Adding Insult to Injury for Sandy Victims: 911 Calls May Not Go Through on New Verizon Phone Service

May 30, 2013

Verizon’s new
revelations about the limits of its Voice Link service in hurricane-damaged Fire Island show how important a consumer-focused framework will be for the
phone network transition.

Months after Hurricane Sandy damaged Verizon’s traditional
copper phone network in Fire Island, NY, Verizon has made it clear that it does
not intend to repair its infrastructure in the recovering community
Instead, Verizon has announced plans to replace its wireline service in Fire
Island and other hurricane-ravaged communities with an untested fixed wireless
service called Voice Link.

Verizon has been eager to tell subscribers that Voice Link
offers “the same 911 support” and “many of the same voice features and functions” as their old landline phones did. In New Jersey, Verizon even sent around a
mailer saying “Our technicians connect Voice Link into the telephone lines in
your home, allowing you to use your home telephones to make and receive calls
just like you did before.”

But Verizon’s frequent public pronouncements that its Voice
Link service is basically the same as its former copper network service is
belied by a filing the New York Public Service Commission required Verizon to
submit last week. In that filing,
Verizon revealed that Voice Link service will be significantly limited compared
to the wireline service Fire Island residents were used to.

Here are some of the changes users may be unhappily
surprised to discover in the new Voice Link service, as specified by Verizon’s
own Terms of Service:

  • Verizon specifically states that users should expect that 911 calls may be blocked by congestion on the network, or subjected
    to slower routing or processing speeds. Even if the 911 failure is caused by
    Verizon’s negligence, Verizon limits its own liability for the ensuing damage.
  • The customer is responsible for maintaining
    to the Voice Link device, in addition to making sure their actual phone
    is powered. The user is responsible for recharging the back-up batteries, and
    after 1 year is responsible for paying to replace the rechargeable battery if
    it malfunctions. Even if the battery is functioning, it will only last for 2.5
    hours of talk time, and 1.5 days if left unused. As Fire Island residents know
    well from their experience after Sandy, the power can stay out for much longer
    than that after a natural disaster.
  • Voice Link will not work with medical alerts or
    other monitoring services.
  • Customers won’t be able to use Voice Link for
    internet access, unlike the DSL offering that used to be available over the
    copper network.
  • Voice Link is not compatible with fax machines,
    DVR services, or credit card machines
    , and may not be compatible with home
    security services
  • Voice Link customers won’t be able to receive
    collect calls. So if, for example, a customer’s friend or family member is
    arrested or imprisoned and needs to collect call their family,
    they won’t be able to reach anyone who uses Voice Link.  
  • Customers must buy a separate international
    calling plan to make international calls, and Voice Link won’t allow customers
    to use calling cards to make international calls.
  • Voice Link doesn’t allow customers to make 500,
    700, 900, 950, 976, 0, 00, 01, 0+, calling card or dial-around calls.
  • Voice Link requires 10-digit dialing, so users
    will need to dial an area code even when making a local call.

The common theme among all of these new limits on Verizon’s Fire Island voice service is that Voice Link’s failings all hit the most
vulnerable the hardest. Users trying to reach 911, customers with no
electricity, sick or elderly patients using medical alerts, subscribers with
families living abroad, and the loved ones of prisoners will all feel the
consequences of Verizon’s experiments the most.

Verizon’s decision to roll out Voice Link this way has in
effect turned the hurricane recovery process into Verizon’s own real-life pilot
program. But an emergency is not a pilot program. This shows just how important
it is that regulators like the Federal Communications Commission step up and
make sure that any pilot programs gathering data about the transition of our
phone network are controlled, transparent, and guarded by strong consumer
protections. It also show the important role that state and local regulators
have to play in this debate—after all, we wouldn’t even know about all of the limitations of Voice Link service if the NY
Public Service Commission hadn’t required Verizon to publicly disclose its
Terms of Service.

The phone network transition must be handled responsibly.
Otherwise, we risk exposing the public to faulty 911 access, unreliable
networks, or decreased functionality when it comes to using a communications
network that should be one the best in the world. This is why we at Public
Knowledge have proposed a framework of Five Fundamental Principles that ensure the phone network will continue to serve the same social needs it
always has.

Image by flickr user New York District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.