New telecomm deregulation bill in the offing

Telecommunications deregulation took center stage this morning as Sen. Bob  Smith touted alternative legislation to a bill introduced earlier this year by Sen. Ray Lesniak.

Lesniak’s bill would largely deregulate the land line telecommunications industry, but has been strongly opposed by a conglomeration of groups that included the AARP, the Communication Workers of America and the New Jersey League of Municipalities.

After passing in the Assembly, Lesniak’s bill was tabled by the Senate in April.  In June, the Union County senator tried to amend the legislation but pulled the changes when it became clear he did not have the support.

Monday, Smith said his bill would offer a compromise, deregulating some portions of the industry, while still protecting consumers, particularly older and lower-income residents.

“Earlier pieces of proposed legislation jeopardized our commitment to all New Jersey residents, while large corporations would have benefitted,” Smith said at a press conference. “My bill…relieves telecommunication companies of some regulatory burdens, while ensuring that consumers do not face rising costs simultaneous to diminishing services.”

Smith’s legislation, which has the support of incoming Senate Majority Leader Loretta Wienberg, would allow the Board of Public Utilities to continue to regulate basic rates for some residents and oversee service quality and reimbursement for outages.  The bill also would protect municipal access channels and the requirement to provide free cable and internet connections to municipal buildings..

Smith’s bill has the support of some of the previous bill’s opponents, including the AARP and the League of Municipalities.

The League had opposed the Lesniak bill on several grounds, most importantly that it reduces the obligation of cable companies to provide free cable and internet connections in all municipal buildings and to provide for cable-casting of municipal events.

“S3062 deserves the serious consideration of the New Jersey Legislature,” a statement issued by the League said. “S3062 offers relief from telecommunications regulations where possible while preserving the important benefits to communities established in 2006 through enactment of the system-wide cable franchise.”

But Verizon, the largest supporter of the Lesniak bill, said the new legislation muddies the waters and actually adds regulation where none exists.

“I thing Sen. Smith’s bill re-regulates services rather than de-regulates a lot of them.  It ties up companies like Verizon in red tape and bureaucracy, while Sen. Lesniak’s bill streamlines the process and lets the competitive market take control of the situation,” said Verizon spokesman Lee Gierczynski.

It’s unknown where Gov. Chris Christie stands on the bill.  But legislators cited Christie’s lack of overt support for tabling it in April.  An administration spokesman did not return an email seeking comment on the Smith bill.

New telecomm deregulation bill in the offing