Telecom firms' attempts to cut cords meet resistance

The Washington PostJuly 6, 2013 

FIRE ISLAND, N.Y. -- Battered by Hurricane Sandy, this seaside getaway is being rebuilt with a radically redesigned telephone system -- a glimpse of future technology that many residents say they don't want.

Verizon, the only phone company in town, wants most of the island and its 500 homes to go all-wireless, ending for good its century-old copper wire phone network. That means phone lines buried underground or strung between poles and then stretched into homes will go out of service and be replaced by an experimental wireless service that sends calls between cell towers and home receivers.

Although it carries only voice calls today, the new technology is a harbinger for faster, more capable mobile and Internet services expanding across the nation.

Phone giants Verizon and AT&T have let some of their traditional phone networks atrophy and have put tens of billions of dollars into mobile and high-speed landline Internet services, which generate more revenue. The new communications infrastructure -- which features fiber-optic cables in built-up areas such as Washington, as well as wireless systems in more remote locales -- is billed as a catalyst for economic growth. It has introduced new home functions such as video conferencing, streaming games and hundreds of high-definition television channels over cable networks.

But customers are finding the rapid change unsettling when it comes to a service that had become a reliable, invisible utility. The Verizon system being phased in at Fire Island, called Voice Link, lacks many basic functions of landline phones and may not promise the same reliability or regulatory protections.

Without phone lines, consumers don't have the option of DSL Internet. Gone are faxes. Heart monitors that connect over phone lines to hospitals don't work over wireless, either. And small businesses can't process credit cards or operate cash machines with

out buying entirely new payment systems, as Verizon notes in its New York public filing.

Being on the bleeding edge of high-tech progress, it turns out, is frustrating to many customers here.

"I would pay anything to keep my copper phones," said Fire Island resident Tara McBride, who switched to Verizon's wireless service after the company declined to repair her home phone line. With two teenage children attending school off the island, she fears the service won't be as reliable in bad weather or in times of emergency.

"This is a basic public safety issue and obligation," McBride said. "Seems like they jumped to all these new technologies without providing basic services."

State regulators have temporarily granted Verizon permission to replace copper lines with its voice-only wireless service. The Federal Communications Commission on June 28 launched a review of Verizon's petition to permanently end copper service on the small island.

As the regulatory bodies decide, public interest groups fear consumers will lose key regulatory protections that don't apply to wireless and some broadband Internet technologies.

States, including New York, maintain service and billing protections. Consumers in even the most remote parts of the country are ensured "carrier of last resort" service. Phone companies are often required to accept collect calls. They are obligated to allow low-income homes to block calls they don't want to receive. Residents and consumer advocates say they worry that these protections might not carry over to the wireless service.

"We should want to see this transition because if a company wants to upgrade its technology that is great. But a change in technology should not mean the end of a social contract we've had for 100 years with our communications providers," said Harold Feld, a senior vice president at public interest group Public Knowledge.

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