Telecom bill revival

Opponents of a bill that would largely deregulate the telecommunications industry say amendments proposed by bill sponsor Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-20) do virtually nothing to improve the original legislation shot down by the Senate in April.

Doug Johnston, Government Affairs Manager for the AARP, said the amendments do nothing to restore key consumer protections they say would be gutted by the bill.  According to Johnston, the amendments would not restore any consumer protections for either telephone or cable and do not restore the state Board of Public Utilities’ jurisdiction over the terms and conditions of landline service.

People over 65 would continue to receive stand-alone basic residential service at current rates until the rates are modified by the BPU.  They place the burden on the customer to demonstrate eligibility, Johnston said.

Those residents would be folded into the state’s Lifeline program.

“AARP opposes this anti-consumer telecommunications and cable deregulation scheme that fails to protect the interests of consumers,” Johnston said.  “We are concerned that the bill’s sponsors are trying to once again rush this bill through in the final days and hours of a very hectic budget process and without the benefit of adequate public scrutiny. While AARP appreciates that Senators Sweeney and Lesniak have come to understand that residents 65 and older need regulatory protection against skyrocketing rate increases, the amended bill still fails to adequately protect AARP members and all consumers for price and quality and ignores the poor track record of deregulation in other states.”

A second amendment would address earlier concerns outlined by the N.J. League of Municipalities including the requirement that cable companies carry public access channels, but Johnston says they do not go far enough.

A representative for the League could not be reached for comment.

Opponents of the bill have warned that passage would mean severe rate hikes for all landline users and would hit seniors, who are the predominant users of landlines, particularly hard.  The bill also would do nothing to prevent Verizon from selling its landline assets in the state.

Supporters of the bill have said repeatedly that the regulations that exist are arcane and no longer necessary.    Verizon says the laws governing the industry were written a century ago and were meant to regulate a monopoly.  With the advent of more competition and new technology, the rules should be changed, officials say.  The company said it has no plans to sell its assets here.  Just the opposite, company officials have said the bill would enable them to invest more heavily in the state.

Lesniak said he believes he will have support for the amendments.  If amended, the bill would come back before the full Senate as early as Wednesday.  The amended version would also have to be voted on again in the Assembly, which passed the initial bill in February.

Telecom bill revival