Lessons From The Fire Island Voice Link Debacle — This Is Still A Public Utility And People Really Do Care.

We now have some preliminary data for how much Fire Island customers love Verizon using them as guinea pigs for untested services such as Voice Link. Turns out – surprise! – they totally hate it.


Actually, “hate” understates the matter. Forcing Fire Island residents to take Voice Link ranks up there with Microsoft Vista as “most loathed involuntary ‘upgrade’ from our monopoly provider.” Reaction has been so terrible that it likely will have ripple effects for the broader question of the whole copper-to-wireless conversion.


Which in some ways is a shame, because Voice Link is not intrinsically a bad idea and is not a bad product in and of itself. But a combination of disregarding the inability to support certain features as “not important” and a failure to properly introduce the product into the community has created a serious backlash on Fire Island.


On the plus side for our summer sitcom series That Darned Voice Link, everyone has the opportunity to learn some valuable life lessons to make things better for next time. This is, after all, the typical time in the story arc when everything hits the fan.  But if you learn the right lessons, scrappy little Voice Link can still have a the Montage of Self-Improvement, regain people’s trust, and be a successful replacement product for grouchy old Uncle Copper so he can finally retire in peace.


But seriously, above all else, do not use disaster victims as guinea pigs for your new product. They totally hate that.


More valuable life lessons on a Very Special Episode of That Darn Voice Link below . . .


First, for the folks like Commissioner Pai who wanted the FCC to just give AT&T a free pass to do whatever they want for pilot programs, I hope you’re taking notes. Had the FCC OKed a “pilot program” where AT&T tried to convert an entire wire center to wireless or IP in the same way Verizon deployed on Fire Island, it would have pissed off huge numbers of people and seriously set back the PSTN conversion process. Remember the backlash when the Post Office tried to cut back on rural postal delivery? That, times ten.


I know everyone in D.C. thinks that traditional telephone is woefully obsolete, but as the Fire Island experience ought to remind everyone paying attention, while “the market” may not care about dumb old reliable familiar copper lines, “people” actually do care. And even if you take their phones away, they will find a way to bitch en mass to their Congress Critters is you piss them off.


Try to keep that in mind when you get the urge to rush in where angels fear to tread, and have a little respect for FCC staff exercising some caution here. The instinct to cover one’s ass is not always a bad thing.




What People Are Saying About Voice Link.


As of today, more than half of the permanent residents of Fire Island have written negative comments on Verizon’s Voice Link deployment. You can read the entire New York Public Service Commission (NY PSC) record here. I’m torn over what looks worse for Verizon: the woman whose real estate business is suffering because she can’t take faxes and whose husband needs a landline so the hospital can monitor his pacemaker, or the guy caring for his hundred year old Mom who must have a landline to reliably reach 9-1-1.


But above all else, consumers filing in the NY PSC Voice Link express their outrage and sense of betrayal. “I am absolutely SHOCKED that Verizon is simply pulling the plug on ALL landline/internet service to this otherwise fully viable and thriving *post-Sandy* community.” (emphasis in original) “Please do not allow Verizon to put us in even more jeopardy by taking away our landline service and forcing us to rely on a half-baked wireless service.” “Fire Islanders shouldn’t be treated as 2nd class citizens.” “Please don’t allow Verizon to cut our lines without offering a suitable option. VOICE LINK DOESNT WORK.” (emphasis in original)


Those did not take long to find. Just about all the comments filed with the NY PSC are negative. And this is sending ripples through the broader NY community. A growing number of comments from people in NY outside Fire Island say “please don’t let Verizon force me to give up my copper here in [wherever] because our wireless service totally sucks and I need my copper.”


Folks interviewed for newspaper coverage (to the extent there is coverage – as usual the 4th Estate is operating for the most part on cruise control) are equally upset that Verizon is basically forcing them to give up a technology they depend on and take a new technology they don’t trust and, most importantly does not do what copper does.


And again, what comes through is the feeling of abandonment and disrespect. “We are an afterthought,” laments Fire Island restaurant owner Jonathan Randazzo to the Washington Post, noting that Verizon repaired copper across the water in Long Island. It does not help that Randazzo is experiencing problems running his business because of Voice Link’s inability to handle credit card transactions reliably.


