Time for N.J. to update telecommunications law for the modern era

By Star-Ledger Guest Columnist 

By Leecia Eve

In the late 1990s, the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities acted in the best interest of New Jerseyans when it started classifying as competitive certain telephone services then offered by Verizon. The Board didn't "deregulate" those services but simply acknowledged what had long been obvious; that the communications landscape had become increasingly competitive, benefitting consumers.

Classifying the services as competitive permitted Verizon – the leading technology company that proudly calls New Jersey home for its base of operations, with 15,000 employees and thousands more retirees with good benefits – to be treated in some respects like our competitors who were subject to minimal, if any, oversight by the Board.

Over the years, additional services were reclassified as competitive, including the majority of Verizon's retail mass market services, leaving the four services currently under consideration by the Board. In all cases, the Board retained its oversight, but Verizon obtained marketing and pricing flexibility that some of our competitors – none of whom call New Jersey home – had from the beginning. Opponents of the Board's efforts used misinformation and scare tactics, seeking to convey that the sky would fall if the Board acted in a way it thought best. That didn't happen. In fact, just the opposite took place.

How we communicate with each other today has been transformed. Not long ago, few owned a cell phone and what we know today as a "smartphone" didn't exist. So many of the communications services that have become central to our daily lives are 21st century innovations, including instant messaging, YouTube, Facebook, Skype and Twitter. These innovations have also been critical tools for social change. I am proud to work for a company whose unmatched ingenuity, foresight, commitment and investments (billions in New Jersey alone) in superior wireline and wireless networks have made this transformation possible.

Recognizing the changed communications landscape and to support innovation and investment, more than 30 states significantly updated their telecommunications laws and some even deregulated the industry, maintaining consumer protections but shedding laws that in some instances date back many decades. Unfortunately, New Jersey is not among them. Fortunately, however, the Board has taken positive steps that have benefitted New Jerseyans while recognizing the transformed communications landscape.

The proposed stipulation the Board will consider is not deregulation. It would, however, be progress and would close a proceeding the Board commenced in 2011 that included lengthy public hearings in which the primary opponents of the stipulation participated. The record contains hundreds of pages of testimony and, when closed in 2012, was a slam dunk in support of the proposed stipulation. Today, less than 10 percent of New Jersey households purchase residential basic service and, in the last three years, residential service lines declined more than 50 percent. Transformations in the industry and in consumer choices and preferences that have taken place since 2012 only underscore the case that was made years ago.

The stipulation classifies as competitive residential basic service, single line business service, non-recurring residential installation charges and directory assistance. It does not terminate these services, but simply affords Verizon the flexibility to price them according to the competitive environment it operates in New Jersey. That's the same any employer would want in conducting its business.

Verizon would continue to be subject to service quality obligations. Rates for the four services would be capped during a five-year transition period. Lifeline service, for low-income New Jerseyans who meet eligibility requirements, will remain unchanged. Specifically, Lifeline customers will continue to pay from zero to two dollars per month for basic telephone service. These prices for Lifeline customers will remain unchanged if the board approves the stipulation.

These are the facts. Fear mongering and misleading assertions, including those by the Division of Rate Counsel, an organization funded with tax-payer dollars, are a disservice to New Jerseyans. The stipulation is smart public policy that is good for New Jersey. The board should therefore approve it.

Leecia Eve is vice president for state government affairs for New Jersey, New York and Connecticut for Verizon.