I find myself in familiar terrain. One of the first stories I wrote for Newsday when I became that newspaper’s first consumer reporter was about AT&T. At the time, if you wanted a phone, the only game in the country was Ma Bell. Upstarts were daring to attach what Ma called “foreign” equipment to “their” telephone network.
AT&T fought back, but lost, and my future husband ran a very successful business providing customers with less expensive, better-made phone equipment with capabilities that they really wanted. And the AT&T monopoly ended.
Today, my husband is retired but here I am fighting with one of AT&T’s monopolistic Baby Bells, Verizon, over what we thought was a simple problem: a hum so loud on the copper phone line we’ve had for decades that we couldn’t hear the caller.
But let me tell you the end of this story right away: Verizon is in the process of dismantling the copper system, the plain old telephone service (POTS) that in emergencies is the most reliable communications network yet invented. This network works when the power goes out, not just for hours, but days and weeks. The consumer need have no special equipment, need not plan ahead so they’ll be able to call 911 or reach out to a relative or friend.
Another critical benefit of the copper system is that emergency responders know immediately the address of a caller to 911. How fiber optic service will work in such emergencies is still an open question. Furthermore, most medical alert systems and alarm systems use the copper network.
Yet, Verizon insists that a fiber optic telephone line is an upgrade over the copper service, an argument bought by the New York State Public Service Commission.
But consider this:
· With only fiber optic and cell service you and I will have to plan ahead to be able to communicate in an emergency and will have to spend money to do so. In contrast the copper system has been bought and paid for and requires no individual action to make it work in emergencies.
· Fiber optic lines must have electricity on the customer’s premises to work. If you buy the battery back-up sold by Verizon, that line will work for only 8 hours.
· Cell service does not work everywhere. In my home in Huntington, we have to have a booster to get service. The booster needs electricity.
· In a major emergency, like 9/11, cell phone towers have been overwhelmed with calls. And, your cell phone is not registered to a particular physical address that emergency responders can see.
· Your cell phone has to be kep charged. In an extended outage, what if your street is blocked by downed trees and you can’t get to some community center to plug in?
· If you have a car, and have bought a car charger (you’ll spend $7 or so for one that plugs into your cigarette lighter), you could charge your cell phone that way. But what about people who don’t have a car?
Yes, these are worst case scenarios, but isn't planning for the worst what must be done?
The point is that Verizon is pushing responsibility for emergency communications on to each of us instead of maintaining a regulated system that provides protection to us without our having to think about it.
All of this is why we had kept our original copper line, with the phone # everyone knew for us, secure in the knowledge that it would work after a hurricane hit and we lost electricity for a week and more, which has happened several times.
POTS service works because copper wire conducts electricity and every customer is connected by a loop to and from the phone company’s central office. When the power goes off, batteries at the central office send power down the line when, and only when, you lift the receiver to make a call.
So we called for service on our POTS line, and got a surprise.
“Can’t fix it,” said the technician. “We need to switch you to a FIOS line.”
Say what? It didn’t take long for me to learn that this was a case not of “can’t” but “won’t.”
Eliminating the copper system is Verizon’s plan, without regard to the fact that it is a crucial part of the telecommunications emergency infrastructure. People who live on Fire Island got a taste of this after Hurricane Sandy when Verizon announced it would not rewire the copper, but instead install Voice Link, a type of wireless network. Public protest stopped that, but Fire Island is now dependent on fiber optics.
The fact is that Verizon has unilaterally decided that its bottom line is more important than public safety or public choice.In 2012, Verizon’s Chief Financial officer, Fran Shammo, told the Oppenheimer Holdings Technology, Internet, and Communications Conference that “we are really proactively going after these copper customers in the FiOS footprint and moving them to FiOS. So if you are a voice copper customer and you call in that (sic) says you are having trouble on your line, when we go out to repair that we are actually moving you to the FiOS product. We are not repairing the copper anymore.”
To add insult to injury, money that customers are paying for copper service, and on which Verizon is earning a tidy profit, is instead being used to build out Verizon’s more profitable fiber and wireless networks. According to a very recent letter from the Communications Workers of America (CWA) to regulators where Verizon operates, “Verizon spends less than one percent of the rate it charges for basic (copper line) phone service and less than half a percent of the rate it charges for a voice/DSL bundled service (also dependent on copper lines) on the upkeep if its copper network.”
The CWA further estimates that Verizon is spending a measly $3.50/year on maintenance for each copper line, and that covers “poles, cables, wire, pedestals, terminals, batteries and other plant and equipment needed to build, maintain, repair and service its copper network.”
A lot of people have eliminated their old copper phone service in favor of cell phones and fiber optics without realizing their vulnerability. This is particularly true of poor people and Hispanics.
But the 8 million people the CWA estimates who still use Verizon's copper service rely on it for medical alert systems, alarm systems, fax machines, card readers, etc.
State regulations require Verizon to make its copper system compatible with all those uses.
No such rules exist for fiber optic lines, so lack of regulation is another powerful incentive for Verizon to eliminate POTS lines. Entities like New York’s Public Service Commission regulate the prices and terms of copper service, but not FIOS or wireless.
Kolling’s story is nearly identical to ones told by Verizon customers from the East Coast to California, where the Utility Reform Network asked regulators last year to take emergency action to stop Verizon from forcing customers off copper service. Besides the ones who spoke with Ars, others have registered their frustrations in official government proceedings. In May, Public Knowledge and 11 other public interest groups asked the FCC to investigate these complaints and consider enforcement actions.
The FCC hasn't taken any action in response, even though it appears that when customers are forced off copper lines and on to fiber optics, they pay new connection fees even though they are being strong-armed to make the change. Complaints to the Illinois Attorney General include reports of customers being told they could not order standalone basic phone service but had to bundle it with another service, like cable TV.
AT&T’s monopoly is gone, but its spawn is still displaying the same, tyrannical behavior May Bell was noted for.
In our case, despite a complaint to the NY State Public Service Commission and other efforts, we were forced to give up our copper phone line. Now we are left to rely on the FIOS phone line installed as part of our TV/Internet package, and our cell phones. We've installed two batteries that will keep us in communication with the world for less than a day, or as long as we can keep our cell phones charged by our cars.
If the worst case scenario befalls us, and one of us needs to call 911, after an extended outage, we'll simply be out of luck.
Before Verizon gets any further with its destruction of the copper line system and putting the public in jeopardy, regulators and our elected officials should hold public hearings so everyone understands what is happening. At the very least, Verizon should be forced to keep up copper service in areas where cell phone coverage is poor or non-existent. ##