Asbury Park Press

Senior Groups Rail Against Telecom Act

Asbury Park Press — Thursday, October 4, 2012

Written by
Bob Jordan

TRENTON — Senior citizen advocacy and consumer groups, still concerned about ill effects telecommunications deregulation would have on their constituencies, say they are ready to renew opposition to the initiative.

The controversial Market Competition and Consumer Choice Act twice moved toward approval by lawmakers in 2011. Each time it was beaten back by a barrage of protests from seniors and other residents, who complained that loosened regulations would leave them with no defense against higher bills and reduced services.

Sen. Raymond J. Lesniak of Union County planned to include protections for seniors in a new version of the bill (S-877) but said Gov. Chris Christie doesn't support the measure.

The bill is "dead as a doorknob," Lesniak said.

AARP spokesman Jeff Abramo said he isn't sure about that.

"It's been quiet, but these things tend to come back out of nowhere," Abramo said. "We remain in opposition to the bill. We haven't heard a lot on it recently. If we do, we'll speak again to our opposition."

A chief concern of critics is that the price of basic telephone service, if deregulated, could increase, low-income residents and senior citizens, including those that are homebound, who depend on local telephone service as a lifeline.

Lesniak and Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a Gloucester County Democrat, lined up ample support among Republican lawmakers -- and included Sen. Tom Kean, a GOP leader in the upper house, as a co-primary sponsor -- before opposition formed last year. The bill sailed through the Assembly.

The grassroots efforts, led by New Jersey Citizen Action and AARP, included the "Don't Hang Up on New Jersey" campaign to fight the elimination of some rules that govern how telephone and cable companies operate.

The bill had the support of the state's cable industry and Verizon New Jersey, based on the premise that competition for telephone and video service makes the reasons for the regulations obsolete.

Verizon spokesman Lee Gierczynski said the goal of the bill still makes sense.

"That particular legislation is what Verizon would support," Gierczysnki said. "It would align the regulatory world with the competitive environment that we operate in. The technology is continuing to change how people are communicating, and the regulation needs to keep pace and help level the playing field among all the competitors in the market."

Lesniak said he thinks senior citizens' concerns have been addressed.

"I believe the bill I re-introduced took out senior landlines, but Christie still opposes it," Lesniak said.

Christie initially backed the Lesniak bill but later hedged, and also failed to embrace a competing measure from Senators Bob Smith and Loretta Weinberg, saying, "I have real concerns that there be ample protections for seniors in any deregulation that's proposed, that will protect seniors' ability to have affordable landline coverage in their homes."

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