CONCORD — Legislation to ensure that telephone service in the state is fully deregulated except for the most basic customers is headed for a vote by the full Legislature, after advocates for low-income and elderly residents failed to win support for measures they say would have protected consumer interests.
Lawmakers thought they had settled the issue last year with the passage of SB 48, a law to deregulate telecommunications in New Hampshire. But a Public Utilities Commission order issued on May 28 put the matter back into play.
The PUC interpreted SB 48 as meaning that basic telephone service provided by Comcast and FairPoint was still subject to regulation, including rate setting, shut-off procedures and service complaints.
“If the Legislature had intended to exempt Comcast from status as a telephone public utility, it would have done so directly,” the PUC order states.
Sen. Bob Odell, R-Lempster, primary sponsor of SB 48 in 2012, says that’s exactly what the Legislature intended.
Under his leadership, the Senate approved an amendment to an unrelated House bill on renewable energy standards to make sure the PUC gets the message once and for all.
The House-Senate Conference Committee reviewed the amendment on Wednesday and made no changes. It is now likely to be approved by the full House and Senate.
The amendment clarifies that Comcast phone service is not subject to regulation, and that the only FairPoint service subject to regulation is narrowly defined “basic service.”
Attorneys for New Hampshire Legal Assistance conceded on Comcast’s status, but tried to get lawmakers to agree to a broader definition of basic service to embrace a larger number of FairPoint customers, since FairPoint remains the provider of last resort.
Those negotiations got nowhere, however, and the narrow definition of basic service remained intact.
“The proposed amendment would cause any person receiving any service or feature beyond basic phone service to lose their ability to get help from the PUC for basic phone service complaints,” said Dan Feltes, an attorney with NHLA in Concord who represented low-income telephone customers before the PUC and in the Legislature.
Feltes cited FairPoint statistics in observing that only 5,000 of the company’s 150,000 residential customers qualify as “basic service” customers under the language in Odell’s amendment.
That point was brought home to Bill Whalen of Sanbornton recently, who thought he was a basic service customer until he called FairPoint to complain about a rate hike.
“I am being told that because I have the ability to complete a long distance call through AT&T, that I have something more than basic service so the rate cap does not apply to me,” he said. “Talk about some legislators being FairPoint lackeys.”
The state has 108 competitive local exchange carriers and approximately 213 competitive long-distance providers, not counting cable companies, wireless or cellular services, out-of-state long distance carriers or Internet phone service providers.
Proponents of deregulation say consumers have plenty of choices if they are unhappy with their current provider, and that companies like FairPoint and Comcast, which had been regulated to one degree or another, should be able to compete on equal footing.
“FairPoint operates in a highly competitive environment, and customers have many choices for their communications needs,” said company spokesman Jeffrey Nevins. “This competition is itself a strong incentive for any service provider to expedite the resolution of complaints. An unhappy customer can simply move to another carrier, and we want to make sure they stay with FairPoint.”