NorthJersey.com

Reason Rules, Phone Bill Pulled

The Record (NorthJersey.com) — Wednesday, March 23, 2011

By KEVIN DEMARRAIS
RECORD COLUMNIST

Reason — backed by extensive lobbying — prevailed in the New Jersey Senate on Monday when a controversial bill that would deregulate basic telephone and cable service was sent back to the drawing board.

The stated intent of the Market Competition and Consumer Choice Act was valid; it makes no sense to have telephone and cable companies that provide similar services governed by different rules, including some written 100 years ago. The bill was supposed to level the playing field. But itl took away nearly all consumer protections, leaving oversight to self regulation and a competitive market place. That did not sit well with consumers and, eventually, the state Senate, which pulled the bill on Monday, hours before its scheduled vote.

Deregulating telephone and cable service, Verizon and other supporters claim, would promote job growth in New Jersey and, as one of their ads stated, "promote investment and innovation from the private sector, while protecting the services we already have."

I don't see a connection between the two. How does deregulating a dying part of the communications world — the basic landline phone — help job growth or improve the state's image? Want to improve the state's image? Cancel the Real Housewives or Jersey Shore TV shows. But removing consumer protections from phone lines that fewer and fewer people are using is not going to do anything to polish the state's image or to prompt companies to invest here.

Until a week ago, the bill seemed to be on the fast track for approval. It breezed through the Assembly — from introduction to approval in just two weeks — and was scheduled for a vote in the Senate on Monday, where approval seemed certain. But that was before opponents — including such diverse groups as AARP, the League of Municipalities and New Jersey Citizen Action — mounted an aggressive campaign against the bill. You got a sense of how effective the campaign was when Verizon made Dennis Bone, president of its New Jersey operations, available for media interviews,

But momentum was building against the bill, and my guess is that had it gone to a vote, it would have been defeated. Now the legislature has a chance to write a bill that puts cable and telephone companies on equal footing without removing needed consumer protections.

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