Frustrations with Verizon’s Basic Phone Service Continue to Simmer in South Jersey

Tom Johnson | September 13, 2016 | Energy & Environment
Consumer advocates call on BPU for in-depth investigation of connectivity problems with telecom giant’s copper-line service

Perhaps a few hundred frustrated customers may convince the state to launch an investigation into Verizon’s traditional phone service in South Jersey.

Citing the more than 200 people who showed up for a hearing last month on the issue, consumer advocates are once again calling on state regulators to investigate Verizon’s landline phone service in more than a dozen municipalities in the region.

In similar letters filed with the Board of Public Utilities last week, the state Division of Rate Counsel and AARP renewed calls for the agency to look into how the telecommunications giant is maintaining its infrastructure in southern Jersey.

“It is clear from that testimony that the issues are pervasive and cannot be addressed through piecemeal attempts to repair individual copper service lines on a case-by-case basis,’’ wrote Rate Counsel Stefanie Brand in a letter to the BPU dated September 7.

AARP officials echoed those arguments, repeating their call for a full-blown investigation into service quality in the region, first made in 2013.

“Hundreds of residents packed the hearings, the vast majority, if not all, of whom have experienced or continue to experience serious problems with their basic telephone service and other communications services that compromise the health, safety, and economic vitality of the region,’’ AARP wrote.

The dispute with Verizon has festered in 16 communities and with Cumberland County for several years. The problems range from static on the lines to poor quality during bad weather to students not being able to do homework because they lack high-speed internet access at home.

Beyond consumer advocates, the issue of poor phone service also has drawn criticism from state lawmakers.

For the most part, Verizon does not offer its high-speed fiber-optic service in the communities. In the past, the company has said it has invested more than $100 million in the last two years to improve the reliability of its dial-up internet and phone service.

In a letter to the agency dated yesterday, Verizon said it is following up on the specific service issues identified by customers at the hearing, held in early August in tiny Estelle Manor, and is developing additional initiatives to address the concerns of its customers. Not one BPU commissioner attended the hearing.

“It is Verizon’s hope that the actions it has taken in response to the issues raised in this proceeding, and the forthcoming initiatives, will make it clear that there is no need for further proceedings in this case,’’ wrote Keefe B. Clemons, a general counsel for the company.

Brand argued otherwise. “The testimony demonstrates a disconnect between the information Verizon has provided to the board and the significant and persistent lack of service provided to Verizon customers throughout the 17 towns. This factual dispute can only be resolved through an investigation and evidentiary hearing,’’ Brand wrote.

Business executives also urged action by the agency.

“Now, I work for a lot of people who believe there’s too much government, the government’s too big. This is one time when the people need the government,’’ said Tony Stanzione, executive director of the Bridgeton Area Chamber of Commerce at the hearing. “They need the Board of Public Utilities to stand up to a big company like Verizon.’’