Vermont utility regulators give final nod to FairPoint deal

By WILSON RING Markets Associated Press

Customers of the telephone and broadband services provider FairPoint Communications in northern New England won't notice much difference after it merges with an Illinois-based telecommunications provider, officials with the company merging with FairPoint said.

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But Consolidated Communications will continue efforts begun by FairPoint to expand and improve broadband internet services to tens of thousands of customers across Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. Eventually, it will also offer a number of new services.

"In the near term, we will begin rolling out new consumer products," said Consolidated Vice President Michael Shultz. The company is based in Mattoon, Illinois.

The new products that will be offered in the region include home automation, home security, new video products, as well as the commitment to broadband improvements. Commercial customers will also see new offerings, he said.

On Monday, Vermont utility regulators gave final approval to the deal that will allow it to go forward. Over the last several weeks, regulators in Maine and New Hampshire also approved the deal.

Consolidated spokeswoman Jennifer Spaude said Illinois regulators are expected to approve the deal on Wednesday, when additional details of the company's plans are expected to be released. Once the deal is completed, Consolidated will be operating in a total of 24 states.

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"We really are excited about the benefits that we will bring to customers," Spaude said.

Regulators in northern New England hope to avoid a repeat of mistakes that followed FairPoint's 2008 acquisition of Verizon's landline assets. FairPoint struggled with debt, declining landline accounts and customer service problems before filing for bankruptcy, from which it emerged in 2011. Unionized workers led a four-month strike against FairPoint in late 2014 and early 2015.

Workers are taking a wait-and-see approach about Consolidated but have said they remain hopeful that things will be better than under FairPoint.

Maine regulators were first in the region to sign off on the deal on May 31, after Consolidated agreed to invest at least $52.2 million in its infrastructure in Maine. New Hampshire regulators have also approved the deal.

Vermont regulators approved the deal on Monday. In a statement announcing the approval, the Public Service Board said the combined company would be more financially stable than FairPoint with stronger credit ratings, more flexible access to capital, and greater revenue diversity.