The Star-Ledger

Hold The Phone On Verizon's Request

The Star-Ledger — Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Verizon wants to hike the cost of basic phone service 84 percent from the current $8.95 a month, a figure that about doubles once taxes and fees are added. An increase, proposed to phase in over three years, may be ac ceptable, since the current rate hasn't changed since 1985. But – and this is a major but – the state Board of Public Utilities shouldn't be in a hurry to grant one cent more unless Verizon corrects its subpar service record.

The average time it takes Verizon to repair residential phones has nearly doubled over the past five years, to 46.1 hours in 2007. A measure of monthly residential trouble reports is up 22 percent over the same period. Meanwhile, residential complaints per 1 million lines have more than tripled.

That's a lousy report card, even given the challenges Verizon faces in a changing telecommunications world. Those include having far more competition every year for the business of providing voice phone service as well as the difficulties of switching its network of cop per wires to advanced fiber-optic cable.

Unfortunately, state law doesn't give the agency authority to punish telecommunica tions companies for poor service, although the board can penalize electric utilities. Verizon's stumbling service makes a case for lawmakers to give the board uniform penalty power over all utilities, not just some. Penalties, after all, can be an effective deterrent.

Verizon says it recognizes the problems and is turning them around. Hundreds of new technicians have been hired to work on the copper network as well as the new fiber cables. The poor complaint and service stats have started to come down in recent months.

Fortunately for consumers, the board has something Verizon wants just now – that increase in the 23-year-old basic phone rate. Cooperation on all fronts is in order.

Verizon and BPU staffers have agreed in principle on a plan that would allow the cost of no-frills phone service to gradually rise from the current $8.95 to $16.45 a month over three years.

That's a major increase, but it is still less than what customers in New York and some other states pay. The proposal also is a much better deal for customers than total deregulation, which was Verizon's initial preference.

BPU commissioners must approve the new rate proposal before it can take effect. The proposal is likely to get a board vote next month.

Commissioners should send the phone company a "Can you hear us now?" message. They will sign off on the rate increase, but Verizon must show its good corporate citizenship by providing suitable guarantees that its service and repair performance will return to proper levels.

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