service outage delays.” That was almost a 2,800 percent increase over the same period in 2017.
In addition, a “baseline goal” in Vermont is that 70 percent of customer complaints be resolved in 24 hours. But officials in Vermont say between April and June of 2018 only about 26 percent of problems were fixed by Consolidated within 24 hours.
“Consolidated’s failure to meet service quality standards is not reasonable or expedient and does not provide the safety, convenience and accommodation of the public,” the Vermont agency said.
So far this year, the New Hampshire PUC has received about 538 “contacts” about Consolidated. That’s about 30 percent more than in all of 2017. Noonan said “contacts” includes everything from complaints to questions and perhaps even compliments.
In Maine, 10 consumers filing a complaint together can prompt an investigation. In Consolidated’s case, 23 consumers living around the town of Brooksville did so.
They complained about poor service and said “the company has been recalcitrant in the extreme, not telling us why there are these problems, and not telling us when service will be restored.”
That’s the kind of thing that frustrated Melissa Sheehan of Bethlehem.
“The last time a tree came down and took out my wire right off of the house. I called them and they said it will be about four weeks before we can get there,” she said. “That was the last straw. I can’t do this anymore. I am paying money for nothing.” She switched to Spectrum.
Consolidated says it is working hard to improve.
“We have a comprehensive plan already in place in Northern New England to improve service for our customers, which includes added resources. This plan, active for the past month, has been highly effective with a 49 percent improvement in customer repair volume,” Michael Shultz, vice president, regulatory and public policy, said in an emailed statement.
Shannon Sullivan, a spokeswoman for Consolidated, said she could not provide details of that plan, including the added resources.