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Continued: As phone companies abandon old, unloved copper lines, some customers find withdrawal painful

  • Article by: PETER SVENSSON , AP Technology Writer
  • Last update: July 8, 2013 - 2:40 PM

"Everybody here wants the cable for Internet and TV," Sayia says. "The other thing is — who needs wires?" he adds, holding up his cellphone.

Verizon says just 855 of the 3,000 homes it wants to abandon in Mantoloking had traditional phone service before the storm hit.

In other areas, Verizon is replacing copper phone lines with optical fiber, which allows the company to offer cable-like TV services and ultrafast broadband. Water can short out and corrode copper wire, but optical fiber is made of glass and transmits light rather than electricity, so it's far more resistant to flooding. But the cost of wiring a neighborhood with fiber optic lines can run more than $1,000 a home.

"Everybody would love for us to put in fiber, but that's just not practical," Maguire says.

If New York and New Jersey refuse to give permanent permission for the switch from landline to wireless phone service, Verizon could be forced to rebuild the phone network on Fire Island and in Mantoloking. Unlike cable and wireless companies, landline phone companies have regulatory obligations in most states to supply lines at a reasonable cost to anyone who wants one. They also need federal approval to end service.

In late June, New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman filed an emergency petition with state regulators to stop Verizon from replacing copper lines with alternatives in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York. He says seasonal residents who find their phone lines don't work at their summer homes are steered by Verizon to its Voice Link wireless product. Only if the customer forcefully refuses will Verizon restore the copper phone line, he says. Verizon says Voice Link is just an option available to customers.

In New Jersey, state regulators are talking to Verizon about Mantoloking but haven't approved the landline-to-wireless switch that Verizon has already started. It could, at least in theory, deny Verizon's application and force it to rewire copper phone lines back into the town.

In Washington, the Federal Communications Commission is looking at an application from the country's largest landline phone company, AT&T Inc. AT&T isn't dealing with storm damage, so it has the leisure of taking a longer view. It wants to explore what a future without phone lines will look like by starting trials in yet-to-be-decided areas.

"We need kind of a process where we can figure out what we don't know," says Bob Quinn, one of AT&T's top lobbyists in Washington. "The trouble is not going to be identifying the issues everybody can see. It's going to be finding the unexpected issues that you have to conquer."

At Public Knowledge, Feld agrees with AT&T's deliberative approach. Among the issues that need to be looked at, he says, is whether consumer protections that apply to landline phone service should apply to whatever replaces it. For instance, if a consumer misses a monthly payment, phone companies are prohibited from cutting landline phone service right away.

"There are all kinds of state and federal rights around your phone bill ... which don't apply to these competitive alternatives," Feld says.

The FCC put together a formal task force on the issue in December, after AT&T put in its request, and has asked the company for more details.

Sean Lev, the FCC's general counsel, said in a blog post that "we should do everything we can to speed the way while protecting consumers, competition, and public safety." But he also points out that most phone companies aren't set to retire their landline equipment immediately. The equipment has been bought and paid for, and there's no real incentive to shut down a working network. He thinks phone companies will continue to use landlines for five to 10 years, suggesting that regulators have some time to figure out how to tackle the issue.

AT&T would like to have all its landline phone equipment turned off by 2020. Verizon's Maguire envisions a gradual phase-out, starting right now.

If a major telecommunications line fails and there are hundreds of people connected to it, Verizon would repair it, he says. But the company wants the option to abandon the failed line and move the remaining households to Voice Link.

"If you're one of the few people on there, and Voice Link seems to fit you, why not?" Maguire asks.

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Peter Svensson can be reached at http://twitter.com/petersvensson

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