Large parts of South Jersey will not be brought into the Fios era.
Ending more than a year of negotiations, public hearings, and investigation into consumer complaints, Verizon Communications Inc. has agreed to monitor more closely its fraying copper lines in rural South Jersey and potentially expand DSL internet service to 2,000 new homes or businesses.
But the telecom giant won't be wiring a wide swath of Cumberland, Burlington, Salem, and Atlantic Counties with the high-speed Fios service that has been extended to millions of residents in other parts of New Jersey, according to a settlement among state officials, Verizon, and 17 towns that complained about substandard phone service. Fios is Verizon's branded service for internet, television, and voice services, delivered over fiber lines.
In late 2015, the 17 towns, mostly in Cumberland County, complained to the state Board of Public Utilities about downed phones and bad or no internet. Service has been particularly unreliable on rainy or damp days, which result in buzzing water-soaked copper phone lines because of their age and rundown condition, local residents and officials say.
As part of the settlement, Verizon agreed to fix copper lines with an emphasis on customers who complain at least three times in a year. The company's techs will attempt to fix 76 percent of out-of-service phone complaints within 48 hours and ease internet congestion in Galloway and Hamilton Townships.
DSL internet service — an older copper-based technology that Fios replaced — will be extended to 2,000 new residences or businesses in Upper Pittsgrove, Downe, Commercial, Mannington, Pilesgrove, and South Harrison.
Verizon also will extend Fios to Estell Manor, Weymouth Township, Corbin City, and Lower Alloways Creek Township, home to three nuclear plants, under an existing New Jersey regulatory program aimed at helping rural areas with broadband deployment, the settlement stated.
The accord now faces review by the Board of Public Utilities.
Company spokesman Raymond McConville said Wednesday that Verizon was pleased to have reached an agreement with "the approval of all 17 towns on a maintenance plan going forward. This plan now goes before the [Board of Public Utilities], and we look forward to staying in regular communication with the towns to ensure our customers continue to receive the level of service they expect and deserve."
Initially, Verizon rejected South Jersey reports of elevated complaints about its phone service there. But hundreds of residents responded to surveys from local officials seeking confirmation of the problems. Many residents also attended public hearings last summer in Estell Manor.
Consumer advocate Stefanie Brand, director of the New Jersey Division of Rate Counsel, and Democratic State Sen. Jeff Van Drew were involved in the talks with Verizon. Cumberland County Counsel Theodore E. Baker represented the 17 towns.
Brand said the settlement was helpful with phone service, but with high-speed internet "we still have work to do."
Said Baker: "We are satisfied that we get some relief with this agreement, but we still believe that the rural areas and less-advantaged areas are being underserved."
Greg Facemyer, a member of the Township Committee in Hopewell, Cumberland County, the lead town in the coalition seeking the Verizon upgrade, said Wednesday that he was frustrated with the outcome.
"If you don't have a landline, how are you going to run your business?" Facemyer asked. "This is what we are giving up by allowing settlements and orders like this."
The settlement, he said, "leaves the larger community, and Cumberland County, largely in the dark ages as far as modern telecommunications technology."