Verizon Makes Good on Fire Island

September 10, 2013

After facing massive
customer pushback and sharp regulatory scrutiny on its plan to force Fire
Island residents to take Voice Link as a substitute for the copper network
destroyed by Superstorm Sandy, Verizon agrees to bring FIOS to Fire Island.

Back in May, Verizon announced it would replace the copper
phone network on Fire Island destroyed by Hurricane Sandy with their new “Voice
Link” service. From the beginning,we
expressed grave concerns with forcing storm victims
to take an unproven
technology in place of the traditional copper-line phone and DSL broadband they
had before Sandy struck. Worse, Verizon
warned Voice Link
callers might not reliably reach 9-1-1, that fax
machines, medical devices, and security systems might not work with Voice Link,
and that customers would have to switch to much higher-priced mobile broadband
plans to keep their Internet access.

Pointing to our Five
Fundamental Principles
that we at PK think should guide the transition of
the phone network, I wrote
at the time

Verizon should not use Sandy victims as
guinea pigs for its new technology.

I can sympathize with Verizon not wanting
to invest money in copper lines it hopes to replace anyway, but Verizon does
have an alternative. It can extend its FIOS build out to these communities and
offer Voice Link as a cheap alternative on a voluntary basis.
This lets customers decide if they want to be Beta testers or pay for an
upgrade. There will still be problems for some (fiber is not compatible with
every old technology either), but the possible compatibility problems for
customers moving from copper to FIOS are well understood and handled on a
routine basis by Verizon’s customer service.

the principle of consumer
means anything, it surely protects victims of natural
disaster from being forced to switch to untested alternatives with no
safeguards or protections. Sandy victims deserve the choice of upgrading to
fiber rather than being guinea pigs for Verizon’s new Voice Link.

Today, Verizon acknowledged that
many of its customers do not find Voice Link an acceptable substitute
their pre-Sandy copper landline and DSL. Verizon
has therefore agreed to deploy FIOS Internet and voice service to Fire Island
before Memorial Day next year.
As we asked back in May, Verizon will make
Voice Link available for those customers who want a low cost alternative.
Otherwise, folks have the option to upgrade to fiber.

Its important to acknowledge that without the NY
State Public Service Commission
(NYPSC) and the Federal Communications
Commission (FCC) providing
regulatory oversigh
t, nothing would have stopped Verizon from rolling out
whatever service they thought “good enough” for a local community with no other
provider.  The hundreds of
complaints by customers and others before these agencies, and accompanying
press attention, forced Verizon to acknowledge that Voice Link simply does not
substitute for a landline.

At the same time, I want to applaud Verizon for stepping up
and acknowledging the reality rather than trying to fight it out to the bitter
end. Confronted with growing a chorus of angry customers and possible
regulatory pushback, Verizon did the right thing and agreed to bring FIOS to
Fire Island.

There are still a number of loose ends that need to be
addressed and lessons to learn. Most importantly, the FCC still
needs to provide guidance to carriers on their responsibilities when a natural
disaster destroys their existing copper network
. Much of the expense and
confusion around this process could have been avoided if Verizon had a clear
understanding of what the law required. Public Knowledge, joined by 18 other public
interest organizations, filed
a letter with the FCC
in July asking the FCC to start a proceeding to
provide this guidance, so that all carriers – and more importantly, all
Americans – know what to expect when rebuilding their communities. Additionally, the future of Verizon’s network in other communities is still uncertain. (Mantoloking, Catskills)

Americans rebuilding their communities have a right to
expect a communications network as good, or better, than what they had before
they lost everything in a disaster. I’m glad Verizon has agreed to acknowledge
that responsibility, and that they will step up and do what needs to be done.
I’m glad that the NY PSC and the FCC stepped up and met their responsibilities
to force Verizon to put the public interest ahead of profits. But most of all,
I’m glad the people of Fire Island and elsewhere stepped up to make their
voices heard.

About Harold Feld

Harold Feld is Public Knowledge’s Senior Vice President and author of “The Case for the Digital Platform Act,” (Public Knowledge & Roosevelt Institute 2019) a guide on what government can do to preserve competition and empower individual users in the huge swath of our economy now referred to as “Big Tech.” Former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler described this book as, “[...] a tour de force of the issues raised by the digital economy and internet capitalism.” For more than 20 years, Feld has practiced law at the intersection of technology, broadband, and media policy in both the private sector and in the public interest community. Feld has an undergraduate degree from Princeton University, a law degree from Boston University, and clerked for the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. Feld also writes “Tales of the Sausage Factory,” a progressive blog on media and telecom policy. In 2007, Illinois Senator Dick Durbin praised him and his blog for “[doing] a lot of great work helping people understand how FCC decisions affect people and communities on the ground.”