A bad idea triumphs

By JEFF INGLIS  |  February 27, 2008

Not this time. State officials are so worried that FairPoint is — or will be — in financial peril, that they’ve wrung more money out of the seller, Verizon, making the multi-billion-dollar behemoth throw a few bucks our way as it heads out the door, almost like a charity contribution for the privilege of abandoning northern New England.

Indeed, when Vermont’s Public Service Board initially rejected the deal, it ruled that “FairPoint had not demonstrated that it would be financially sound” after the sale went through, and could end up incapable not just of expanding phone or Internet service, but even of keeping service at the current, below-standards level.

Put charity aside: we are paying Verizon to leave. State officials will probably deny that, but think again. The cost to us is more than just the missing $500 million in tax revenue.

FairPoint is taking on more than $2 billion in debt to do this deal, and the company is expecting not only to pay off that debt, but also to make a profit. Every dollar the company spends on Verizon’s landlines will have to come back in, paid by the customers in our monthly bills. The more FairPoint pays, the more we, the public, will ultimately have to pony up over time.

If FairPoint isn’t making enough money to make its executives or shareholders happy, the company will come back to regulators in all three states, crying poor, and asking for higher rates. Of course, FairPoint really will be cash-strapped and poor, so the regulators will find it hard to refuse. And if they approve rate increases, they and their agencies won’t feel the pinch; we will.

The regulators may even forget that Verizon overcharged telephone customers in Maine more than $30 million in 2005 alone, and that our state made FairPoint promise to cap its rates for five years to help make up for those excess charges. The only way the regulators could abandon their duties more would be to develop amnesia in addition to their weakened spines.

Jeff Inglis can be reached at jinglis@phx.com.

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