Verizon New Jersey has reached a settlement with Cumberland County and 17 southern New Jersey towns over chronic problems with their landline phone and internet service, according to documents obtained by WHYY.

In 2015 the county and the towns filed a formal complaint with the state Board of Public Utilities, alleging that the telecommunications giant was failing to maintain its wired infrastructure and refusing to offer more modern phone and internet options to residents in the largely rural area.

Verizon, under two separate agreements, has had to provide landline telephone service for Garden State residents and wire most of the state with at least DSL internet.

The tentative settlement, which is awaiting approval by the BPU, would allow the local governments to avoid a costly court battle and spare Verizon the potential public relations headache of a trial.

"We have heard our customers' concerns in South Jersey and are pleased to have reached an agreement with the approval of all 17 towns on a maintenance plan going forward," said Ray McConville, a Verizon spokesman. "We look forward to staying in regular communication with the towns to ensure our customers continue to receive the level of service they expect and deserve."

A copy of the settlement says Verizon will identify faulty copper cables in the 17 towns and either repair or replace them. It will also run daily tests of its copper wire infrastructure, which residents have said quickly becomes useless in rain or other harsh weather conditions. Verizon claims it has invested $100 million over the last two years to maintain its copper network in South Jersey.

The telecom giant will also extend a program that allows towns without Verizon's faster, fiber-based Fios service to apply for it if they meet certain requirements. Estell Manor, Weymouth, Lower Alloways Creek, and Corbin City (which was not part of the original complaint) have been approved to receive Fios under this program.

Verizon also agreed to install new equipment that will ease DSL congestion in areas with high demand and monitor the internet speeds there monthly.

Other stipulations of the settlement include more specific performance standards for service quality and regular reporting to the BPU and the towns.

The settlement builds on a plan submitted by Verizon in September to address some of the problems raised by the towns.

Stefanie Brand, who runs the utility customer advocate Division of Rate Counsel and was a party to the settlement, said this was the best deal residents could get.

"Our choice was to really try to get something in place that had enforceable provisions or to just allow the case to languish," said Brand.

But not everyone praised the settlement, which came a year and a half after the initial complaint was filed and about 10 months after two public meetings on the subject.

Critics like Greg Facemyer have said that Verizon's refusal to offer Fios in certain rural areas of southern New Jersey widens the "digital divide" there, hurting students, small business owners, and senior citizens.

"Unfortunately, the BPU continues to allow Verizon to pick and choose which residents will receive modern telecommunications at an affordable cost," said Facemyer, a Hopewell Township committeeman in Cumberland County.

"The state legislature needs to recognize these inequities and step in and level the playing field for South Jersey. Otherwise, our region will continue to fall even farther behind and be less competitive," he said.

Other towns included in the settlement are Alloway Township, Mannington Township, Pilesgrove, Upper Pittsgrove Township, South Harrison Township, Commercial Township, Downe Township, Hopewell Township, Lawrence Township, Millville, Upper Deerfield Township, Fairfield Township, and Washington Township.