SPARTA, NJ – The hearing about renewing Service Electric’s cable television franchise drew a large crowd on Tuesday night. The council chambers was standing room only as residents verbalized their frustration with the utility.
Seemingly a formality, as there is no other option in the region, the Board of Public Utilities or BPU requires the hearing and approval process at the municipal level.
Service Electric will get another 10 year extension, despite the complaints. Councilman Jerry Murphy and the attorney for Service Electric discussed previous efforts to limit the approval to three years, as was attempted with the previous “negotiations.”
Township Manager Bill Close and Attorney Tom Ryan confirmed that Service Electric quickly appealed the three year deal with the BPU and won.
“This gives consent to Service Electric to provide service but does not prohibit another provider from seeking a frachise,” Ryan said.
The attorney for SECT, Bob WIlliams sited the infrastructure costs outweighing the benefits as to the reason why there is no competition in the region. He said in higher density areas, there are more customers per mile so the return is greater.
Many of the complaints centerd on service. Or the lack of service. With many people working from home, all hours of the day, every day, Service Electric’s service hours are definitely lacking. Currently, service personnel is only available Monday to Friday during “business hours,” said to be 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. according to residents.
Slow internet service was another complaint lodged by several at the meeting.
Close asked how much money the company has invested into infrastructure improvements since the last franchise was approved 10 years ago.
Representative from Service Electric said they are constantly maintaining and upgrading the infrastructure but was unable to give an answer.
“That seems like a common question that would come up,” Close said with audience members shouting out “why didn’t you come prepared.”
Williams responded; the application does not come with a mandate to answer any questions about infrastructure. Though the attorney finally answered “in the millions, there are constant upgrades because of the broad band issue. The more people work from home the more bandwidth we need to add.”
A resident said, “We pay for high speed but we don’t get high speed.”
They referred anyone with a specific complaint to call for service, which brought snickers and jeers from the crowd about the often mentioned lack of service availability after “business hours.”
Concerns included outages on the evenings and weekends that interrupted children’s ability to get homework done, as well as for people who work from home.
Several residents complained that service calls often do not result in a satisfactory repair and often require repeat visits, with troubleshooting that requires new equipment that may or may not have been the problem.
“The arrogance is incredible,” resident and former NASA research scientist Dr. Gordon said. “They give excuses as to why things breakdown that are bull****.”
Deputy Mayor Christine Quinn asked how many times representatives have held forums with residents during the current 10 year franchise.
“We’re open to requests but there have not been any,” the representative said.
Ryan said the franchise agreement does call for the opportunity to have a bi-annual meeting if requested. He said he anticipated the new agreement to have similar language.
Quinn asked about “open tickets” or repair requests. The answer was they track service calls as to whether or not the service was better after the call.
The company is privately held by the Walson family. They operate in New Jersey, having “family” running the operations in Pennsylvania.
Dave Smith said schools and municipal buildings receive free cable asked about reduced costs or a freeze for seniors. Williams said that is a common question and it would only be addressed on a systemwide basis not town by town, but that “it has been considered.”
Dan Chiarillo said video is delivered a lot differently than 10 years ago and then it will be 10 years from now. “How do you see it.”
Williams said they are part of a national co-op representing 12 million subscribers. “It is continuing research and development for us. The National Cable Television Co-operative helps that continuing process for us. Without regard for whether or not we’re renewing it is a constant, ongoing process to keep up with what’s happening.”
“It’s difficult to forecast,” Williams said. “We’re keeping our eye on wireless and where it’s going.”