Thursday, February 28, 2002

Verizon-ISP battle may be nearing conclusion

Published in Interface Tech News

CONCORD, N.H. ‹ Continuing a case opened in 1999, the New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission (PUC) has received closing briefs from all parties concerned in the increasingly contentious network congestion-dry copper broadband access dispute, but a timetable for further action remains unclear. There may also be broader repercussions, affecting Verizon New Hampshire's rates for all services in the state, and its ability to offer long-distance telephone service to New Hampshire customers.

In 1999, all parties agree, 911 access was unavailable in certain New Hampshire communities due to network congestion, which was blamed on the wide use of dial-up Internet service. In response, the PUC opened a case to figure out how to solve the problem.

One proposal, put forward by the New Hampshire Internet Service Providers Association (NHISPA), was to allow ISPs access to so-called "dry copper" (copper wire pairs with no equipment attached to them) so the ISPs could offer low-cost broadband Internet access, reducing the load on the telephone network.

Verizon New Hampshire now claims that the network congestion problem has been solved through the installation of additional equipment. Some PUC officials agree, adding that there have been no reports of this type of network congestion since June 2001.

"The network congestion issue has been solved," said Verizon New Hampshire spokesman Erle Pierce. As a result, he said, the discussion over whether his company should offer dry copper loops to ISPs is now moot, although he admits the ISPs could bring it up in a separate PUC case if they choose.

At least one ISP disagrees that the congestion is solved, and insists that dry copper is the way out.

"Lines are busy all the time," said Brian Susnock, president of the Nashua, N.H.-based Destek Group, which also has a federal suit pending against Verizon New Hampshire, alleging the company engaged in improper procedures regarding exceptions to standard tariffs.

Susnock said the PUC changed the reporting standards to allow more congestion, a charge PUC telecommunications director Kate Bailey denied.

Other allegations of PUC staff problems can be found in the filings.

From the NHISPA: "(The) staff's position is totally unsupportable and has no basis in fact, experience, or technology."

And from the Town of Northampton Cable TV-Broadband-Telecom Committee: "I suggest to you that your staff does not understand what is going on out in the real world of telecommunications, and that this lack of knowledge is problematic."

Bailey denied those charges, and protested their inclusion in official documents. "It was extremely rude to say the things that they did," she said. "I don't believe (our) staff said anything technically wrong."

She added that the ISPs could become CLECs ‹ regulated entities ‹ and gain access to dry copper loops that way. The ISPs would then have to offer some service that the FCC describes as "telecommunications," but not necessarily voice, Bailey said.

Susnock asserts that there would be high costs associated with becoming a CLEC, such as a sizable monthly fee charged by Verizon for access to its infrastructure database. However, Bailey claims the PUC disallowed that fee last year, and that no CLEC in New Hampshire is charged that fee or pays it.

Susnock describes Verizon's operating requirements as "anti-competitive," and vowed to continue his efforts to change them.

There may be more than just 911 access at stake with these allegations. New Hampshire's Office of the Consumer Advocate has called for a full study of Verizon's services and costs statewide (called a "rate case").

Separately, Verizon has requested permission to offer long-distance telephone service in New Hampshire under the provisions of section 271 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act.

But a decision on the network congestion case is not on the PUC agenda yet, and officials did not disclose when it might be.