TRENTON, NJ -- The rate at which power is restored and the reliability of internet service was once again on top of the agenda on Monday at an almost four-hour Senate Law and Public Safety Committee hearing chaired by Senator Linda Greenstein (D-Mercer/Middlesex.)
Among those testifying were Robbinsville Township Mayor Dave Fried and Hamilton Township Mayor Jeff Martin who spoke to lawmakers about the challenges facing their respective residents with Jersey Central Power and Light (JCP&L) and Optimum/Altice as service providers.
In particular, the Committee examined the response in August following Tropical Storm Isiais as well as challenges with internet reliability as many of New Jersey students are learning remotely online.
President of the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities (BPU) Joseph Fiordaliso agreed that the "loss of power for any amount of time is too much" and that steps need to be taken to limit the impact of storms. He also noted that, of the utility companies that serve New Jerseyans, only one - Public Service Electric and Gas (PSE&G) -- is based in the state. Fiordaliso believes that the utilities did a better job with restoration after Isiais than in previous storms.
The BPU chief noted however that "the FCC has gutted local authority for cable and telecommunications oversight to only over customer service" adding that the majority of the complaints that the agency hears are relative to telecommunications and utilities.
Senator Joseph Cryan (D-Union) put it plainly "communications just suck."
Fried, who has been a vocal critic of the communications from JCP&L and Altice, echoed the sentiment saying that it is "a false narrative that communications is better. It is just as bad today as during Hurricane Irene."
"If they are not giving us misinformation, they are just outright lying to us. I can’t go back to my residents and tell them anything JCP&L has told me because it is more likely to be untrue than true," said Fried who recently filed suit against the company for poor response to Tropical Storm Isiais. He said that "year after year it's the same story." He implored the lawmakers to give municipalities the ability to change utility providers.
JCP&L President Jim Fakult said the company is working to "increase and improve more customer-specific information."
"I hope to get my mayors out of the business of having to get the business of getting of those calls," Fakult said "we are here to get better. We have made a lot of progress over the years," but he conceded that "we have more we can do."
Pressed on what changes have been made, Fakult said that they have capability on their trucks to help provide data to towns, so they can understand when the work is being done and when power restoration may be completed.
Martin focused on problems faced by Hamiltonians related to the reliability of Internet service provided by Altice, particularly at a time when school children are largely attending classes virtually. The mayor said that mayors "shouldn't be the complaint department" for providers.
"We can't afford for their education to take a step back because they can't get on the internet," said Martin. "This can't continue." He called the internet reliability issue a "systemic problem" faced by many towns across New Jersey.
Marilyn Davis, senior director of government affairs at Altice, said that the telecommunications provider has added capacity to their network and is monitoring the system. She said the company is seeking to alleviate complaint calls to the mayors by installing a "state-of-the-art phone system" for customers to contact them directly.
Davis noted that in the cases of outages caused by storm damage the Internet provided must oftentimes wait for the power lines to first be restored before they can reconnect the Internet.
In August, the Assembly Telecommunications and Utilities Committee held a similar hearing on storm response. During Monday's hearing, the same concerns and problems were echoed.
Greenstein said that the senators will continue to examine the problems of reliability and restoration to determine if BPU regulations are sufficient or if legislative action needs to be taken.
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