Verizon brings fiber-optic network to storm-hit Fire Island

September 10, 2013

Verizon Communications said Tuesday it plans to bring fiber-optic Internet service to Fire Island, responding to public pressure to restore reliable telecommunications services after the New York community’s phone lines were destroyed by Hurricane Sandy.

Consumers and some lawmakers criticized the company’s plans to replace damaged copper wires with an experimental wireless service called VoiceLink. Critics said the VoiceLink offered only voice service, leaving homes without Internet connections. Some residents and businesses complained that the quality of calls on the wireless service was spotty and that it was not as reliable as land-line phones, raising questions about whether the system would serve customers in emergency situations.

Verizon has defended the quality of VoiceLink, but said it decided to build out its FiOS fiber-optic network on the barrier island on Long Island’s south shore after months of debate.

“Over the last few months, we’ve had conversation with residents, business owners and other parties and heard that consumers wanted more than just VoiceLink. So we determined our fiber network was a good solution for them,” said Verizon spokesman Richard Young.

Verizon will begin its deployment of FiOS lines this fall and plans to complete installation to homes on the damaged western portion of the island by next summer. VoiceLink will continue to be available.

Verizon’s plans for Fire Island, a vacation community with 200 homes, symbolized a broader national debate on the obligations of telecom companies as more homes cut their traditional phone service. Consumer groups complained that companies such as Verizon were obligated to continue serving homes with basic phone and Internet service over copper wires, arguing that in many rural areas those decades-old lines are the only communications networks available.

Verizon had argued to regulators that it would cost too much to maintain its copper-wire network on Fire Island. AT&T and other telecom firms also have argued to the Federal Communications Commission that it should be able to retire its old phone networks as consumers cut their phone lines and replace them with wireless phones.

“We are glad that Verizon has listened to their customers and recognized that at this point in time, Voice Link is not an acceptable substitute for copper or fiber,” said Harold Feld, senior vice president of consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge. “When communities are struck by a disaster, they should be able to count on communications services that are as good or better than what they had before.”

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Cecilia Kang is a staff writer covering the business of media and entertainment.
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