Asbury Park Press

Telecom Reforms Need Reforming

Asbury Park Press — Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Op-Ed

Consumer advocates fear Trenton lawmakers may try to sneak a previously tabled cable and phone deregulation bill past the voters and onto Gov. Chris Christie's desk when the lame-duck session of the Legislature convenes next week.

It was a bad bill back in February, and it is a bad bill now. It could end up costing consumers more while leaving them holding the short end of the customer service stick. Among the current consumer benefits and protections that would have gone by the wayside if S-2664 had been signed into law:

Public and government channels would no longer have to be provided on cable systems.

Credits for telephone outages that last more than 24 hours, one of a host of state regulations that still govern how telephone and cable companies provide service in New Jersey, would no longer have to be offered.

Protection against "slamming" — the practice of switching someone's telephone service from one company to another without the customer's permission — would be eliminated.

Customers would not be protected from discriminatory rates and could be refused service without reason.

It's not surprising that the Senate measure and its Assembly counterpart have the support of Verizon New Jersey and the state's cable industry. What is surprising is that it got as far as it did.

Some of the current telecommunications regulations, particularly those dating back to 1911, may need to be brought up to date. But the industry's claims that New Jerseyans have plenty of telecommunications choices and that the free market will fix everything are just so much white noise.

In many communities in New Jersey, the choice is between two cable companies and satellite TV. In others, there is but one cable company — and satellite TV is not an option for some homeowners.

Any reform of these regulations must make them both more consumer friendly and more responsive to the companies' civic obligations.

When an industry gets all excited about the very idea of further deregulation and assures its customers that they will hardly notice the effects of the changes they lobby so hard for, it's time to hold tight to your wallet, hunker down and make sure that a bill once buried stays buried.

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