by Bob Duthaler
JAG’s Voice Heard at BPU/Verizon Franchise Renewal
A lot changed in less than a month since I reported to you about JAG speaking out at the Verizon Franchise renewal during the BPU’s hearing along with the webinar we held. The BPU released the notice on Verizon’s Franchise renewal and wouldn’t you know, JAG’s name was mentioned in it. Not only was our testimony sited, but others who spoke backed JAG and our comments. The BPU was also in agreement on our comments and thought Verizon needed to step-up, provide an HD channel and provide the necessary contact, training and listings in the digital guide. Below are some segments I wanted to share with you in the BPU’s Franchise Document.
At both hearings, comments were provided by Verizon which asserted that the applicant had satisfied all of its current franchise requirements and noted that its performance had been reviewed by the Board in the May 5, 2020 Ascertainment Report. Verizon stated that its franchise encompasses 392 municipalities and provides service to 372 municipalities by offering service that is competitively provided, that it delivers hundreds of high definition channels, and expounded upon the wide range of programming sources available to its customers. Verizon touted its financial investment in the State as an employer and through its capital investment in its network, as well as, the beneficial financial support provided to the municipalities through the franchise fees paid by the applicant. Verizon indicated that it has met its statutory deployment requirements and, since 2013, it has expanded its service territory to additional municipalities, as well as, made Fios TV available to 500,000 additional subscribers. Verizon noted it currently offers Fios TV to more than 60 percent of the households in two thirds of the other municipalities within the franchise territory. Additionally, Verizon stated that it is meeting the statutory requirement of providing Public, Educational and Government access (“PEG”) channels, along with training and equipment to support the PEG channels and free services in 310 municipalities across the state. Verizon noted that by providing the PEG channels, it is providing the public, local governments and schools with an opportunity to provide local programming and information….
…Those who spoke in favor of conditional approval were: Bob Duthaler, President of JAG; David Garb, Vice President of JAG; and Alex Rubenstein, Mayor of Byram Township. The representatives of JAG stated that while the Verizon FiOS service is good, there are several issues that should be addressed during the renewal. The issues JAG discussed included requiring Verizon to provide PEG equipment and training; provide a contact person to municipalities for PEG training and equipment requests; requiring PEG channels be listed in Verizon’s Guide; and require Verizon to address the disparity of PEG channels being cablecast in Standard Definition (SD) as opposed to High Definition (HD). JAG argues that HD is the method Verizon utilizes for broadcasting all other channels except PEG channels, and the broadcast of PEG channels in SD produces poor picture quality for the statutorily required PEG channels. JAG also provided written comments to the Board. Mayor Rubenstein concurred with JAG’s comments and requested that Verizon’s franchise territory be expanded to encompass all of the 526 municipalities where Verizon provides telecommunications service…
… At the October 1, 2020 hearing, the following entities participated in the hearing and spoke in favor of conditional approval: Brian Wahler, Mayor of Piscataway Township; Theresa Berger, Mayor of- Howell Township; Alex Rubenstein, Mayor of Byram Township; Nick Besink, Oradell Township PEG Channel; and George Fairfield, Station Manager, Piscataway Community Television Station. Mayor Wahler reiterated JAG’s requests and spoke to the issue of the PEG channels being carried in SD, which is problematic due to the degraded picture quality, as well as, the inability to get parts for the outdated SD technology, which could result in the municipalities reaching a point where they will not be able to program the PEG channels. In addition, Mayor Wahler requested a return system to allow monitoring of the PEG channels, as well as, requiring that the PEG channels be listed in Verizon’s Guide. Mayor Berger of Howell Township requested the expansion of Verizon’s service area because only a small portion of Howell currently receives Verizon’s FiOS service and there are problems with the incumbent operator. Howell Township requested the service area be expanded to provide a competitive entity and offer improved services. Mayor Rubinstein of Byram Township noted the Township would be adopting a formal Resolution to be submitted, and read a portion of the Resolution into the record, which requested that Verizon be required to provide competitive cable and internet service to all municipalities in which they operate. Nick Besink of Oradell PEG channel commended Verizon for being responsive, but noted that since approximately 2009 all television networks have switched to HD technology, except for PEG. The problem with SD is that the technology has become obsolete, replacement equipment is no longer being made and is impossible to obtain. He noted the importance of the carriage of local PEG programming during the COVID-19 pandemic due to the importance of local information being readily available. He also requested the expansion of the franchise territory, as well as, requiring Verizon to carry PEG programming on its Guide. George Fairfield, Station Manager of Piscataway Community Television Station and a member of JAG, stated that he supports all requests from Mayor Wahler and JAG, and noted that more residents would like to have access to FiOS as it is a good product…
…Rate Counsel believes that Verizon has substantially met the provision of service requirements delineated under the State Cable Act and under the applicable sections of the Board’s regulations. However, Rate Counsel’s support for approval of Verizon NJ’s SWF Renewal is conditioned on Verizon NJ’s commitment to swiftly and without delay upgrade PEG transmission equipment so that programming occurs via HD transmission. Rate Counsel particularly notes its alarm at the public comments that indicate the equipment that provides transmission in analog format (the only format Verizon appears to accept for PEG programming) is in disrepair with replacement parts limited and unavailable in the near future. They noted that this presents a danger that promised services ensuring PEG programming used by municipalities to provide emergency notice to residents are at risk. Rate Counsel found this to be unacceptable under both State and Federal service obligations, and therefore, called for an immediate resolution to this issue.
