The Star-Ledger

Consumer Advocates Present Alternative Telecommunications Bill

Groups ask Trenton to keep regulations oversight of prices for cable TV, phone

The Star-Ledger — Tuesday, November 22, 2011

By Jarrett Renshaw

A coalition of groups representing consumers, the elderly and municipalities urged lawmakers yesterday to consider an alternate telecommunications bill that they say would provide greater protection than one under consideration in the state Senate.

The groups said their bill would loosen burdensome regulations while maintaining oversight of basic cable and television prices, which are eliminated in the existing bill. The plan would also maintain current regulations over land lines, which supporters said showed their resilience during Hurricane Irene and the October snowstorm.

"New Jersey's residents deserve quality and affordable telecommunications services," state Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), a sponsor of the measure, said at a news conference. "The recent weather events are further evidence that these services are a true lifeline to millions of New Jerseyans."

Smith's bill would keep in place local franchising fees paid to municipalities, along with a requirement that cable companies provide towns with access to a channel for broadcasting meetings and other events.

The groups, which included the League of Municipalities, New Jersey Citizen Action and AARP, held the news conference in Trenton yesterday to help counter efforts by lawmakers to revive the deregulation bill in the current legislative session. The measure was passed by the Assembly earlier this year but stalled in the Senate in the face of mounting opposition.

State Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-Union), sponsor of the original bill, said he was not persuaded by Smith's proposal, creating a divide in the Democrat-controlled Legislature.

"With all due respect, Senator Smith's bill will do more to harm New Jersey than help it," Lesniak said in a statement. "Senator Smith's bill proposes to expand the outdated regulations that my bill will eliminate."

Gov. Chris Christie, who did not say whether he favored the original bill when it came up for a vote in the Senate, avoided taking a position yesterday.

He said at a news conference that he would not sign a bill that doesn't protect the elderly from rate increases.

The telecommunications industry, led by Verizon, said the current regulations were put in place when people were dialing with rotary phones and need to be updated or eliminated.

The bill would eliminate that oversight and roll back other rules, including compensating customers for long service failures and protecting them from a practice known as slamming in which local and long distance carriers are switched without consent.

"Rather than align the state's regulatory framework with the competitive market, this legislation takes a giant leap backwards, inexplicably increasing regulatory oversight of the state's telecommunications and cable providers that would ultimately stifle economic growth and innovation," said Dennis M. Bone, president of Verizon New Jersey.

"Complete deregulation of the telecom industry in New Jersey will result in worse service, longer waits and higher prices," said AARP State Director Jim Dieterle.

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