Verizon's Pennsylvania network conditions could face PUC investigation

Verizon (NYSE: VZ) is facing heat about its copper-based wireline network in Pennsylvania as the state's Public Utility Commission (PUC) gets ready to hold hearings about alleged unsafe conditions.

The PUC's investigation follows a petition from the Communications Workers of America (CWA) that cited "hundreds of dangerous locations" across 13 of the state's counties.

Joel Cheskis, an administrative law judge, will oversee the hearing examining Verizon's maintenance practices and quality of service in Pennsylvania.

Nils Hagen-Frederiksen, press secretary in the office of communications for the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, told FierceTelecom in an e-mail that the CWA's petition was referred to the Commission's Office of Administrative Law Judge, which has scheduled a pre-hearing conference for March 18, 2016.

Hagen-Frederiksen added that conference is specifically to address the proper procedure for handling the CWA's petition, but the commission has not yet made a decision regarding an investigation of Verizon's copper line service. Instead, the pre-hearing conference is intended to explore administrative questions of how to address the CWA filing.

CWA, which represents about 5,000 Verizon workers in the state, said that the telco has largely abandoned its copper network in areas where it has not built out FiOS.

Some of the issues CWA cited were poles designated for removal that are not stable (and in some cases broken), portions of old poles suspended in the air, terminals and other equipment not attached to poles, cables hanging dangerously low due to broken lashings that have not been replaced, plastic coverings and splice boxes placed over damaged cable and other equipment that pose a risk of insect and animal infestation and that are not properly grounded.

The union said that the PUC has received over 6,000 complaints of poor service, adding that since the regulator transfers customers back to Verizon before taking a complaint, the number could be larger. Among the typical complaints were claims of multiple days without service over several months, which have led to missed medical calls and an inability to call 911 in emergencies.

What's telling about the emergence of this investigation is that it emerges as Verizon and the CWA are locked in an ongoing, bitter labor negotiation process.

Rich Young, a Verizon spokesman, said in an e-mail response to FierceTelecom that the telco has nothing to hide from the PUC, and that the CWA's involvement in the case is a way to move their union negotiation agenda forward.

"The CWA's involvement in this case is hypocrisy at its best," said Young. "Verizon is always ready and willing to meet with State officials to discuss the state of our network. For the CWA, however, to play a role in this proceeding is a clear indication that they are only interested in pushing their union-driven agenda."

Young added that the CWA is trying to create a diversion from working with the telco to come to an agreement on their labor issues.

"Yet again, rather than trying to work with the company on ways to provide top-tier services to our customers, they create circus acts to try and deflect attention from the real issues that need to be resolved at the negotiating table," Young said.

The CWA's attack on Verizon is not limited to Pennsylvania. Earlier, the CWA asked that federal and state regulators in the 11 states where Verizon operates wireline networks investigate its claims that the telco is not performing necessary repairs and upkeep on its copper landline networks. 

 For more:
- see the release

Related articles:
CWA asks Pennsylvania PUC to investigate Verizon's outside plant infrastructure
Verizon says CWA created a false impression of the state of its copper network
Verizon faces call to expand FiOS from 14 East Coast mayors
CWA union calls for federal, state investigation into Verizon's copper network
Verizon, CenturyLink say abandoning copper network is a "myth"

This article was updated with additional information from the Pennsylvania PUC on Feb. 24.