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New Jersey Towns Tell Verizon They Want Their FiOS, Cite Lack of Coverage

At franchise renewal hearing, some attendees urge BPU to order Verizon to extend fiber-optic service to all communities

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Everyone seems to love Verizon New Jersey’s cable TV service -- except for the folks who can't sign up for it because it stops at a neighboring town or at Main Street, but isn't available any elsewhere in the community.

For that matter, it does not seem to be available any longer in some storm-ravaged communities along the Jersey coast’s barrier islands.

In the second and final public hearing on the company’s bid to renew its statewide cable television franchise in Trenton yesterday, plenty of praise was heaped on Verizon for its programming and the benefits deriving from its system-wide cable franchise.

Backers said it provides a long-sought choice to consumers, delivers a wide variety of programming, and lowers or stabilizes rates for customers. Local officials extolled the more than doubling of franchise fees that have streamed $64 million to cash-strapped municipalities between 2006 and 2012.

But not to everyone, and there’s the rub.

In the seven years since Verizon was granted a system-wide franchise after a contentious legislative battle, its cable TV offering, known as FiOS (fiber-optic service), has proven enormously successful. It currently extends its service to 355 municipalities in 19 counties, providing programming to more than 600,000 customers as of 2012, according to William Smith, an assistant general counsel for Verizon New Jersey.

“Verizon has satisfied all of its current franchise requirements,’’ Smith said, a conclusion that, he argued, also was reached by the state’s Office of Cable Television in a report to the Board of Public Utilities.

Besides delivering hundreds of high-definition channels and other programming, including more than 100 international language stations, it offers high-speed Internet access to customers who sign up for the package.

Not a single person at the hearing in the BPU headquarters argued against giving Verizon a new seven-year franchise, but some wanted a lot more. They urged the state to force the company to extend its service beyond the 379 towns where it expects to deploy FiOS -- in some cases not to the complete community.

According to the original franchise order, Verizon only had to deploy the service in 70 of the most densely populated communities in New Jersey, targets both the BPU and Division of Rate Counsel agree the telecommunications company has either met or is expected to achieve, according to previously set timelines.

Asked if the Rate Counsel will support the franchise renewal, Chris White, a deputy rate counsel, replied, “We have no basis not to.’’

Others urged the state not to move so fast. They urged the BPU to order the state to compel Verizon to widen the reach of its cable TV package, a step that Robert Speer, president of Local 827 of the International Brotherhood of Electric Workers, said would help bolster the economy and retain jobs in New Jersey. Local officials agreed.

“We are one of the have-nots,’’ Thomas Allibone of West Amwell told the BPU staff and presiding officer at the hearing. He noted Verizon has expanded its service into nearby communities such as Pennington, but refuses to say when, if ever, it will come into his community. “We see no possibility of being one of the haves.’’

He said he had a problem with approving a new system-wide franchise when it looks like the township will never see its benefits. “The bottom line is we want our FiOs,’’ he said.

Speer urged the BPU to go further and expand the rollout of the fiber-optic service statewide, a step that might finally force Verizon to comply with a two-decade-old order to replace traditional copper wiring with fiber.

Whether Verizon has complied with that order has been a subject of much dispute.

“We want to give all residents of New Jersey the opportunity to subscribe to FiOS,’’ Speer said. “In the field, I have witnessed Verizon only partially deploy FiOS in several municipalities. For example, FiOS was installed in many municipalities on ‘Main Street’ but not in other areas. We have witnessed customers chasing down Verizon service trucks requesting service only to be disappointed that their homes were on a street excluded from the FiOS buildout.’’

With respect to expansion, Lee Gierczynski, a spokesman for Verizon, said the company is concentrating its efforts in meeting targets in the 70 municipalities mentioned in the original franchise approval. “That does not, however, mean that we will not deploy FiOS TV and our fiber network to other municipalities,’’ he said.

In an issue not directly related to the franchise renewal, Speer called on the state agency to hold off approving the new cable system until it investigates Verizon’s plan to use a new Voice Link product to replace copper phone lines destroyed by Hurricane Sandy.

The product, a modified cell phone service, according to Speer, raises questions as to whether those customers will be able to subscribe to FiOS. He argued that deploying Voice Link raises conflicts with the company’s obligations to expand its FiOS network.

Giercynski downplayed the extent of the Voice Link deployment, saying the company has only 120 customers using the service on the barrier island. Before Sandy struck, Verizon served only 25 percent of the households on the island, he said.

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