Sure, as Verizon’s point man for Voice Link Tom Maguire has pointed out, Verizon faces significant challenges redeploying copper due to Fire Island’s geography and concern about rising sea levels. Also it is difficult to justify copper redeployment to Fire Island from a pure business perspective based on expected rate of return given its population (although, under the existing franchise system, the revenue from the Greater New York Area is supposed to subsidize deployments to places like Fire Island).  I also think, having talked at length with Tom Maguire, that he personally believes in Voice Link and believes that he is doing God’s work providing reliable dial tone to communities where copper is a pain in the rear to maintain.


None of that is relevant, however, if people have the technology forced on them and if it does not do the things they rely on copper to do. Bruce Kushnick (who has been a tireless crusader against forced migration to Voice Link) has a list of what traditional copper line does and Voice Link does not over here. And, as the comments to the NYPSC show, people resent being told that Voice Link is an adequate replacement product when it doesn’t do things that copper does. Nor does it help when Verizon or others tell them that too bad for you that you relied on it, and most consumers think wireless is good enough so there must be something wrong with you for caring about this stuff when ‘the market’ doesn’t.

Because, in fact, people have every right to rely in the phone network to do this stuff and keep doing this stuff. Unlike cable or wireless, traditional phone service is a public utility. Which brings me to the next point.


Verizon, You Are A Public Utility, Deal.


The other thing which Verizon and too many other people seem to have trouble grasping is landline phone service is a public utility. People have a very different set of expectations about their traditional landline phone than they do about various possible replacements, like cable or wireless. More to the point, people have the right to have different expectations. It’s the law, and Verizon knew that when it got into this business. That’s part of the public utility deal. You got privileges, but these came with legally enforceable responsibilities and expectations.


I get that Verizon and AT&T want out of the public utility deal. That’s part of what’s at issue in this whole PSTN conversion thing. But part of the public utility deal is you don’t get to unilaterally walk away. We can have a debate about whether the whole ‘public utility’ thing is still viable in a world without guaranteed rate of return and so forth, and whether we start spreading the responsibility around to VOIP and wireless alernatives. But even if we do away with the concept of public utility for voice as part of the PSTN conversion (a huge “if” about which I have very serious concerns), Verizon does not get to write its own exit ticket.


AT&T, to its credit, figured that out awhile ago. That’s why they have been doing the whole petition the FCC and lobbying around the country to get states to eliminate public utility regulation for voice. AT&T understands that it can’t just set the terms of its own exit and tell people ‘this ought to hold you – I’m out of here!’


Nor do people accept that Voice Link was the only way to restore service to Fire Island, as Verizon’s Maguire has argued. If Verizon had announced Voice Link was a temporary patch job until they rebuilt copper or upgraded to fiber, that would be one thing. But that’s not what Verizon is saying. Verizon is saying that even though they managed to build out copper 50 years ago (or whenever they originally built the copper lines), they can’t do it now because it isn’t really cost effective.


Oddly, no community likes being told “we could spend more money on you, but you’re not worth it.” Even if Voice Link actually did all the things that copper did, that would be a tough pill for Fire Island to swallow. But then to tell them “oh, and Voice Link doesn’t support stuff you care about – but don’t worry because very few of our customers ever use these services so it just sucks to be you if you relied on them” almost guaranteed a backlash. And, because Verizon is still a public utility, that backlash actually matters.


As the New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman told the NY PSC, Verizon doesn’t get to discontinue wireline service on Fire Island just to accommodate its business plan. If they don’t like being in the Public Utility business, let them divest the territory to someone else who will serve it as a public utility. But, until then, Verizon, you are in the Public Utility Business. So quit your bitchin’ and deal with it.



Options For Verizon.


Assuming Verizon does not take Schneiderman’s advice and sell off the portions of its territory it doesn’t want to serve with copper, Verizon has two options for handling this botched Voice Link beta test.


First, Verizon can stick to its guns and try to tough it out. It can blame the negative reception of Voice Link to ‘outside agitators’ like Communications Workers of America (CWA has fought against replacing copper with Voice Link, they want copper replaced with fiber). Verizon can blame consumer groups, the press and – dare I say it – accuse yr hmbl obdn’t blogger here of exaggerating the problems. It can find satisfied customers to provide suitable testimonials, point to their significant consumer outreach operations, reassure regulators and the public that this is just unreasonable fear of a new technology that folks will get used to, etc. etc.


Or Verizon can actually admit that the roll out of Voice Link on Fire Island was handled poorly, that disaster victims do not like being involuntary beta testers, and that Voice Link still needs a bunch of improvements if it is going to replace copper.


