New Jersey Mayors “Concerned” That Verizon FiOS Buildout Seems To Be Skipping The Low-Income Areas

New Jersey and Verizon are once again at odds over promises the telecom behemoth has made to bring FiOS service to the whole state. Unlike the last time Verizon and New Jersey had a stand-off over a promise to bring broadband, this contract is not twenty years old, or even ten. This agreement is a lot newer — and Verizon’s apparent way of weaseling out of meeting it a lot more subtle.

As The Verge explains, this time the issue is from a 2006 franchise agreement in which Verizon promised to bring FiOS service to the state — including New Jersey’s 70 densest cities and towns. That specifically included lower-income areas of inner cities that could otherwise be left behind or neglected if a company chose instead only to chase money in wealthy suburbs.

Reality, however, has proven both entirely unsurprising and also extremely disappointing. Records show that nearly a decade after the agreement was signed, service remains entirely unequally applied — and the worst-affected areas are among the lowest-income ones in the state, leaving already-disadvantaged neighborhoods even worse-off compared to their wealthier peers.

It all comes from a loophole about property ownership, The Verge explains: if a landlord demands cash from Verizon in exchange for access to their property, Verizon can refuse to wire that property. Any property that doesn’t let Verizon just straight up have access is considered under the franchise agreement to be waiving their right to FiOS access, and Verizon can walk away with its obligation still considered met.

Installing new wires can indeed be disruptive to property owners. There’s digging, to get underground cabling to the premises, and then there’s internal disruption for moving around wires once you get to the walls. Property owners may decide that the end result isn’t worth the disruption.

If the owner of a single-family house values their lawn and garden more than a FiOS connection, that’s one thing — only that homeowner and their family are affected. If a landlord that owns a major apartment building housing hundreds or thousands of people opts out, that’s suddenly a whole lot of folks with no access.

Then of course there is the problem of density: if one house on a street of 25 houses opts out, it still makes sense to run a cable to the end of the road and serve the other 24 families. If half the block-sized apartment buildings in a densely populated part of town opt out, on the other hand, a utility basically has no motivation to bust their butts running cables, and so the neighbors end up out-of-luck, too.

The disparities are huge: public records show that over 21,000 properties in Newark have waived their right to FiOS access. In Jersey City, it’s over 25,000 properties, about a fifth of the city. But in wealthier cities like Trenton and Hackensack, The Verge found, the number of waivers never got higher than 3000.

Newark and Jersey City are indeed the two most populous municipalities in the state, so it’s understandable that their raw numbers would be higher. Just moving down the list of New Jersey’s six biggest cities and running some per capita calculations, though, shows how disproportional those waiver numbers are. The Verge found that In Jersey City, it’s a whopping 1026 waivers per 10,000 residents — over 10% of the population. In Newark, it’s 772 per 10,000 residents. Go to Paterson, the third-largest city in NJ, and it drops to 432 per 10,000. In Elizabeth it’s 275 per 10,000. Toms River drops to 190 per 10,000 residents, and in Hamilton, still one of the ten biggest municipalities in NJ, the rate is already down to 79 waivers per 10,000 citizens.

As you might guess, every party in this story is laying blame squarely with one or more of the others.

The mayors are “concerned” about the discrepancy, and want to investigate it further. However, a representative from the Communications Workers of America — the union that represents a huge number of Verizon employees — was much more blunt.

“What we understand the practice to be is that, if you’re in a wealthy high-rise next to the water in Jersey City, they will bend over backwards trying to get into that building,” the union representative told The Verge. “But if you live on the other end of the tracks, they’ll send you a letter saying, ‘We’d like access to your building.’” That letter is less than clear, though, he explained, and after a flurry of phone calls and offers, the landlord may end up on a waiver list without even realizing it.

Harold Feld of consumer interest group Public Knowledge speculated that the distribution could be explained by a consolidation of landlords — one person or group might own several buildings in a few-block radius. But even that doesn’t seem entirely plausible: “I would actually expect to find more buildings in the better part of town subject to building lock,” Feld told The Verge. “If it is concentrated in the areas where Verizon doesn’t want to deploy, that seems like an awfully strange coincidence.”

A representative for Verizon, of course, painted the situation in a very different light. “Unfortunately for tenants in some buildings in these towns, their landlords do not want Verizon New Jersey’s FiOS service,” a company representative told The Verge. “However, if a customer in one of these building requests service, Verizon New Jersey files a petition for Mandatory Access with the Board in order to be able to access the building and serve the customer.”

Verizon also pointed out that physical limitations and insufficiencies might make wiring a given building impossible. That “inadequate electrical grounding” or other limitations might be issues more likely to occur in a less-than-glamorous, low-income building was left unsaid.

Finger-pointing aside, the ball is now in the court of the state’s Board of Public Utilities… which doesn’t seem to be cooperative with its data.

“Either mayors can put pressure on Verizon to act ethically, or we can wait for Chris Christie to appoint regulators who are not in the pocket of the industries they’re supposed to be regulating,” the CWA rep told The Verge. “We just sort of thought it was no longer appropriate to wait for the second one.”

Verizon is weaseling out of its deal to bring FiOS to New Jersey’s poorest regions [The Verge]

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