Verizon Likes Revision

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A second statewide franchising proposal — this one with terms that would limit buildout demands on Verizon Communications Inc. to the 60 largest New Jersey cities — has surfaced in the state’s Senate.

This version, not officially published but circulating in draft form, is penned by Sen. Joseph Doria, (D-Jersey City), the vice chairman of that chamber’s economic growth committee.

TWO DRAFTS

The assembly bill, also a draft, surfaced two weeks ago from the office of Assemblyman Wilfredo Caraballo, (D-Newark). It specifies buildout throughout the state in six years.

The big questions now are whether legislators will take up such a weighty issue during a lame-duck session, before the holiday recess, and how the two chambers will reconcile two bills with wildly divergent build-out aspirations.

The progress of the bills is being closely monitored by both telephone and cable lobbyists. Introduction of the Caraballo bill was rumored for Dec. 5, but that day passed without the anticipated debate in the Assembly’s telecommunications and utilities committee. No new date has been set.

The Doria bill was rumored for introduction in the senator’s committee on Dec. 5, as well, then was actually on the schedule for the Dec. 12 committee meeting but later scratched. Now neither bill is expected to be officially introduced until January.

Verizon appears much more supportive of the Senate version, calling the bill, dubbed the Cable TV Choice Act, “a good start toward ending cable’s stranglehold on consumers in New Jersey,” according to spokesman Rich Young.

Doria’s bill specifies 60 metropolitan areas in New Jersey where Verizon would be expected to launch service within three years, and to complete buildout in those towns six years later.

The “haves” include portions of Passaic, Bergen, Essex, Monmouth, Hudson, Union, Middlesex, Somerset, Mercer and Camden counties.

Critics of this version expect opposition from southern New Jersey communities. Most of the 11 counties not included in the buildout requirement are in the south of the state.

The bills are similar on many points. Both require two educational and government access channels from new providers, raise franchise fees to 4% of gross revenues on all programming products (now the fee is 2% of the gross on basic service only) and both would give newcomers a 15-year statewide franchise while incumbent operators are bound by their current local agreements.

Cable lobbyists continue to oppose any bill, arguing telephone companies don’t need changes in the law in order to compete.

The New Jersey Cable Telecommunications Association highlights the tax implication of the new bill on end consumers, and recently commissioned a poll on consumer reaction to a “new tax.”

The poll, conducted by Penn, Schoen & Berland for the trade group, interviewed 463 residents and concluded that 68% oppose competition if it means having to pay higher franchise fees; and that 75% support local control of franchising.

TELCO SLAMS POLL

Verizon’s support group, New Jersey Consumers for Cable Choice, called the poll a sham. It has been staging community events, soliciting pro-competition petition signatures at sites such as the Jefferson Township Cheerleading Expo, tailgate parties outside the New York Giants vs. Philadelphia Eagles National Football League game at Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands, and at train stations.

Young said more than 6,000 state residents have registered at a pro-statewide franchising Web site (tvchoicenj.com), and have generated more than 24,000 letters in support of cable competition in the state.

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