Thanks to Jeff Hoel for providing the transcript for the episode 52 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast with Harold Feld. Listen to this episode here.
Lisa: Hello. This is Lisa Gonzalez, from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Welcome to another episode of our Community Broadband Bits Podcast.
In episode 52, we visit once again with Harold Feld, Senior Vice President of Public Knowledge. Harold is well-known for his extensive work on telephone and broadband issues that impact consumers. This time, Chris and Harold talk about events in Fire Island, New York, and Barrier Island, New Jersey. Both communities were hit hard by Hurricane Sandy over six months ago. And both are still waiting for telephone and Internet connections to be restored. Verizon has decided it is not longer interested in offering telephone service via traditional copper wires. The company has filed an application with the FCC to, instead, integrate its inferior VoiceLine service. As Chris and Harold discuss, this situation could determine U.S. communications policy as we move forward. Here are Chris and Harold with the details.
Chris: Welcome to another episode of Community Broadband Bits. Today, we're back with Harold Feld, in DC, with Public Knowledge. Harold, can you remind us, what is -- what Public Knowledge does?
Harold: Thank you. So, Public Knowledge, we're a nonprofit in Washington, DC. We're a digital advocacy group, and believe in everybody's right to access information online in a meaningful way, without gatekeepers or either government or private corporate intermediaries.
Chris: In addition to all of the great resources you have available at publicknowledge.org , you also write a blog that's semi-famous -- it's totally famous in our telecom world -- "Tales From the Sausage Factory." So, I encourage people to check that out. I don't think we noted it last time.
Harold: Yes. Thank you very much.
Chris: So, we wanted to talk about Fire Island. And -- an area that was impacted by Sandy. Can you tell us why this island is suddenly something that's really important to you and me?
Harold: Yes. Well, it's the -- Fire Island is one of the little barrier islands that's, in fact, just off of Long Island, just a little bit outside of New York City. It was devastated by Hurricane Sandy, as was another barrier island in New Jersey, called Mantoloking, which is on the New Jersey barrier island. And, in those cases, the copper wires for Verizon's standard telephone service and their DSL service were totally destroyed. And Verizon has decided that they don't want to replace the copper lines for these places. And, for these communities, for various reasons, they're not going to rebuild the copper. They're going to offer a different product instead.
Chris: OK. So, why is that a big deal?
Harold: Well, it is a big deal because we've never had this before, where the telephone company, which has been a regulated public utility, says, you know what, I just don't want to rebuild my network. Instead, what I want to do is offer you a different product -- in this case, it's a wireless product -- which kinda sorta does the same things -- kinda. There are a bunch of things that it doesn't do. And we're just going to roll that out instead of the traditional copper product, even if you have been relying on the copper product until now. So, this is a very big deal because, for the first time in a hundred years, the copper lines come down and they don't go back up again.
Chris: Right. And just to, I think, really explain what this service -- this "VoiceLink," is what Verizon's calling it -- what it is, they put an antenna in your home, but they're not requiring you to take Verizon cellular phone service. Right? It's ...
Harold: No. Actually, it's very interesting. Because Verizon, the telephone company, is actually buying minutes and airtime from Verizon Wireless, the wireless company. And what Verizon is doing is taking a little box, and finding the place in your house that has the best wireless reception, and putting what they call "the device" -- this little box -- up on the wall. And then they plug your home phone network into it. And what that does is, it means that your home is now on the local Verizon wireless cell network, rather than being plugged into a copper line, back into the Verizon network.
Chris: Why should anyone outside of Fire Island care about this?
Harold: Well, the reason why is because we're in the process of this broader industry transition -- I've talked about that a couple of months ago right here on the podcast -- where we're seeing -- a lot of companies want to take down their copper lines, which are expensive to maintain. They have certain regulatory obligations with regard to reliability, with regard to access by competitors. They're also just expensive to keep up in some places. And many of the wireline companies have said that, ultimately, they would like to get rid of these lines and replace these lines. So, the concern is that with something like VoiceLink, which is a voice-only product. So if you're a DSL subscriber on Fire Island, or on the New Jersey barrier island where they're not rebuilding the copper, you just don't get that data anymore. You don't have a DSL service. It is not compatible with certain things that the phone system traditionally does. So -- because it's basically a cell phone. So, you can't receive collect calls. You can't use long-distance calling cards that give you free minutes either to other countries or, you know, just to other states. You can't use FAX machines with it. It is not 100 percent reliable for getting to 9-1-1, in the way that a copper line is. So -- you have two real issues here. One is that, in some places, we're taking a step backward on broadband. Because if you -- in New Jersey, where Comcast is the cable provider, it's now the only wireline cable provider. On Fire Island, where there is no cable company, there is NO wireline broadband provider. It's now just this capped, more expensive wireless data service. So, we're concerned about that. And we're concerned about those communities that have depended on copper lines because they use things like Life Alert, that work over copper and don't work over wireless. Or small businesses which depend on copper, and need more expensive data packages for -- to replicate that with wireless. And the reason we care for outside of Fire Island and the barrier island of New Jersey is -- the concern is, though, as companies take down their copper lines, is this what the substitute's going to be? Is this the future for not just for the several hundred people who live in these communities but for the ten million people who are in Verizon's copper footprint? Is this the future for people who are in Florida, the Gulf states, where they have copper lines, they don't have any kind of fiber -- where the phone company might say, well, you know what, I just don't feel like rebuilding the copper; let me put in this cheaper wireless product that maybe doesn't do the same thing, that is easier for me to provide.
