Maine’s Public Utilities Commission voted unanimously Wednesday to approve the proposed $1.5 billion merger of telecommunications companies FairPoint Communications and Consolidated Communications.

As part of its vote, the PUC stipulated that Consolidated, the buyer, has to invest $17.4 million annually in improvements to its Maine network in 2018, 2019 and 2020 – a total of $52.2 million. The PUC is expected to issue a written order confirming its approval within the next week, Administrative Director Harry Lamphear said.

Fairpoint welcomed the decision Wednesday.

“This is good news for Maine and continuing communications infrastructure investments in the state,” company spokeswoman Angelynne Beaudry said in a written statement. “We are pleased with the continued progress in obtaining regulatory approvals for the proposed merger. The 3-0 vote to approve the agreement by the Maine Public Utilities Commission was a major step, and we anxiously await the final order.”

In March, shareholders of Consolidated and FairPoint voted to approve the proposed merger first announced in December. Consolidated has said it plans to buy FairPoint for $1.5 billion, assuming its debt and offering dividends to stockholders.

FairPoint, based in Charlotte, North Carolina, is a telephone and internet provider that serves homes, businesses and public institutions. It is the largest provider of land-based telecommunications in Maine. But its landline telephone business has declined in recent years, leading to hundreds of layoffs and accusations of poor service quality.

In 2007, FairPoint bought Verizon’s landline system in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, creating its northern New England division, for $2.3 billion, and the lion’s share of its business is in those three states. Less than two years later, FairPoint filed for bankruptcy protection because of crushing debt, emerging from that process in January 2011. Workers also led a four-month strike against the company in 2015, affecting 800 employees in Maine.

FairPoint serves over 377,000 voice connections, including residential lines, as well as 325,000 broadband internet subscribers across the country, according to a presentation for investors.

Consolidated, based in Mattoon, Illinois, provides business and broadband communications in 11 states. A merger with FairPoint would significantly broaden its portfolio. Consolidated officials have said the merger will enable “long-term growth” for the company.

As part of the sale, Consolidated would assume FairPoint’s debt, reported at about $887 million as of Sept. 30. The companies said at the time of the merger announcement that their combined debt would be about $2.3 billion.

FairPoint has a fiber-based ethernet network with about 18,000 miles of fiber-optic cables in northern New England and is a major player in telecommunications in the region.

The two companies still have other regulatory hurdles to clear before the merger can be finalized. FairPoint officials have said they expect the transaction to be completed by the middle of the year.

Leaders of the unions representing FairPoint workers in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont have said they view the proposed sale with “cautious optimism.”

J. Craig Anderson can be contacted at 791-6390 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @jcraiganderson