N.J. Eyes Strict New Cable Service Rules

Cable operators in New Jersey could be forced to abide by more stringent standards for answering consumer phone calls, better-defined service windows and redefined outage credit requirements, should the state's Board of Public Utilities approve a proposed set of new regulations.

Gov. James McGreevey has already blessed the rules.

"Too often, cable customers waste an entire day waiting for the cable company to arrive to repair and install service," McGreevey, a Democrat, said at a press conference last week. "We have a fundamental obligation to ensure reliable, affordable, customer-focused service to the state's 2.5 million cable customers."

The New Jersey Cable Telecommunications Association responded by lauding the governor for supporting customer service. In a prepared statement, NJCTA president Karen Alexander said New Jersey operators have spent $3 billion over the last five years to make their networks 99.9 percent reliable.

The state's operators already meet or exceed federal standards to answer 90 percent of inbound calls within 30 seconds, she added.

The BPU's current rules governing how the state's localities regulate cable were last written in 2000 and expire this June. The new rules would be viable for the next three years, at which time state regulators would review the state of competition within the industry, and whether this regulatory proposal has become too burdensome.

The regulatory scheme would hit four companies hardest — Comcast Corp., Cablevision Systems Corp., Time Warner Cable and Service Electric Cable TV of New Jersey. Those operators serve 94 percent of New Jersey's cable customers.

The proposed rules would demand credit for customers subjected to outages that affect 10 or more subscribers and last longer than three hours. Current rules demand credits for outages of six hours or longer.

According to the BPU's Office of Cable Television, consumers suffered 1,863 outages last year, an increase over 2000. Since the bulk of outages last from three to five hours, a period representing "most of a viewing day," the new refund standard was proposed.

The state wants cable providers to offer four-hour service windows, rather than the more amorphous "morning" and "evening" time slots. Officials also want to make a standard under which cable system representatives must answer a call within 30 seconds — or pick up any transferred call within 30 seconds — part of state policy.

The BPU has set a Feb. 19 public hearing on the proposed changes. The public has until March 7 to comment on the regulations.