Verizon pursues all-wireless phone service in seaside N.Y. town

Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the last name of Tom Maguire, a Verizon senior vice president. This version has been corrected.


(L-R) Resident Michael Strage chats with Verizon field technician Ron Haff, as he repairs a cross box on Fire Island, N.Y., on July 1, 2013. (Yana Paskova/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

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 land-line 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 land-line 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 without 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.

Verizon has argued that it would take too long to repair copper lines on Fire Island, which was hard-hit by Sandy, and that it would be too expensive to maintain both a land-line and a wireless network there.

In November, AT&T petitioned the FCC to reconsider old phone rules that shouldn’t apply to new broadband and mobile technologies. The old federal laws were written in a monopoly era, the company said.

“Already more than 70 percent of residential customers in AT&T’s 22-state region have chosen to use only wireless or Internet-based voice services. This trend is occurring across the entire country and the number of customers abandoning Plain Old Telephone Service (POTS) for Broadband services is increasing every day,” AT&T spokesman Michael Balmoris wrote in an e-mailed statement. “The reality is that the underlying POTS technology is obsolete.”

Verizon is pushing Voice Link as a copper-line replacement in parts of New Jersey and Upstate New York. The company has similar plans later this year for parts of Virginia, although it has not specified where. And where it offers its fiber-based network FiOs, Verizon has aggressively pushed consumers to upgrade from copper.

“Things have been changing in the telecom world since 2000,” said Tom Maguire, a senior vice president at Verizon. “People look at Voice Link and fiber migration and say, ‘You are changing our service.’ But we think the market and customers are changing their habits.”

Four out of 10 American homes used only wireless phones in the second half of 2012, according to a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The all-or-nothing offer worries Jonathan Randazzo, who owns five restaurants and businesses in Fire Island’s Ocean Beach community.

His phone lines intermittently go out of service, but Verizon has declined his request for repairs, he said. His credit card machine stopped working on a recent Saturday evening at his restaurant Landing at Ocean Beach. He hopped from table to table, scribbling credit card numbers and asking for signatures on payment slips he created on a Word document printed out from his computer.

“We got a lot of suspicious looks,” Randazzo said. “I can’t run a business like this, so I’m going to have to change services.”

It angers him that on the mainland, seven miles by ferry, Verizon is repairing copper lines and building fiber broadband networks.

“It’s like we’re an afterthought for Verizon here. We don’t have that many people here so we’re not worth the investment,” he said.

Other changes are roiling neighborhoods in Washington and surrounding suburbs, where Verizon sales representatives are informing longtime customers that their faltering, decades-old copper services require upgrades to fiber.

For Phil Smith of Herndon, sales representatives called three times in April to say the copper lines for his neighbors were degrading. They said he would be required to upgrade to FiOs.

In the District’s Shepherd Park neighborhood, residents expressed online their complaints about Verizon’s aggressive tactics. They discussed taking a complaint to city officials, bemoaned their inability to switch back to copper and said company representatives misled them into thinking the changes were mandatory.

District residents have filed complaints with the city public service commission.

Verizon acknowledges complaints by consumers of aggressive sales tactics but says those complaints are rare.

“If anyone said they felt pressured or didn’t understand, those [problems] have been addressed,” said Tony Lewis, Verizon’s president for the Washington region.

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