Late last week, shoppers at Burnt Cove Market who wanted to pay for their groceries with a credit or debit card played a form of lottery with the card-reading machine at checkout. Sometimes the cards would go through, and sometimes they wouldn’t—leaving shoppers to try the ATM, write a check or even rely on a friendly loan from a neighbor.
The problem at the market—and at businesses and homes throughout Stonington—was poor or absent Internet connectivity from Internet service provider FairPoint.
Stonington resident Doug Johnson, who owns public relations company Green Tree Communications, said last week’s outages were just one example of a string of outages.
“This has been going on for some time,” said Johnson. “It’s gotten progressively worse.” Johnson said there have been at least three episodes of prolonged outages since June.
Doug Edinger, pharmacist at V&S Pharmacy, said without Internet access the business of receiving, verifying and filling medications is “significantly delayed”—“When it’s off, it’s a real issue for us,” said Edinger. FairPoint has responded quickly and well to calls in the past about problems, he added.
Stonington resident Stephen York, who runs the New England Institute for Teacher Education, said Internet service is vital to his business and daily life. Much of the institute’s coursework is distance learning online, or blended classes, and without the Internet, York and his partner Catherine Ring are unable to meet student needs.
York said he spoke with a middle-level supervisor at FairPoint. “He assured me they are working on the problem,” he said. “I don’t want to switch [Internet service providers], but this is getting ridiculous.”
Calls to FairPoint’s media contact for comment were not returned by press time.
Wayne Jortner, a Senior Counsel for Maine’s Public Utilities Commission, said the Internet is an “unregulated industry” unlike the electric grid or telephone service. Both of those industries are heavily regulated, including requirements for service to nearly all households, quality of service standards, and often price regulation.
There is no such “regulatory overview” of Internet service providers, said Jortner. The Federal Communications Commission could have designated the Internet as a telecommunications service. This would have subjected the Internet to the same regulations as telephone services. Jortner said the FCC “lacked the political courage” to take that step. Jortner said there is a lack of “political will” to change the designation of Internet services.
State Representative Walter Kumiega (D-Deer Isle) said he isn’t sure if there has been a bill to attempt to regulate Internet access in the state or a push to designate Internet service as a public utility. He plans to look into the possibility, though he has little confidence in its success.
“I doubt the governor would support it, and [service provider industry] lobbyists are working really hard against regulation,” said Kumiega. That said, he continued, such legislation “shines a spotlight” on the problem, encouraging the company to address the situation. Kumiega also recognizes the problem is not limited to Stonington and has been an issue repeatedly in areas of Deer Isle.
In some ways, residents of the Island are fortunate, said Jortner, since there is at least some Internet service and even competition from alternate providers like Time Warner Cable.
“Switching to Time Warner is really the only remedy people have,” said Jortner. “There’s no recourse under the law.” As with Kumiega’s hope for putting pressure on FairPoint through legislative action, Jortner said unfavorable press coverage and people switching to the competition might also increase pressure on FairPoint to address service issues.
Tina Oddleifson, owner of Pilgrim’s Inn in Deer Isle, said she switched the Inn’s phone and internet service from FairPoint to Time Warner Cable last year after experiencing problems. “And I’m glad we did,” she continued.
This is not the first time FairPoint has received criticism as a company. According to a May 2007 newsletter from the Maine Public Advocate Office, FairPoint was founded in 1991. In 2006, the company owned 31 rural telephone companies in 17 states, which included a little more than 300,000 phone lines. FairPoint’s 2007 purchase of Verizon’s holdings in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont meant the small company’s number of lines skyrocketed to 1.6 million. In 2008, according to a Portland Press Herald report, the Maine Public Utilities Commission fined FairPoint $25,000 for issues with the company’s 911 service.
In 2009, Vermont considered revoking the company’s right to operate telephone services in that state, according to a document available online at Vermont’s Public Service Board’s website. That same year, FairPoint filed for bankruptcy. As part of that process, the company laid off 400 workers across several states in 2011, according to a report from the Associated Press.
Johnson is working with a few other residents and has been in contact with the state attorney general’s office about whether FairPoint’s advertised services and failure to deliver on those services constitutes fraud.
Johnson said he has no interest in “making FairPoint the villain. I just want someone in FairPoint to acknowledge the problem.” [FairPoint] is not paying enough attention here. It’s starting to affect the bottom line.”