CourierPostOnline

Opinions Voiced On Verizon Cable Plan

CourierPostOnline — Wednesday, November 22, 2006

By LISA GRZYBOSKI
Courier-Post Staff

CHERRY HILL — The final state Board of Public Utilities public hearing on Verizon's application to sell cable television directly to consumers attracted a mix of supporters and detractors Tuesday.

While backers touted the plan as a solution to rising cable prices and local cable monopolies, opponents questioned the company's commitment to serving the state's less-populated towns and less wealthy neighborhoods.

Verizon filed its application with the BPU on Nov. 2, the day a state law letting cable providers sell directly to customers took effect. Previously, cable companies had to negotiate franchise agreements with individual municipalities before they could begin selling cable to residents and businesses there.

Now, a company only has to get BPU approval for a statewide franchise agreement to start selling cable across New Jersey.

The board will rule on Verizon's application Dec. 18.

Fernando Munizaga, a Moorestown resident, was among those who encouraged the BPU to quickly approve the plan.

"It's about time for the cable TV market in New Jersey to be fully open," said Munizaga, a Burlington County College student. "It's time the established cable companies faced true competition after many years of enjoying monopolies in their respective franchise areas."

Munizaga believes more cable companies will follow Verizon's lead. This will result in lower prices and open local communities to high-tech fiber-optics networks, he said.

Furthermore, installing such infrastructure will create good jobs, said Viola Thomas-Hughes, who appeared on behalf of Glory Tabernacle Church in Bridgeton.

"We should not have to wait to see these benefits," Thomas-Hughes said.

But a number of people who testified Tuesday asked the BPU to slow down the review process so Verizon can submit more detailed information about its plan.

The company would initially offer cable television in 316 New Jersey municipalities covering 2.1 million households or 70 percent of the state's homes, said Dennis Bone, president of Verizon New Jersey. The company's cable package would cost $42.99 per month and include nearly 200 channels, more than 20 high-definition channels, and an on-demand video library with 3,000 titles, Bone stated.

State legislators representing South Jersey, however, loudly complained Verizon's application doesn't provide maps or other graphics showing exactly where and when the company will extend its cable lines. In other words, there are no assurances Verizon will offer cable to rural towns, low-income neighborhoods and multifamily dwelling units in a timely manner, they said.

"How on earth is the public, including a local elected official like myself, supposed to be able to determine whether Verizon is going to provide service appropriately, without discrimination, if we can't see how and where they're going to provide service?" asked Assemblyman Paul Moriarty, D-Washington Township, in his testimony. "This gaping information void does nothing but again leave me suspicious of Verizon's intentions for southern New Jersey."

The company said detailed maps weren't included in the application because of public safety and security concerns. Such maps would also give competitors an unfair advantage, Bone said.

He insisted Verizon would not ignore multifamily dwelling units such as apartment complexes and described the 316 municipalities in the application as economically, ethnically and geographically diverse.

Forty-nine of the 316 towns are located in South Jersey, according to New Jersey Citizen Action, a government watchdog organization that wants the BPU to deny the application until more information can be provided.

The New Jersey State League of Municipalities took a more measured approach in testimony it submitted to the board Tuesday.

The group supports the new state law because it promotes competition and increases the cable tax from 2 percent to 4 percent, which will help towns bring property tax relief. But it asked the BPU to make sure Verizon doesn't ignore towns that aren't the most profitable in which to do business. The league also encouraged the BPU to direct Verizon to provide municipalities with the same benefits – things such as cable access channels and free cable and Internet service to public buildings – they would have received under the old approval process.

"The league asks the board to take a very close look at the Verizon application," said Peter Cantu, the mayor of Plainsboro, Middlesex County, who heads the group's telecommunications policy committee. "We support the benefits that competition can bring, but ask that the board strictly construe the new law and the proposed regulations in favor of the municipalities of this state."

WHERE TO WRITE
Written comments on Verizon's application can be sent to: Kristi Izzo, secretary to the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities, 2 Gateway Center, Newark NJ 07102.

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