Rate Counsel Faults Verizon’s ‘Haphazard’ Plan for South Jersey Telecom

Tom Johnson | October 3, 2016 | Energy & Environment
In filing with state BPU, division renews call for full-scale investigation into issues stopping telecom giant from rolling out fiber, high-speed internet

Stefanie Brand, director of the New Jersey Division of Rate Counsel
Verizon’s plans to upgrade phone service in South Jersey fall short of addressing the systematic problems in the area, according to a new filing by the state Division of Rate Counsel.

The filing, made late Friday by Rate Counsel Director Stefanie Brand, renews a call to open a full-scale investigation by the state Board of Public Utilities to resolve all the issues facing the telecommunications giant in improving service in the region in a timely manner.

The comments respond to a letter filed with the state regulators early in August following a well-attended public hearing where hundreds of residents and officials showed up to complain about poor service on their traditional landline phone service.

For the past few years, residents in 16 communities have repeatedly complained to Verizon and the BPU about phone service problems and lack of broadband Internet access in the region.

When it rains, there are persistent crackling on their lines and frequent outages, as well as wires entangled in trees, Brand noted. Verizon claims to have spent approximately $100 million to upgrade service, with another $300,000 to be invested by the end of this year.

In the past, some customers and officials have asked Verizon to install its fiber-optic network in the region, which would provide better quality phone service, more video options, and high-speed Internet access.

Following the public hearing, Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D-Cape May) echoed that plea, saying the fiber optic network — dubbed FIOS by the company — is the only way to ensure appropriate service to residents. “Our ultimate goal must be full FIOS coverage in all of South Jersey, and I am urging the BPU to order Verizon to make that investment,’’ Van Drew said.

In a letter to the BPU, Verizon mentioned three potential actions to address concerns about its service, including of deployment of fiber infrastructure in Lower Alloways Creek. The company also said it would take steps to upgrade dialup Internet service in Estell Manor, Weymouth, and Maurice River and reduce outages by repairing copper lines throughout the area.

In her filing with the agency, Brand said the actions proposed by the company do not go far enough, while praising its efforts to specifically address problems raised by some customers.

“It is precisely this type of haphazard approach by Verizon that has resulted in the current, chronic state of disrepair and subpar telephone and DSL (digital subscriber line) service that has plagued customers throughout southern New Jersey for years,’’ Brand said.

The BPU has a statutory obligation to oversee the company’s actions, Brand said, and to probe whether the measures proposed are sufficient to address the chronic problems that have been identified.

Even before the latest filing, both Rate Counsel and AARP had petitioned the agency for a full-blown investigation into service problems in the region, a source of dispute dating back to 2013.

In Brand’s latest petition, she suggested to the BPU commissioners that the service quality complaints might be resolved by the deployment of fiber optic infrastructure throughout all the towns. “Perhaps, a plan to accelerate the migration (from copper to fiber) might help resolve some of these issues,’’ Brand said.