BPU Renews Verizon NJ’s Cable TV Franchise, Albeit Grudgingly

Commissioners and critics raise concerns that company isn't meeting deployment deadlines in some NJ towns

Credit: Amanda Brown
BPU Commissioner Jeanne Fox
Verizon New Jersey has won a seven-year renewal of its system-wide cable TV franchise, but only grudgingly so from state regulators.

In approving the renewal, several commissioners of the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities questioned whether the telecom giant has complied with the requirements of the original law allowing it to compete against cable companies and others providing TV programming in the state.

In the seven years since Verizon NJ was granted a system-wide franchise after a highly contentious legislative battle, its efforts to lure customers from existing cable TV providers has proved quite successful — at least so far. Its service, dubbed FiOS (fiber optic service), is now available to 2.2 million households in 355 municipalities, according to Lee Gierczynski, a spokesman for the company.

Others view that record differently. In hearings before the BPU on the franchise renewal application last year, many residents complained why they could not sign up for the service, because it stops at a neighboring town or at Main Street. The protests resonated with the commissioners, who questioned why the buildout of the FiOS programs is not happening in every town.

“It’s very clear the Legislature tied the board’s hands,’’ said BPU Commissioner Jeanne Fox at the agency’s monthly meeting on Wednesday, echoing an argument made by other commissioners. Only half of the 70 so-called must-build towns where the company’s fiber-optic system needs to be installed had been completed by a December 31, 2013 deadline, Fox said.

The renewal cleared the agency with three commissioners approving the new franchise and one other abstaining. Most complained the narrow construction of the original law in 2005 allowing system-wide franchises prevented the agency from dealing with other issues involving Verizon.

Those include the decision by the company not to rebuild its traditional landline service in parts of the Jersey Shore devastated by Hurricane Sandy, replacing it instead with cellular service. Other commissioners were unhappy with the company’s service performance.

“All I want is people to get what they paid for,’’ said Commissioner Joseph Fiordaliso. “Where do citizens go if they have a concern or a problem?’’

Beyond being slow to deploy service in must-build towns, critics also contend that Verizon has failed to comply with requirements to deploy FiOS in multiple dwelling units, or apartment complexes.

Verizon said it has complied with all the requirements to deploy its cable TV programming.

“Regarding yesterday’s decision, Verizon NJ’s entry into New Jersey cable TV market has given New Jerseyans a real competitive alternative to incumbent cable TV companies and satellite providers, which has greatly benefitted consumers, municipalities, and the state,’’ Gierczynski said.

In New Jersey, Verizon has spent more than $4 billion in investing it its traditional landline program and FiOS program, he said. “Seven years ago, they didn’t have that choice.’’

Verizon disputed that it has failed to comply with the original law, supplying a list that it says demonstrates it has fulfilled the requirements of the build-out, according to Gierrczynski said.

But union officials remain disappointed. Rob Speer, president and business manager of IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers) Local 827, wanted more conditions attached to the renewal of the system-wide cable franchise. Among other issues, the union was unhappy that Verizon laid off 61 of its workers this past year.

“We feel it is really understaffed to do the job properly,’’ Speer said, referring to the buildout of the FiOS system and maintenance of its traditional copper phone lines into households. “Right now, the copper system isn’t being properly maintained,’’ according to Speer.