New York state regulators have given Verizon provisional permission to consider its wireless Voice Link boxes as stand-ins for regular phone service. Verizon technicians install the 4-inch square boxes with protruding antennas in homes and connect them to the home phone wiring. The home is then linked to Verizon’s wireless network. When subscribers lift their phone handsets, they hear a dial tone. But the box doesn’t work with remote medical monitoring devices, home alarm systems or faxes. It can’t accept collect calls or connect callers with an operator when they dial 0. It also can’t be used with dial-up modems, credit-card machines or international calling cards.
Post’s house in Mantoloking was built 83 years ago. His wife estimates it has been connected to a phone line for 80 years. Now, to get his pacemaker checked, he heads once a month to a friend’s home in Bay Head, the next town over, which still has a copper phone line.
Most of his neighbors in Mantoloking have cable phone service from Comcast Corp. that can do most of the things Voice Link can't. The service, for instance, could relay Post’s pacemaker information. But Post just isn’t eager to switch to the cable company. He says he doesn’t trust them. And he’s not alone. Customer perception of cable TV providers has historically been poor, due to service outages and annual price increases, according to surveys for the American Customer Satisfaction Index.
Post’s neighbor, Garret Sayia, is fine with cable.
‘‘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.Continued...