State Agency Eases the Regulations Governing Verizon

The Board of Public Utilities may strip away more telecom rules next year

The legislature is not the only institution seeking to relax rules on the telecommunications industry.

The state Board of Public Utilities (BPU) approved a petition by Verizon New Jersey to do away with what some officials view as burdensome rules dealing with billing, record keeping for trial programs, and offering discounts to senior citizens and others.

The revisions, passed during the agency’s monthly meeting this past week in Trenton, fall short of the sweeping changes sought by the telecom giant in a bill that has spurred much controversy in the legislature. But they may be just a prelude to a further scrapping of regulations by the BPU.

The legislative changes, described by consumer advocates as virtually eliminating any remaining regulation of telecom firms, have sparked a bitter battle with Verizon and the cable companies on one side and the Division of Rate Counsel and its allies on the other. The bill (A-3766) stalled in the Senate earlier this month because of intense opposition.

In approving the relaxation of the rules, many of which were opposed by the Division of Rate Counsel, the agency noted it had been holding informal discussions with telecom companies about easing their regulatory burden before the deregulation bill had been introduced.

BPU President Lee Solomon noted those discussions had been short-circuited by the introduction of the legislation, but vowed the talks would continue. Celeste Falcone, director of the BPU’s Office of Cable Telecommunications, said the agency’s current cable telecommunications regulations are scheduled to expire next year, and the agency is planning on holding stakeholder discussions during the interim to discuss how to eliminate burdensome regulations.

“We are gearing up for a regulatory reform without giving up consumer protections,’’ Falcone said. She characterized the changes in regulations approved by the board as much more modest than what is being suggested in the bill pending in the legislature.

“They are seeking something much broader in the legislation,” Falcone said.

The bill is the latest effort by the Democratic-controlled legislature to overhaul the state’s regulatory structure, a move proponents argue would eliminate rules that have become outdated and burdensome given the radical changes sweeping the industry.

“This is not a matter of eliminating red tape or unnecessary regulation,” said Stefanie Brand, director of the Division of Rate Counsel, speaking before a legislative committee. “If the legislature enacts this legislation, it will be leaving consumers on their own when dealing with telephone and cable companies.”

The Division of Rate Counsel also objected to the changes proposed by Verizon in the current regulations, arguing the existence of competition does not eliminate the need for consumer regulation.

But BPU commissioners argued their efforts to overhaul regulations ought to be recognized by the industry.

“I would hope that industry takes a look at this and sees that we are trying to do our jobs,” said Commissioner Nicholas Asselta.

Commissioner Jeanne Fox agreed. “The recommendations are vey thoughtful,” she said.

In briefs to the agency, Verizon said that competition will ensure that its billing options will be in a customer-oriented fashion. The company also argued that if it has to notify every customer and senior about potential discounts, it will end up offering fewer of them because of the cost of notification.

The legislature is expected to take up the deregulation bill despite the controversy some time next month.