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Verizon’s plan to deploy fiber to 900 homes and fix problems with its DSL network in South New Jersey is “haphazard” and fails to “address the systemic problems” faced by Verizon customers, an independent government agency said Friday.
The New Jersey Division of Rate Counsel, a watchdog agency that advocates on behalf of utility customers, wants state utility regulators to move forward with an investigation into Verizon’s plan to fix service problems.
Division of Rate Counsel Director Stefanie Brand made the agency’s position clear in a letter Friday to the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities (BPU).
The BPU has been considering whether to launch an investigation of Verizon as requested by 17 cities and towns who say the company “has, through neglect, abandoned and retired its copper landline infrastructure in most of South Jersey.” Verizon attempted to prevent a formal investigation by submitting a plan to improve service on September 19, but Rate Counsel argued that the BPU should investigate instead of simply taking Verizon’s word that it will fix the problems.
At a public hearing in August, residents testified “about losing service whenever it rains, persistent crackling on their lines, wires entangled in trees, and frequent outages,” Brand wrote. “They detailed their extensive efforts to get Verizon to fix the problem and the difficulties they encountered with getting the company to provide adequate service.
They also testified that once they made their problems known to the press or elected officials, Verizon would only then show up to fix their problem.”
Verizon testified at the same hearing “that it had invested substantially in the area and that service was fine,” Brand wrote.
Verizon’s new plan is an improvement over that stance, but it’s still “not sufficient to address the systemic problems in this area,” the Rate Counsel director continued. “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 service that has plagued Verizon customers throughout the Southern New Jersey towns for years.”
The BPU has a statutory obligation to oversee Verizon’s actions and determine whether the plan offered by the company is likely to fix the chronic problems identified by residents, the letter from Rate Counsel said.
“[T]he Board should conduct an investigation that goes beyond simply accepting Verizon’s representations.
That has been the posture in the past and it simply has not worked,” Brand wrote.
This time, she continued, the BPU should issue an order detailing specific actions Verizon must take and measures to ensure Verizon faces consequences if it doesn’t comply in a timely fashion.
The BPU has scheduled a hearing for October 31, at which it may decide whether to act on the call for an investigation, a spokesperson for the towns told Ars.
Verzon’s plan and where it allegedly falls short
Verizon’s plan had three main components: deploying fiber in Lower Alloways Creek (a town of 1,770 residents); relieving DSL congestion at remote terminals serving Estell Manor, Weymouth, and Maurice River to improve service for existing customers and provide service to those who were previously denied Internet access because of congestion; and reducing outages by repairing or replacing copper cables and protecting outdoor facilities from bad weather.
Rate Counsel believes that it falls short in several ways.
Verizon promised to deploy fiber to approximately 900 households in Lower Alloways Creek and said construction “may begin as early as this year.” Rate Counsel asked why Verizon can’t plan fiber deployment for all 17 towns.
Some residents in the 17 towns reported that Verizon brought fiber to their neighborhoods or streets but not to their homes; the BPU should investigate the feasibility of extending those fiber lines, the letter said.
In 2014, Verizon struck a deal with New Jersey that relaxed its broadband deployment obligations.
The deal requires Verizon to deploy broadband when at least 35 customers in a Census tract cannot get either cable broadband or 4G wireless service.
Verizon’s deployment to Lower Alloways Creek is still dependent on 35 customers making $100 deposits and agreeing to one-year service commitments under this Bona Fide Retail Request (BFRR) process. Other towns may seek broadband through BFRR as Lower Alloways Creek did, but Verizon noted that it can use technology other than fiber to comply with the broadband requirement.
As for DSL in South Jersey, Verizon said its work to ease congestion will let another 2,400 customers order DSL in certain towns within a few weeks.
But “questions remain, including the number of households that will remain without functional telephone and DSL service,” Rate Counsel wrote.
While Verizon says it has spent $100 million the last two years on “proactive preventative maintenance of the copper network in Southern New Jersey,” Rate Counsel says that testimony from residents demonstrates that the investment “failed to resolve the chronic state of disrepair of South Jersey’s telephone and DSL service.” Verizon’s plan also doesn’t offer specific timeframes for all of the planned fixes and doesn’t detail methods of enforcement, the agency wrote.
We asked Verizon if it has any response to the Rate Counsel letter but haven’t heard back yet.
Verizon’s letter on September 19 said the company resolved all 243 specific complaints raised by residents at the hearing in August.
“Providing reliable service to our customers continues to be a top priority for Verizon, and we have taken the service issues raised by some of our customers in Southern New Jersey very seriously,” Verizon wrote.
Although many customers in the area have no better option than slow DSL service, Verizon said, “We know that providing the best customer experience is what we need to do in order to retain customers in a highly competitive environment.”