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State Grills Verizon NJ About Voice Service, Internet Access

Over past decade, complaints climbed more than 25% while number of customers fell.

Verizon New Jersey is facing new scrutiny from state regulators over the quality of its traditional phone service and its commitment to offer high-speed Internet service to the entire state.

In two separate orders, the state Board of Public Utilities has ordered the state’s largest local phone company to explain why the number of complaints about its traditional, or landline phone service, have risen and why it has still failed to provide broadband service to 50,000 residents statewide two years after it said it would.

All told, the number of service complaints received in 2010 was 19 percent higher than the number of service complaints received by the agency’s Division of Customer Assistance in 2002, even though the number of monthly accounts declined in those years.

In 2011, Verizon service declined even further, according to an order issued by the board. When compared with 2002, service complaints, mostly dealing with outages and crackling on the lines, jumped 28 percent while the number of accounts handled by Verizon declined further.

Like all other local phone companies, Verizon has seen a steep drop in the number of customers with landlines as consumers have migrated to wireless phones and Internet phone service.

In 2000, Verizon New Jersey served 6.7 million customer landlines, according to Verizon spokesman Lee Gierczynski. It now services less than 2.5 million, he said.

Even though Verizon has invested $13 billion in its landline service since 1993, according to Gierczynski, some state officials believe the drop in service quality is no big surprise.

“I don’t think Verizon [New Jersey] has made any secret they don’t want to keep up the copper system,’’ said Stefanie Brand, director of the Division of Rate Counsel, referring to the utility’s traditional landline system.

“It’s an expense for them. They are focused on wireless and their Fios systems,’’ she said, referring to the high-speed Internet service and television program system they have installed over fiber-optic lines.

Most of the complaints about Verizon’s service quality have surfaced in rural Cumberland County, particularly two communities: Greenwich Township and Stow Creek.

“Apparently any time it rains, there are problems with the landlines,’’ Brand said. “Clearly this is not a portion of Verizon’s business that is a priority.’’

Gierczynski disputed that assessment, saying the phone company has invested “hundreds of thousands of dollars’’ in Greenwich, which has resulted in a steep drop in the number of complaints. Since last fall, the number of complaints has plunged by more than one half, he said.

“We are going to be presenting to the board a very strong case about the service quality we provide to our customers,’’ Gierczynski said.

The board also initiated an order for Verizon to show cause why it has not provided full broadband capacity to all of the state, particularly Greenwich and Stow Creek

Gierczynski said the deployment of high-speed Internet access has far exceeded what most people envisioned when the program, dubbed Opportunity New Jersey, was envisioned back in 1992. Verizon New Jersey has deployed broadband service in 99.6 percent of the state.

The company is evaluating what technologies will make it more feasible to reach every customer in the state, he said.

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