Can you hear us now?
That was the sentiment among the more than one hundred residents who turned out Thursday night for the first and only public meeting about ongoing problems with Verizon’s landline telephone and internet service in South Jersey.
Not simply because residents in that area have had trouble making phone calls and connecting to the internet — which they have — but because many people living in rural South Jersey said their complaints about Verizon and their pleas for help from the state had been falling on deaf ears.
“You haven’t been doing your job!” shouted Estell Manor resident Joe Vander to members of the state Board of Public Utilities, the agency that regulates Verizon’s landline telephone and internet businesses. “You’re afraid of Verizon!”
The BPU hosted the meeting inside Estell Manor Elementary School’s gym in Cape May County. The meeting was in response to a formal complaint filed by 16 towns with the BPU asking for an investigation into Verizon’s practices in South Jersey.
Residents and local officials said that Verizon fails to maintain its copper wire network in South Jersey, which leads to crackly and often nonexistent telephone service as well as sluggish internet speeds in parts of at least four counties.
Verizon has also failed to offer its faster, more expensive fiber optic service, Fios, in many of these communities.
“I have issues whether it rains, whether it snows, whether there’s wind outside, or even when it’s sunny,” said Cedarville resident and small business owner Theresa Duffy-Diament, who claimed she pays an average of $200 a month to Verizon for substandard service.
Estell Manor councilman Joe Venezia said senior citizens and children have suffered because the BPU has allowed these problems with Verizon to go on for so long.
“My kid is now out of high school, but I can tell you there were many times when I had to take my son to the library for him to do his homework,” said Venezia. “I cannot get service at my house.”
Although the BPU is a quasi-judicial agency, the meeting was not part of a formal investigation of Verizon.
Staff members at the agency will examine the written and oral public comments — which they are accepting through August 8th — and then issue a recommendation to BPU commissioners on how to proceed.
Also in attendance on Thursday were more than a dozen Verizon employees posted in the back of the room, including several engineers who trailed some of the residents out of the gym to try to address their service issues individually.
Verizon spokesman Ray McConville said that showed that the company is paying attention.
“Obviously, as you saw today, there are people who think this is a problem. And if they think it’s a problem, we’re going to take that seriously and we’re going to listen,” said McConville, who also stressed that the company’s complaint rate in South Jersey is low. “We’re not just going to go home and sit on our hands.”
South Jersey state Sen. Jeff Van Drew, who previously asked the BPU to investigate residents’ complaints about Verizon, reiterated his call that the state to take the issue more seriously and hoped that Thursday’s public meeting would help toward that end.
“After tonight, and you’re gonna be tired, and you go home, and you’ll probably be a little bit frustrated and worn out,” Van Drew, a Democrat, said to the BPU staff members.
“And when your wife or husband or significant other says, ‘what was your day like?’ And you say, ‘boy, it was a hell of a day. It just went on and on and on, and we didn’t know if we’d ever get done or get out of this problem,’ you know a little, tiny bit how the people in this room feel every single day.”