Pennsylvania regulators will look into union claims that Verizon Communications Inc. has neglected its aging copper phone lines in large areas of the state, according to a recent filing with the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission.

Administrative Law Judge Joel H. Cheskis has scheduled the first hearing for March 18 in Harrisburg. Cheskis will seek information on Verizon's copper phone lines and then make a recommendation to the PUC as to whether to initiate an investigation, PUC spokesman Nils Hagen-Frederiksen said.

The Communications Workers of America, which represents thousands of Pennsylvania linemen and customer service representatives, asked for the probe into sagging and spliced copper phone lines last October, submitting to the PUC dozens of photos that it claimed were evidence of shoddy maintenance. The images included utility poles dangling above the ground.

Verizon provides phone and Internet services with two different technologies, traditional copper and newer fiber-optics, branded as FiOS.

Critics say the telecom giant has neglected copper as it invests billions of dollars into FiOS. Verizon says it maintains its copper network and responded to the CWA's petition in November by calling it a "fishing expedition in search of headlines and publicity to be exploited in labor contract discussions."

The CWA has been working without a contract with Verizon since Aug. 1.

Verizon asked the PUC to dismiss the petition. Company spokesman Ray McConville said on Monday that the company had no comment on the Pennsylvania case.

Ed Mooney, international vice president of CWA District 213 in Philadelphia, said last week, "I'm thrilled that they are finally paying attention to what we've been telling them." He said Verizon is not properly serving its customers.

In South Jersey, officials in 16 towns in Cumberland, Atlantic, Salem, and Gloucester Counties have complained in a filing to New Jersey regulators about the condition of Verizon's copper lines, saying that the company has concentrated FiOS in wealthier and more densely populated areas of the state.

The biggest complaint by South Jersey residents is lost phone service during rainstorms and on damp days.

Verizon told New Jersey regulators that the South Jersey complaints were "a thinly veiled attempt to force Verizon to deploy fiber-optic facilities through these communities by creating a service crisis that does not exist."

The telecom giant says that it has invested tens of millions of dollars to maintain copper lines in South Jersey. The service quality there was "consistently better than" state standards, McConville has said.

The Board of Public Utilities is reviewing the petition and Verizon's response, an agency official said Monday.

McConville said Verizon had begun meeting with officials from the towns "to discuss their concerns and how we can work together moving forward."