Pointing finger at FairPoint

Like so many other New Englanders, Eugene Schueller hasn’t had reliable e-mail service since the end of January.

In fact, Schueller, of Nashua, claims he has had no e-mail service at all, despite receiving double bills for his telephone and Internet service.

But instead of blaming FairPoint, he points the finger at the state regulators who allowed such a small telecom company to swallow up operations that were five times its size.

“I fault the Public Utilities Commission for allowing this to happen,” Schueller said. “They could have said, ‘We don’t think FairPoint is capable of doing this.’ ”

It has been more than two weeks since the PUC imposed stricter requirements on FairPoint in the wake of public uproar. Yet, questions remain about who is to blame for myriad problems that have plagued FairPoint since January, when the company officially broke ties with Verizon.

FairPoint has been widely criticized for prolonged e-mail and Internet outages affecting thousands of customers, poor customer service, billing issues and other transition-related problems. But fingers are pointing in other directions, too.

Called into question now are Capgemini, the company that designed FairPoint’s computer system; Liberty Consulting Group, the company hired by the PUC to monitor FairPoint’s progress in taking over such a large and complicated network; and, of course, the PUC itself.

In January 2008, New Hampshire public utilities commissioners approved the $2.4 billion sale of Verizon’s telephone and land-line assets to little-known FairPoint. Regulators in Maine and Vermont, the other states affected by the sale, had already given the OK.

FairPoint continued to operate using Verizon computer systems until late January of this year, when, after several delays, the Capgemini systems were in place and Liberty Consulting had assured public utilities officials that FairPoint was ready to break off on its own.

But the last few months have been rocky for tens of thousands of FairPoint customers, both residential and commercial. The company has failed to show up for service requests, left customers on hold sometimes for hours at a time and sent double bills for single billing periods with spotty service. An e-mail glitch in the initial stages of the transition left thousands of customers with no access to the service for days, weeks or more.

The magnitude of complaints led the PUC to hold a public status conference with FairPoint officials on April 3. Company executives acknowledged they had fallen short of expectations, but said things were improving.

PUC staff expressed doubts, and it took the commission less than a week to impose new, stricter requirements forcing FairPoint to send weekly reports monitoring its progress.

Still, the PUC received 882 customer complaints about FairPoint in April – down significantly from the 1,491 in March, but more than three times what the company received in April last year, while still using Verizon systems.

By the time the PUC held its status conference last month, letters to the editor in newspapers around the state were criticizing the PUC for approving the controversial sale in the first place.

Meredith Hatfield, consumer advocate for the PUC, said she has heard those criticisms. However, she said the PUC was largely depending on Liberty Consulting to make sure FairPoint was ready for the cutover.

Liberty, a consultant hired by all three states, was paid to keep close watch of FairPoint as it prepared to break from Verizon – a tab that was picked up by taxpayers. Before the late-January transition, Liberty assured the PUC that FairPoint was ready.

However, less than two months after the transition began, Liberty issued a report Hatfield called “damning.” It said FairPoint’s problems were worse than the company had disclosed and accused FairPoint executives of making faulty and misleading statements to minimize the problems.

The question, according to Hatfield, is why these issues surfaced only after the transition. After FairPoint is back on track, there should be an investigation into Liberty and when it first knew there was a problem, she said.

“At some point, we’re going to want to know who knew what when,” Hatfield said.

Liberty declined to comment for this story. A woman who answered the phone at the Pennsylvania office said the company wouldn’t speak to the media about FairPoint and deferred all questions to the PUC.

Pressed further, she agreed to pass a message to company officials, but the call was never returned.

Capgemini, the company that designed and tested FairPoint’s computer systems, also couldn’t be reached for comment. A phone message left with a company spokeswoman wasn’t returned.

However, one of three public utilities commissioners publicly blamed Capgemini at the April 3 status hearing.
“What you’ve done is negligent,” Graham Morrison said. “. . . You have placed the economic health of a large corporation and three states in jeopardy. . . . You have tarnished the image of these three states.”

Bloggers have since called the FairPoint project a “major black eye” for Capgemini.

PUC Executive Director Debra Howland declined to comment publicly on who’s to blame for all of the problems. She said the PUC, a quasi-judicial body, isn’t in a position to offer opinions.

Despite all of the problems, some customers are sensitive to the difficulty of a project as large as the FairPoint transition. No larger feat has ever been attempted by a telecommunications company.

“As frustrated as we are, we want them to succeed,” said Tom Schmidt, of Milford, who worked in information technology at Fidelity until a recent layoff. “Any huge IT project is bound to have teething problems.”

Schmidt said the bigger problem has been the lack of communication. FairPoint could have earned some customer loyalty just by being upfront about the problems, perhaps through a daily update on the Web site, he said.

As for Schueller, the Nashua customer who has been without e-mail since January, he has called his bank and instructed it to stop making automatic bill payments to FairPoint. Frustrated and unable to reach a customer-service representative, Schueller has decided to stop paying his bill until the service is repaired.

“If I don’t pay, maybe someone will get ahold of me,” he said.