Verizon: Sandy Victims Should Be Customers, Not Guinea Pigs

May 9, 2013 , ,

Verizon wants to
replace copper landlines destroyed by Hurricane Sandy with a new fixed wireless
service called Voice Link. But should victims of natural disaster be guinea
pigs when fundamental basic services are at stake? Especially when it means
losing access to broadband?

Ever since Hurricane Sandy destroyed huge pieces of its
landline network last October, Verizon made
it clear
it did not want to rebuild its traditional copper network. Most
folks assumed that meant replacing damaged copper with fiber. While some
consumers have grumbled
about being upgraded to a more expensive service
, no one doubts fiber to
the home represents a step up – especially on the broadband side. 

But what about those communities where Verizon does not want
to spend the money upgrading to FIOS? Turns out, rather than an upgrade to
fiber, these communities will play guinea pig for Verizon’s new, cheaper, more
limited wireless alternative called “Voice Link.”

Last Friday, Verizon
filed an application
with the State of New York to replace traditional copper
lines destroyed by Sandy on Fire Island with a brand new fixed wireless product
called Voice Link. Whether or not Verizon is right that Voice Link is “just as
good or better” than copper lines, that does not justify making a community
recovering from a natural disaster into test subjects. If Verizon does not want
to replace its copper system, it should offer customers that don’t want a
never-before-deployed fixed wireless system an upgrade to FIOS.

Why Not Copper or

Verizon’s decision to avoid replacing its traditional copper
phone lines is part of the overall
transition of the phone system
and the shut
down of the traditional “Public Switched Telephone Network
” (PSTN). For
Verizon, eliminating copper wires to the home using traditional phone
technology will
save it a great deal of money
. From Verizon’s perspective, it makes no
sense to rebuild an expensive and obsolete traditional copper network. While
Verizon could deploy FIOS to replace copper, FIOS is also expensive to deploy.
That’s why Verizon stopped deploying FIOS to the 10 million customers outside
its existing FIOS footprint.

So if copper is obsolete, but fiber won’t be profitable
enough, what can Verizon do (and still make the kind of profit it expects)?
Verizon’s answer is a new wireless product called Voice Link. Verizon has
started deploying Voice Link on
Fire Island
and in other small
communities hit by Sandy

This Isn’t Your Cell
Phone Kind Of Wireless

Voice Link is a completely new product Verizon has built to
provide a cheap alternative to copper phone lines. It is not the same technology
used in your Verizon Wireless cell phone. It does not give you mobile service,
and you can’t get Internet access with it. As the mayor of one of the towns on
Fire Island put it, “Verizon has given us a dial tone, basically.”

But its not just that DSL
subscribers have lost access to broadband and won’t get it back
. The lucky
citizens of Fire Island get to be the first beta testers for Voice Link’s
first-ever real world deployment.

While Verizon says they have tested it and it works just as
well as a copper line, no one has ever used this product in the real world.
Businesses that relied on Verizon’s copper network are experiencing problems
processing credit card payments and handling other electronic transactions that
relied on the old copper lines. Fax machines may or may not work with the new
technology. Services for the hard of hearing, such as Telecommunications Device
For the Deaf (TDD) or Video Relay Service (VRS), may require new equipment—or may not work at all.

Storm Victims Should
Not Be Guinea Pigs

It’s one thing for Verizon to stop offering copper and offer
fiber services instead. While customers may not like losing their old service
(including the fact that Verizon copper lines are self-powered and fiber is
not), Verizon’s FIOS is a well-established technology. We know how it works and
how to troubleshoot it when it doesn’t. 

But Voice Link remains a great unknown.

No one knows what problems might come up, or how to solve
them if they do. If deaf subscribers have to buy new equipment to have access
to TDD, will Verizon cover the cost? What happens to businesses that can no
longer process credit card payments?

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.

We at Public Knowledge have stressed that the conversion of
telephone system to new technologies needs to rest on Five
Fundamental Principles
. If 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.

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

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.”