Internet disconnect

By JEFF INGLIS  |  August 22, 2007

In Maine, aside from those few homes next to New Hampshire, Verizon has no fiber to the home. FairPoint, which has phone customers in 18 states, offers fiber-optics to residential customers in four states (none in New England), but only in sizable housing developments being constructed on land with no previous telephone or Internet service.

Fiber free
If the Verizon-FairPoint merger is approved, FairPoint says it will spend about $40 million ($13 million to $14 million in each of the three states) to expand DSL service to some areas that don’t have it, and roll it out over the next few years to cover as much as 93 percent of their customer base here.

By that time, we’ll be behind again. Savage, from the fiber council, estimates that in 15 years, 80 percent of US homes will have fiber connections.

Not us, though: Maine public advocate Richard Davies (the state official whose job is to represent Maine consumers in public-utilities deals) just made a deal with Verizon in which the company agreed to invest $12.5 million to expand broadband in Maine, but not with fiber. “Because they’re looking to sell out, it was not logical” to ask for anything other than DSL, he says. Verizon, in exchange for installing old technology, gets to wait until next year before PUC officials will determine whether the company has been overcharging customers by as much as $30 million a year for the past six years. (By that time, Verizon won’t be here, and Davies’s agreement will leave the rate battle to FairPoint.)

The head of one telecom company in Houlton (where Internet service is provided by small, independent local companies) suggested the $12.5 million be given to the ConnectME Authority, a state agency set up to bring broadband Internet to rural Mainers without any broadband options at all.

That sum would dwarf the $500,000 the Legislature has allocated to be split among several companies seeking to debut broadband service in rural areas of Maine. The rest of the money to fund ConnectME will come from Mainers, who this fall will begin paying an additional monthly surcharge (0.25 percent) on their telephone and Internet bills.

Of course, ConnectME has no plans to roll out fiber-optics anywhere in Maine, either, and is just hoping to get any kind of broadband at all to rural Maine before we’re completely left behind. “DSL is certainly not the leading technology, like fiber,” says Phil Lindley, acting executive director of ConnectME, “but it’s certainly something that will serve people’s broadband needs for a while.”

Left in the dark
Verizon knows fiber is the real future: the company has been taking profits from Maine and other rural areas around the country (like the rural Midwest and West Virginia), and investing that money not to improve telecommunications in the places the money came from, but to put the real broadband, fiber-optic cables, in densely populated areas like New York City, Boston, and the area around Washington, DC.

Now Verizon wants to get out of northern New England — and its other rural landline businesses (see sidebar, “Verizon Unloads”) — to focus on fiber elsewhere. In getting out, Verizon would leave us to a small, heavily indebted company (FairPoint) whose best plan is to invest less money in system upgrades than Verizon ever did, and to have those system upgrades get Mainers’ service to a level city-dwellers are already beginning to discard as too slow.

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