The state’s Board of Public Utilities is ordering Verizon New Jersey to make the necessary improvements to correct longstanding problems with landline, cellular and broadband service in western Cumberland County.

The order issued Tuesday by the state BPU also requires Verizon to explain why its statewide customer complaints are increasing even though its customer base is in decline.

Verizon has until April 12 to explain to the BPU why it’s not providing the type of service to customers as required by an earlier agreement with the state.

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“The number of complaints and the severity and frequency of service outages and the duration of the service related issues lead the (BPU) to conclude that there needs to be a review to determine if the complaints reflect systemic problems, and if so, what measures should be taken by (Verizon) to rectify the situation,” the BPU order reads.

Verizon is being ordered to provide details of all “construction, maintenance and repair data, including the dates and costs associated with each,” for Greenwich and Stow Creek townships. The BPU wants Verizon to show current plans for any network upgrades, and a specific timeline for making those upgrades, in those municipalities. Greenwich and Stow Creek townships are two western Cumberland County municipalities where many of the service complaints originated.

Eventually, the state agency will hold a public hearing in Cumberland County to hear customer service complaints. BPU Commissioner Nicholas Asselta, a former Republican state senator who represented the 1st Legislative District that includes most of Cumberland County, will serve as hearing officer.

Verizon spokesman Lee Gierczynski said the company’s service complaints are “trending downward.”

“We will present a strong case to the BPU demonstrating our commitment to quality service to our customers,” Gierczynski said.

Gierczynski said Verizon has met with officials from Greenwich and Stow Creek townships over the past several months about customer complaints. Verizon has already taken steps to improve service there, and the number of complaints decreased by about 50 percent since October, he said.

“We are aware of some of the issues that customers have had, but we have really stepped up and are doing what we can to meet our customer needs in that area,” he said.

First Legislative District officials, who set up an earlier public meeting with Verizon and the BPU, said they are pleased with the BPU’s action.

“Our residents deserve access to the quality phone, cell and broadband service that the rest of the state already enjoys, and state officials now recognized that thousands of residents in our area are not being served,” said state Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic.

Western Cumberland County is a mostly rural area with many farms, large commercial nursery operations and preserved state lands.

According to the BPU order, during a public meeting held Jan.14 at the Morris Goodwin School in Greenwich Township, “virtually every attendee (indicated) serious and repetitive issues with their (Verizon) service” in Greenwich and Stow Creek townships. County and local officials also said that poor overall service by Verizon jeopardizes the safety of residents in the western end of the county by potentially causing problems with emergency calls.

The order also states that data from the BPU’s Division of Customer Assistance shows the number of Verizon statewide service complaints was 19 percent higher in 2010 than in 2002. That increase occurred even though the number of Verizon monthly accounts declined during that 9-year period, the order reads.

The order further states that Verizon’s service “declined even further” in 2011. Service complaints increased 28 percent when compared to 2002, despite a further decline in Verizon accounts, the order reads.

“The growing number of service complaints has reached levels that require the (BPU) to initiate an investigation into the magnitude and causes of the service-related issues which are impacting consumers in New Jersey,” the order reads.

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