State of the State

Sen. Jeff VanDrew listens to Gov. Chris Christie's State of the State speech, Tuesday Jan. 12, 2016, at the New Jersey State House in Trenton.

Michael Ein / Staff Photographer

Verizon is proposing to upgrade its copper-based landline phone system and internet service in rural South Jersey, where residents say poor service poses potential safety risks, problems for businesses and even trouble with students’ homework.

But lawmakers say the company’s proposal falls short, and they want a more reliable fiber-optic network that is prevalent in North Jersey but nearly nonexistent in the region.

“Our ultimate goal must be for full (fiber-optic) coverage in all of South Jersey, and I am urging the (state Board of Public Utilities) to order Verizon to make that investment,” said state Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic.

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Greg Facemyer, a committeeman in Hopewell Township, Cumberland County, and an early advocate for improved Verizon service, called Verizon’s plan “like trying to put lipstick on a pig.”

BPU staff is reviewing Verizon’s proposal and awaiting responses to the plan from agencies that include the state Division of Rate Counsel, BPU spokesman John Reinert said.

During a BPU hearing Aug. 4 regarding Verizon’s alleged poor service, division Director Stefanie Brand called South Jersey “the land that time forgot.”

The division is an independent state agency that lobbies on behalf of utility customers throughout New Jersey.

Verizon sent a letter to the BPU that outlines service-upgrade plans and contends its initiatives “will greatly improve the experience of Verizon’s customers in southern New Jersey.” That includes customers in Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland and Salem counties, the letter states.

To bolster its claim, Verizon said 15 new projects related to upgrading its copper line network will be finished by the end of this month. Those projects are part of an estimated $100 million Verizon said it spent to upgrade the copper landline network during the past two years.

Verizon’s proposal as outlined in the letter to the BPU includes the installation of fiber-optic service to 900 households in Lower Alloways Creek Township in Salem County.

Otherwise, Verizon is proposing enhanced Digital Subscriber Line service, or DSL, in Estell Manor, Weymouth Township and Corbin City in Atlantic County and Maurice River Township in Cumberland County.

DSL offers faster internet speeds over copper landlines.

The utility also proposes making DSL service available for the first time to 2,000 customers in six municipalities, including Downe and Commercial townships in Cumberland County.

Verizon further proposes improving its landline copper wire infrastructure. The work would replace copper cables in seven municipalities, including Estell Manor, Weymouth and Commercial townships, Upper Deerfield Township in Cumberland County and Hammonton in Atlantic County.

That work will ensure that “outside plant facilities are protected from weather and other conditions that cause service outages or other service-affecting problems,” the utility contends.

But Van Drew said he won’t be satisfied until Verizon commits to full fiber-optic service throughout South Jersey.

“I want to be clear that this is important progress, but it is not enough to ensure appropriate service for our residents,” Van Drew said. “Families in South Jersey deserve access to the 21st century technology that is afforded to people across the state and affects everything from education to business and the safety of our communities.”

Van Drew said Verizon’s proposal also excludes improved service in more rural sections of western Cumberland County.

The BPU’s August hearing was called after 16 local governments in Atlantic, Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem counties, and Cumberland County government, petitioned the BPU in connection with Verizon’s service. An additional local government has since joined the coalition.

During that hearing, held in Estell Manor, Cumberland County Counsel Ted Baker told the BPU of more than 500 complaints from residents who lost landline phone service on rainy days, constantly contend with static during telephone conversation and have poor internet service. Local and county governments face potentially serious public safety issues because of communications difficulties, small businesses are suffering and students can’t access the internet for homework assignments, he said.

Verizon told the BPU in its letter that it reviewed all 273 complaints it received during and after the hearing.

“All complaints have been resolved,” the utility states.

Verizon said those complaints resulted in 74 new maintenance packages “to address and resolve the issues raised by our customers through their written and verbal complaints concerning their telephone and DSL service.”

“Verizon will continue to take steps to improve plant conditions and decrease trouble reports in southern New Jersey by utilizing all our resources to target problem areas,” the utility promises the BPU. “We know that providing the best customer experience is what we need to do in order to retain customers in a highly competitive environment.”

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