The question of how to handle complaints about telephone service has attracted a lot of attention as the state moves toward deregulation of telecommunications, and for good reason.
Thousands of complaints flow to the Public Utilities Commission each year. As a regulator of basic phone service, the commission has been able to use its authority to address concerns about such things as service quality, pricing, marketing practices, disconnect notices and deposit requirements.
According to Debra Howland, executive director at the PUC, the Telecommunications Division received and processed 4,700 complaints in 2008; 10,000 in 2009; 4,500 in 2010; and 3,095 in 2011.
Complaints peaked in 2009 during the Chapter 11 bankruptcy of FairPoint Communications, 18 months after it spent $2.3 billion to acquire Verizon's landline and Internet operations in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. Complaints have been declining ever since, Howland said.
The commission had the power to receive, resolve and enforce orders related to basic service, according to Dan Feltes, an attorney with New Hampshire Legal Assistance, who said proposed changes to state law could virtually eliminate that authority.
In the future, when those calls arrive, the PUC may not be able to do much more than say, "We will forward your complaint to the telecommunication provider."
That's where the complaints should be resolved, said FairPoint Director of Government Relations Ellen Scarponi. When there was only one telephone provider and consumers had nowhere else to go, PUC oversight made sense, she said. But now, a consumer unhappy with the response from one telecommunication provider can simply shop elsewhere. That creates a strong incentive for the company to resolve the complaint, Scarponi said.
Not all complaints to the PUC Telecommunications Division are related to FairPoint basic service, she said: "Included in those numbers are calls about Comcast phone service, over which there is no regulation, and calls about Internet services, which are also unregulated."
Jeffrey Nevins, a FairPoint spokesman, points to a recent FCC report on competition that shows there are no zip codes in New Hampshire without competitive carriers or Internet-based alternatives.
"Competition is robust in New Hampshire," he said. "The regulatory playing field needs to be evened out so that all carriers are regulated equally in a manner that reflects current market conditions, not the old Ma Bell monopolistic era that has long since disappeared."
The state has 10 legacy local exchange carriers, including FairPoint, approximately 108 competitive local exchange carriers, and approximately 213 competitive toll providers. That's not counting cable companies, wireless or cellular services, out-of-state long distance carriers or Internet phone service providers.