Victims of Sandy are still recovering from the killer storm that ripped through the east coast last year. Two places hardest hit by the "Frankenstorm" were Fire Island, New York and the Barrier Island in New Jersey. In addition to homes and property, residents lost phone and Internet communications when telephone wires went down. They are still waiting to be reconnected.
Our readers know about the huge fight that has embroiled consumer advocates and the leading telephone providers in the past few years. AT&T and Verizon seek deregulation to escape the "carrier of last resort" obligation that requires maintenance of traditional copper lines for telephone service. AT&T and Verizon want to shed that responsibility in favor of wireless service that is less expensive to maintain, even though it does not support the range of uses today's copper networks do.
Verizon is the incumbent telephone provider in Fire Island and Barrier Island but decided it will not repair damaged lines. It wants to instead deploy its inferior Voice Link wireless service on the island.
The Voice Link technology basically attaches to your house and uses Verizon's cellular network to connect the telephones in your home. Homeowners can continue to use their home phones, but the quality tends to be worse than on a proper wired telephone network.
Under federal law, telephone providers are obligated to replace or repair downed copper lines unless they substitute with a "line improvement," such as fiber-optic lines. Voice Link cannot be described as a "line improvement" - the only benefit it provides is that it costs Verizon less to build and maintain.
Jodie Griffin from Public Knowledge recently pointed out some of the many shortcomings of Voice Link, as revealed on Verizon's own Terms of Service. The people most harmed by this scaled back service include the people who, in one way or another, are most vulnerable. Harold Feld, also from Public Knowledge, addressed what he sees as the most critical changes and who those changes most affect:
1. Voice Link will not allow you to receive collect calls, use calling card minutes or other forms of cheap long-distance provider, and requires you to have a separate international plan to make international calls.
Who gets hurt most. Immigrant communities, anyone with a loved one incarcerated or who otherwise needs to make a collect call. Since Voice Link also does not support any data plan, anyone who used to subscribe to VZ DSL and depended on Skype or other VOIP product is equally out of luck. Again, given the tremendous use of Skype by immigrant communities to call relatives back in their country of origin, this hits them particularly hard.
2. Voice Link will not work with life alert systems or security alarm systems.
Who gets hurt. The elderly trying to maintain independence. Anyone with a burglar alarm or fire alarm system that does not have independent wireless connections.
3. Voice Link will not work with DVRs or Fax machines.
Who gets hurt. Any consumer that owned this kind of equipment and stuck with Verizon because they wanted to keep using it.
4. Voice Link will not work with credit card machines or other electronic payment processing.
Who gets hurt. Small businesses, especially when combined with losing their fax service to take orders by fax.
5. 9-1-1 calls may fail due to congestion on network or for other reasons, including Verizon negligence in routing the call.
Who gets hurt. Well, any of those elderly whose Life Alert no longer works, for a start.
Voice Link also cannot be used for Internet access, which whittles down an already short list of providers.
Verizon appeared to be circumventing the process until a June 7th request to the FCC. The telecom giant received permission from the New York Public Service Commission (NYPSC), and immediately began nurturing a plan to follow suit in other locations. Harold Feld, from Public Knowledge, wrote about Verizon's long term plans on his Tales of the Sausage Factory blog:
Since the NYPSC gave Verizon permission to deploy Voice Link instead of copper on Fire Island (at least on an interim basis), Verizon has moved full speed ahead to deploy Voice Link in other areas where Sandy destroyed the infrastructure, and is gearing up to deploy Voice Link in Florida to replace copper with Voice Link in something called “Project Thunder,” no doubt in anticipation of the active hurricane season predicted by the National Weather Service at NOAA.
Verizon's action is shifting U.S. communications policy without moving through the proper (however flawed) channels of the FCC, shifting the balance away from the public interest. If the FCC allows Verizon to move forward unilaterally, AT&T will certainly follow suit. In a later post, Feld wrote:
In some ways, this is a little thing impacting only a few communities. In other ways, it is a very big deal. If there is a single moment to point to and say “This is it! This is The Day We Started To Shut Down The Phone Network,” that day is today. With this little routine barely noticed filing for an administrative procedure that impacts a handful of communities.
While the FCC will ask for public comment on Verizon's application, we should contact them now to express our concern about this situation. The public deserves a policy and a process for replacement of old copper lines. That policy needs to include improved service - not a more limited communications mechanism - and needs to be in place now rather than during natural disaster recovery.