ESTELL MANOR — A coalition of municipal and county governments Thursday demanded the state hold a public hearing into Verizon’s quality of service throughout New Jersey.
The request came during one of two state Board of Public Utilities hearings at Estell Manor Elementary School that were to focus on complaints regarding Verizon’s alleged poor landline service in rural parts of South Jersey.
Cumberland County Counsel Ted Baker told the BPU of more than 500 complaints from residents who lose landline phone service on rainy days, constantly contend with static during telephone conversations and have poor internet service. Local and county governments face potentially serious public safety issues because of communication difficulties, small businesses are suffering and students can’t access the internet for homework assignments, he said.
“We are asking that this board give us an evidentiary hearing,” Baker said. “We want to test the waters. The question isn’t what (Verizon has) spent. The question is what they haven’t spent. We cannot get answers without this board giving a green light ... to ensure that we are getting adequate information.”
Baker’s requested was supported by state Division of Rate Counsel Director Stephanie Brand, who called South Jersey “the land that time forgot” in terms of Verizon’s service.
“Clearly, there are factual issues at play here,” said Brand, whose agency advocates for utility customers. “It is clear that action and intervention by the board is needed.”
The BPU took no action on the request, or other comments made during the hearing, which was attended by more than 150 people from Atlantic, Burlington, Cape May, Cumberland and Salem counties. The coalition consists of 17 primarily rural municipalities from those five counties, along with Cumberland County government.
But while residents and officials were vilifying Verizon, the utility made a strong defense of its South Jersey operations.
“Verizon is not abandoning our copper line network in South Jersey,” said Ava-Marie Madeam, Verizon’s director of regulatory services. “The copper network is a critical part of our overall network structure. Any suggestion that Verizon is not committed to the copper network is simply not true.”
Madeam said Verizon invested $100 million during the past two years in “proactive, preventative” maintenance of its copper line network in South Jersey, and there are 179 technicians working daily in the region. She also said that Verizon has “consistently met” state operating standards.
“Verizon strives every day to provide excellent service to our customers,” Madeam said.
The statements were rejected by those attending the hearing.
John Dowling, who lives in this Atlantic County municipality, said he needs good 24-hour telephone service so he can call for help because of a medical condition.
“I can’t do that unless it’s blue skies and sunshine,” Dowling said. “We can’t mess around with this. We’ve got to get these lines fixed. We’ve got to get Verizon off their butt and doing the right thing.”
Upper Township, Cape May County, resident Andrew Salerno told the BPU that some of his relatives moved here several months ago from Kansas and need good internet service for their home and business. The couple waited months to get DSL service, he said.
However, the start order was never fully processed in May, and Verizon is nonetheless billing the couple for internet service and equipment they never received, he said. The couple still has no internet service, he said.
And, Kenneth Haeser, mayor of Weymouth Township in Atlantic County, told of an elderly woman in his municipality whose seriously ill husband was hospitalized. The hospital eventually called the woman — on a rainy day — to inform her that her husband had died, but the connection was so bad the conversation was incomprehensible, he said.
“To not be able to get news about her husband passing because it’s raining out, it’s horrible,” Haeser said.
State Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, who pushed the BPU for Thursday’s hearings, called the situation in South Jersey “a matter of success or failure, of life or death,” for many residents.
“These are real stories, real people who are being treated unfairly,” he said.
Van Drew said best way to give those residents safety, security and a “decent life” is for Verizon to install fiber optics, a suggest that drew loud applause from those at the hearing.