- Associated Press - Sunday, December 14, 2014

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) - Vermont’s statewide 911 chief has no regrets about signing an $11 million contract with FairPoint Communications to build the state’s next-generation emergency calling system less than three weeks before problems on FairPoint’s network knocked much of the current 911 system out of service for more than five hours.

“We don’t have buyer’s remorse,” David Tucker, director of Vermont’s statewide 911 system, said in an interview this past week. “We’re confident they can build this system and maintain it.”

On Wednesday, Tucker told the agency’s board in its first meeting since the outage that he is talking with FairPoint about what it means for the state system going forward. Tucker told the AP the state will likely ask FairPoint - the dominant landline phone company serving Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine - for greater redundancy on its network.

On Nov. 28, heavy snow caused a tree to fall on a fiber optic line in New Hampshire that linked to the Vermont system, knocking it out of service. Normally, calls would be routed to a backup line, but a power surge had caused the failure of a key piece of equipment linked to the backup line, Tucker told the board.

He said he had told FairPoint, “if we’re going to have experiences both call paths failing, maybe we have to have three. Maybe we need four.”



FairPoint spokeswoman Angelynne Beaudry said in an email, “We do not discuss details of a customer’s network publicly, but will be happy to address specifics with the (Vermont 911) board.”

On that Friday afternoon and evening after Thanksgiving, there were no life-or-death situations missed when 83 calls to 911 failed to connect, Vermont officials said. Tucker also said some areas were not affected by the outage; 105 calls got through.

Earlier in November, Tucker said, he had signed the five-year contract with FairPoint to go beyond providing the underlying phone system serving Vermont to installing and maintaining 911 hardware and software - including work stations for staff taking emergency calls.

The decision was announced amid a months-long trend of increasing service quality complaints that state regulators have said is worsening since more than 1,700 unionized FairPoint workers began their ongoing strike in October. The Vermont Public Service Board recently launched an investigation of the service quality problems.

Meanwhile, the company is asking the board to approve a new “incentive regulation” plan, which caps rates for basic phone service, but gives the company freedom to set other rates without board approval. At a Public Service Board meeting this past week, Chairman James Volz asked whether approval of the incentive regulation plan should hinge on improvements to service quality.

Both the company and the Department of Public Service, whose duty it is to represent ratepayers before the board, argued against making such a link. James Porter, telecommunications director with the department, said the department had negotiated terms of the incentive regulation plan with the company before the service quality problems spiked.

Beaudry called the service quality problems and the incentive regulation plan “two separate issues.”

Porter said his department had received about 600 complaints from FairPoint customers, with about five times the normal frequency, since the strike began.

Secretary of Administration Jeb Spaulding, whose agency oversees state contracting, said FairPoint offered to meet the terms of the new 911 contract for $2.5 million less than the next lowest bidder.

On Friday, Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin wrote to FairPoint CEO Paul Sunu urging that labor talks be reopened in an effort to resolve the strike.

“Enough is enough,” Shumlin wrote. “Come back to the (bargaining) table; listen; and compromise.” He added that failing to do so is “a losing strategy for FairPoint, as your customers and your state partners lose faith in the company’s ability to serve.”

Beaudry said the company had made a contract offer Aug. 28. “The ball is in their (unions’) court.”

Stephen Whitaker, a longtime critic of state telecommunications policy, said the state should not be so quick to agree to the incentive regulation plan or hire FairPoint as its principal 911 contractor. Given the service quality problems and 911 outage, Whitaker asked, “Why should we reward them with five more years of deregulation and an $11 million 911 contract?”

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