Verizon: Sandy Victims Should Be Customers, Not Guinea Pigs

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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 Fiber?

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So if copper is obsolete, but fiber won’t be profitable enough, what can Verizon do (and still make the kind of profit it expects)?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 protection 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.

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