NJ: Big hang up: Verizon fails to offer users local access

Posted on June 17, 2007 - 10:23pm.

from: The Daily Record

Big hang up: Verizon fails to offer users local access

Some subscribers say stations were to be available right away

Sunday, June 17, 2007

1 Comment
Cable TV subscribers switching to Verizon from their town-licensed provider are losing access to the local, free channel used by the public, educators and local government.

The situation has irked some officials, even though many cable viewers may only occasionally watch the local-only channels.

"We were misled by Verizon," said Long Hill Mayor George Vitureira. Long Hill has a contract with Patriot Media, which supplies one public access (PEG) channel. But as more township residents sign up for the Verizon service, they do not have a public access channel, he said.

"This is a serious concern," Vitureira said . "It is our prime outlet for public communication."

He said the township has posted a notice on the its bulletin board on the "PEG" channel telling residents that the channel will not be available if they subscribe to the Verizon cable service.

Case in point

When the Passaic River flooded in April, Long Hill officials issued emergency bulletins on the local cable channel to alert residents to the high water and to provide other public safety information. Verizon subscribers never saw them.

Under a state law passed last year, Verizon applied for systemwide franchise that allowed it to offer cable television service without signing a local franchise agreement with each town where it hoped to offer the service. However, that law required that Verizon make arrangements for its customers to receive the local channels that provided governments, schools and public bodies with one way to transmit information.

Verizon spokesman Rich Young said, "the law clearly states that we must make PEG channels available. We intend to do it, no question. We warned the BPU that there would be a delay in the PEG network installation."

He said the PEG channel network should be rolled out in early fall.

Young said Verizon started the installation of its fiber optic network to support is "FiOS" service in January and has wired 200 towns so far.

"It took cable 35 years to wire the state. We have done 200 towns in five months," Customers are told at the time of the sale that PEG is not available, and a disclaimer on the Verizon FiOS Web site alerts customers to the delay, he said.

Question of will

Mark Nevins, a spokesman for the New Jersey Cable Telecommunications Association, said it appears that Verizon does not want to actually provide the service. He said he spoke with association members who said that Verizon has not started negotiating with the local cable providers.

"The situation in Morris County is indicative of a growing statewide problem," Nevins said. Verizon appears to be ignoring the requests for PEG channels, he said.

However, Verizon's Young said the issue is interconnectivity with local cable systems, and the local system must make the PEGs available to Verizon. There has been a delay in negotiations, he said, and Verizon is working to resolve this as quickly as possible.

Under the law if no interconnectivity agreement is in place after six months, the state Board of Public Utilities can call for arbitration, he said. The six months end June 30, and after July 1, he said, Verizon is considering going to the BPU.

Political posture

Vitureira's concerns were echoed by Freeholder Gene Feyl, who also is mayor of Denville, and Freeholder Jack Schrier, a Mendham Township committeeman.

The freeholders and Denville opposed the new law last year through resolutions.

Feyl and Schrier said they became aware of the lack of the local access channel in their towns after subscribing to the Verizon cable service.

Schrier said that he inquired about the local access channel when he signed up for the Verizon service, and was told it would be provided. "They have not kept their promise."

"This is not just an issue for residents who want to see government information or tapes of council meetings, but for civic groups and churches who want to broadcast information, or those who want to view the county's television show," Feyl said.

"Now there is no access. For those who switched to Verizon the television package is better, but they cannot get the local access channel that Verizon is supposed to supply."

Cablevision has franchise agreements with 32 Morris towns. Patriot Media and Comcast split the remaining seven towns, although Comcast acquired Patriot in April.

Statewide concern

Michael Darcy, a spokesman for the New Jersey League of Municipalities said the issue floated to the surface about two weeks ago.

On June 1, the league hosted a seminar with 110 local officials, and representatives from Verizon, the cable association and state Office of Cable Television, he said.

Last year the league supported the systemwide franchise bill as a way to speed up approvals for cable service and provide competition in the industry.

Darcy said at the June 1 session the interconnectivity issue was raised. It was a question of the technology issues.

"Verizon was slow to roll out PEGs," Darcy said. "It is a service failure on Verizon's part. They know they must do it, but they are not getting it done."

BPU spokesman Doyal Siddell said the state cable television office has the responsibility of settling disputes over the system interconnection and has had numerous meetings with Verizon on this issue and how they plan to comply with the law. A report on the company's progress is due before the end of the month, Siddell said. If the report does not include resolution, Verizon is expected to have an alternative plan of action, he said.

Letter of the law

Under the new law, the municipality must request in writing that Verizon carry its PEG channel, and the local cable provider must request that Verizon establish an interconnection between the two systems, Siddell said.

The cable television office has received three requests from area towns for Verizon to begin carrying the local access channel: Bernards, Somerville and Morristown.

Feyl said that he was aware Denville needed to request that Verizon establish the local channel, but said, "we know it is not available, so why make a request for it? We planned to request the channel when Verizon told us the service was ready."

If it will get the township its local access channel on Verizon, Feyl said, he'll have the township prepare a request.

Darcy said in the future this issue will most likely disappear. Cable companies can file for the same systemwide licensing agreement that Verzion sought. Over time the local cable franchise will disappear, he said. The cable companies can file for the new license standards at any time.

The difference, he said, is that the cable systems already supply the PEGs so even with new a franchise agreement the local channels would be available.

That change could begin to be seen in Morris County in 2009, when local cable franchise agreements in Kinnelon, Boonton Township and Lincoln Park are set for renewal.

Michael Daigle can be reached at (973) 267-7947 or at mdaigle@gannett.com.

( categories: NEW JERSEY | State Franchises | Verizon )