Additionally, and based on the same concerns previously expressed, Rate Counsel agrees with commentors that PEG channel locations must be clearly disclosed in Verizon NJ’s channel lineup. Rate Counsel agrees that now more than ever due to increased storm activity and the current COVID-19 pandemic, town residents will need access to information provided on their PEG stations.
Rate Counsel also urges the Board to require Verizon NJ to immediately provide the necessary PEG equipment upgrades and training, and require inclusion of PEG channel locations in Verizon’s lineup, particular to each town served….
The BPU later on in the documents, summarizes the comments and the Board recommends that Verizon Franchise Renewal should take place but that Verizon should address the issues that were brought up. Below is a portion of what the BPU board said.
…N.J.S.A. 48:5A-28(i) requires the applicant for a SWF provide a commitment to provide each municipality with two (2) PEG channels, as stated. In taking into consideration the provision of the PEG access channels in SD, it is noted that several municipalities, as well as, Rate Counsel have stated that community needs for the provision of PEG access channels are not being met.
The parties noted that the PEG access channels are an important source of public information on a local level, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, the Board as the federally-recognized local franchising authority (LFA), may establish requirements for PEG channels to be provided in a manner that addresses community needs.10 Although the Petitioner provides the PEG channels, they are provided only in SD which produces problems with signal quality, while providing all other channels in HD, which Verizon and a number of commenters have stated provides higher quality service. It appears that Verizon is capable of correcting the poor signal quality issue by broadcasting the PEG channels in HD. Therefore, while the Board as LFA is not inclined to deny the SWF based on the above issue, it is recommended that Verizon be required to take corrective action of this issue as a condition of the renewal of the SWF.
N.J.S.A. 48:5A-28(l) requires the applicant to provide a commitment to provide equipment and training to access users. A number of parties stated that Verizon was not providing the required training and equipment, and requested a designated contact from Verizon to assist the municipalities. It is noted that Verizon has provided the information requested to OCTV&T regarding the equipment and training, as well as, provided the municipalities with info on the designated contact. It is recommended that Verizon provide reports to OCTV&T staff regarding the provision of PEG equipment and training.
N.J.S.A. 48:5A-28(m) requires that the applicant shall provide a return feed from any one location in the municipality without charge to the CATV company’s headend or other location of interconnection to the cable television system for public, educational or governmental use. The return feed, at a minimum, must provide the ability for the municipality to cablecast live or taped access programming in real time, as may be applicable, to the CATV’s customers in the municipality. However, no CATV company is responsible for providing a return access feed unless a municipality requests such feed in writing. Several parties, including the Mayor of Piscataway, noted a lack of return line which Verizon is required to provide upon written request from the requesting municipality.
Additionally, several parties have noted that the PEG channels are not listed in the channel guide. Verizon has provided the OCTV&T staff with information indicating that the PEG access channels are listed on their guide and have provided information to that end. The OCTV&T staff will monitor this issue to ensure Verizon is meeting all notice requirements for channel allocation…
The complete BPU Document on the Verizon Franchise Renewal will be made available in the Members Only Section of the JAG website. Please feel free to go to the website and download the document and share with your municipality. In addition, if you are ready to move on Verizon giving you a channel in HD, I would suggest that you reach out to your Broadcast Server Provider and make sure your equipment is ready to give the proper HD Signal. Once you have confirmed this, you should reach out to Verizon (see past article in newsletter for contact information) to make arrangements to have your channel updated. Please note this will not happen immediately, but Verizon will be willing to work with you to make this happen. There is no doubt this will make a huge difference in the way our channels are viewed and will highlight the great quality programming that we create.