South Jersey Inches Closer to Better Phone Service, High-Speed Internet

Tom Johnson | January 3, 2017 | Energy & Environment
BPU president to preside over case involving Verizon and addressing service quality in Cumberland and Atlantic counties

Richard Mroz, president of the state Board of Public Utilities
The new year may bring some long-sought improvements to phone and Internet service for more than a dozen South Jersey communities.

For the past couple of years, 16 communities have been pressing telecom giant Verizon to upgrade problem-plagued phone service and Internet connectivity in Cumberland and Atlantic counties.

It appears that those complaints have begun to be heard; the president of the state Board of Public Utilities said he would preside over a case before the regulatory agency involving service quality in those towns and Cumberland County.

In addition, Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D-Atlantic), who has been actively pushing Verizon to address the communities’ complaints, announced the company plans to deploy high-speed Internet and phone service over its fiber-optic network in two of the towns—Estell Manor and Weymouth.

“The deployment of 21st century technology is critical for this region and the fact that we are making progress after a lot of work at the state level,’’ Van Drew said in a press release two days before Christmas.

With BPU President Richard Mroz taking the lead in the Verizon case before the board, it is likely the agency will become more involved in the issue, a prospect that could convince Verizon to be more aggressive in resolving alleged service-quality problems.

Complaints range from crackling on customers’ phone lines and frequent outages, poor Internet service that makes it hard for students to do homework, to failure to maintain traditional copper phone lines.

The issue also has been taken up by Rate Counsel Director Stefanie Brand, who has urged the BPU to open a full-scale investigation into service-quality problems in the region, an option the agency so far has declined to pursue.

Instead, there are ongoing settlement talks among the parties, but so far, no agreement has been reached. As presiding commissioner, Mroz will rule on motions, issue a procedural schedule, and preside over any hearings that are held by the agency.

Verizon has disputed the claims of poor service quality in a filing to the board. It claims it has spent about $100 million to upgrade service in the area, while also pledging to install fiber optic service in some communities.

But rate counsel continues to argue the telecommunication company’s plan is insufficient to address the needs of the area and renewed its plea for extensive hearings on the issue.

Ultimately, Van Drew and others argue the best solution to the problem is to deploy the company’s fiber-optic service throughout the region.