Chris: I think it's interesting, because we, in watching some of these laws pass that you and I talked about the last time on this show, these carriers of last resort, watching that law be gutted, I think we assumed that we move into a future where, perhaps in Wisconsin or Kansas, we would see a telephone company just move out of exchanges. And now, it seems we're more worried about a natural disaster coming -- a tornado hitting -- and suddenly that town just doesn't get it back. Which is somewhat different. And it's really somewhat upsetting to think that you would have to suffer through an additional sort of man-made disaster, after a community might suffer a major natural disaster.
Harold: Right. That's the concern here. I mean, in New York, where Fire Island is, and in New Jersey, where the New Jersey barrier islands are, the local public service commission still has jurisdiction. They have not totally deregulated. So Verizon, in order to be able to do this, has had to promise to do a lot of things. They had to put in a whole new -- they had to really beef up their cellular networks, so that the VoiceLink stuff would work more reliably. They had to commit to working with the local communities, with the small businesses, to make sure they weren't terribly impacted. And Verizon's been, you know, very careful, now, to say, well, you know, we're not planning to get rid of copper in other communities. We're just looking at this to step in where the network was destroyed and it doesn't make economic sense to rebuild it.
In states that have gotten rid of these laws, where, you know, there is not state enforcement, then nothing stops a phone company -- whether it's Verizon or AT&T or anybody else -- from saying, you know what, that town's just not worth it to us. You know, it costs us a lot of money to build the copper. Why would we want to rebuild it? It's going to be expensive. Let's just not do that. And I think that's very much a concern of ours. We have gone to the Federal Communications Commission and said, hey, look, you know, there's a process by which, you know, the carriers need to ask for permission to discontinue service. Usually that's something of a rubber stamp. But you ought to look at it, and, you know, look at the potential, particularly, for hurricanes this year to destroy a lot of, you know, communities in the Gulf Coast or other places where, you know, networks could be wiped out. The FCC needs to be prepared to be a backstop and tell companies, OK, you know, you need to provide adequate service.
Chris: Right. I think it's a reminder of why we do need local and state regulation. Because it's not just -- it's not redundant, it's overlapping. And those are very different concepts.
So, I want to finish up with a -- you had mentioned something to me previously, in terms of just the insanity of, for instance, in Florida, where the state law limits the ability of communities to build their own networks. And now they're making it very easy for, you know, a Verizon or an AT&T, to exit the market. And so I just want -- I just wanted to put that to you. Um, ...
Harold: Well, absolutely. When you look at something like Fire Island, for example, you know. That's the -- exactly the kind of place where, you know, you would think that it's a very -- it's a small community, but it's a vacation place, where a lot of people -- you know, the population is 300 permanent residents and then about 2 million people visit it during the four months of the tourist season. So that's the kind of place where -- you know, it doesn't make sense for a private company like Verizon, maybe, to spend millions of dollars to build out a network. But for a local community to say, look, we want to be able to attract business and tourists and take care of our needs for the residents who are here. It's actually not that expensive, now, to build some of these fiber networks. Or, you know, some of the other alternative networks. Let the community, if they want to provide service, build the network. I mean, a community -- it may decide, you know, look, you, company, you know, that wants to serve big cites may not think we're worth it. But we think we're worth it. Why not let communities invest in their own network?
Chris: Right. And I think it's something that overlaps with us. Because we often about community networks in a vague way. But a number of these towns are restricted -- a number of towns across the United States are restricted specifically from providing telecommunications services. And so, while some communities -- in Missouri, for instance -- are able to build networks that offer broadband and Internet service, they cannot offer the other services. And so I think this is a reminder that these services are each independent, and communities should have full authority to build any kind of network that they believe is necessary.
Harold: Well, absolutely. I mean, look, you know, the real lesson of this is, it doesn't make any sense to say, here are places these companies don't want to serve -- oh, that's fine, that's a business decision. But here are communities that want to serve themselves, but it would be unfair to let them compete with these companies that don't actually want to serve them. And that just doesn't make any sense. The reality is that the companies that have pushed for these laws to prevent communities from serving themselves have traditionally have been afraid of being embarrassed by what, you know, these communities can offer -- that shows up, you know, these networks. As we're seeing in places like Chattanooga, where, you know, people can get -- or Lafayette, where they can get much better service than they can from the private companies. Or smaller communities that nobody has, until now, really had an interest in serving, except the people who live there, who want to be served.
Chris: Thank you so much, Harold, for coming on. We always like to hear what's happening. I think you have a terrific way of putting these events in context, as we continue to muddle through the transition that, as you said, we're going to go through it regardless of whether we're prepared or not. So let's pay attention and get it right.
Harold: That's exactly right. You know, as I say, I was talking to Verizon folks, and they say, you know, what happened at Fire Island and New Jersey barrier island, you know, that's not our plan for our copper footprint. That just was something that happened before Sandy. Well, you know what, the problem is, I'm sure that before Sandy, that wasn't even their plan for Fire Island. But things happen, and we need to be prepared, and we need to deal with this transition in an intelligent and thoughtful manner, and make sure that we don't take a step backward, in this country, for communities, whether they're, you know, big communities or communities with only a couple hundred people in them, like Fire Island.
Chris: Actually, we were born with this handicap called consciousness, and we need to use it to plan for coming mistakes, or errors, or problems. Right?
Harold: That's exactly right, you know. And having seen it happen once, we shouldn't assume that's a one-off.
Chris: Right. Well, thank you so much. Have a great day, and I will talk to you again soon.
Harold: Great. Thanks very much.
Lisa: For more about this pivotal situation, visit publicknowledge.org , Harold's blog at wetmachine.org , or muninetworks.org . We are also following the story as it plays out.
Please send us your questions and comments. E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org . Our handle on Twitter is @communitynets . This show was released on June 25th, 2013. Thank you to the group, "Eat at Joes," for their self-titled song, licensed using Creative Commons. Thanks for listening.