I’ll assume Verizon is interested in Option #2, learning from its mistakes. In any event, even if Verizon goes with option #1, I expect others paying attention may want to consider what lessons to learn from the Fire Island Voice Link debacle.


Most notably, for companies and regulators that will face situations like Fire Island as hurricane season progresses, here are some valuable lessons.


  1. People Using Copper Still Think What Copper Does Is Important.


The biggest trap Verizon and everyone else in this debate fall into is the “oh, who cares about that futzy old copper anyway? Why, nearly 40% of the market doesn’t even have a landline anymore!” As Verizon’s Tom Maguire told Bloomberg News: “I marvel at the fact that people want to say we are doing something wrong by using the latest and best technology to offer service.”


I have no doubt Maguire believes that. But everyone on Fire Island that wanted to go pure wireless could already have done so. They haven’t. They kept their old copper landlines (even though I would bet most of them also have a cell phone) because they get something out of copper that they don’t get out of wireless.


And, while we haven’t talked about Mantoloking, NJ as much, the same is true even where another wireline provider is in the market. Anyone who wanted to switch to Comcast Voice already could have. It’s not like they don’t know Comcast was there. I’m sure they got flyers every month telling them about what a Comcastic experience they would have if they got Comcast triple play.


The fact that these customers stuck with a traditional copper line despite another landline option shows they get something out of a traditional regulated phone line they don’t get out of an unregulated cable line or a wireless connection. All the blather about ‘the market has chosen’ and ‘the kids these days with all their texting and the Skyping don’t even know what a phone is’ and blah blah blah obscures the fact that millions and millions of people still chose to subscribe to tradition copper landlines because they get something out of it they don’t get elsewhere.


If Verizon, or any other provider, wants to get rid of copper, it needs to figure out what copper gives people that other services don’t. That includes a lot of services that well-connected technology oriented folks like Tom Maguire don’t think are terribly important, but that other people do. You may think faxes are obsolete, but other people depend on them. You may think only a small percentage of the market uses Life Alerts, but that percentage cares about them as if their lives depend on it – because they do. You may think voice quality on wireless is “good enough” because 40% of the market has ‘cut the cord,’ but 60% of the market sticks with a landline because they do not agree with you!!!


Perhaps most importantly, people pushing the PSTN transition need to recognize there is a “long tail” of services from Life Alerts to calling cards to security systems that lots of people use. No one of these may have a lot of customers, but when you add them all up it translates into millions of people depending on copper who will be pissed as Hell if your replacement service does not do the same thing – especially when you are forcing them to migrate rather than giving them an option.


It may not be possible to replicate all of these functionalities. Fiber or wireless will never be self-powered, for example. But where you can’t replicate a function, don’t assume it’s unimportant. Have a transition plan that addresses the problems consumers are likely to have. Remember, for 100 years, the phone has been a public utility and people rely on it. You don’t just pull the rug out from under them and say ‘sorry, it was nice you could have the hospital monitor your pacemaker from home, but we don’t support that anymore. Sucks to be you.’


Or at least, if you are going to treat your customers that way, don’t look surprised when they get pissed off.


2. There is a difference between community engagement and selling people stuff.


Verizon really and truly believes they have done a lot of outreach to the impacted communities. But from what I can determine, they never involved the local community in the planning or genuinely engaged them about their needs. They focused on explaining Verizon’s decision to deploy Voice Link, what Voice Link could do, and why they should not worry about losing copper for Voice Link.

Yes, Verizon made some exceptions for key institutions. They weren’t entirely tone deaf about this. But there is a huge difference between community engagement and selling people stuff.


Verizon was basically selling Fire Island on why Verizon’s business decision to stop offering copper was gonna work out fine. For a successful transition, a phone company needs to actually engage the community and substantively involve the community in the roll out and deployment.


And yeah, I get Fire Island handed Verizon some tough choices with no playbook to see them through. I’m not saying Verizon are idiots, or evil. But I am saying they have a reality on the ground they need to learn from. If this comes up in another community after another hurricane, Verizon needs to engage the community from the beginning of the rebuilding effort, working with the community to assess what the real needs are and whether Voice Link can adequately address them.




3. You Are A Public Utility – Deal With It.


As noted above, Verizon is a public utility. That means accepting that you can’t treat this like an ordinary business decision. And it goes beyond the narrow circle of regulators. The public has an actual stake in the outcome here.


Let me stress that last point because it is vitally important. THE PUBLIC HAS AN ACTUAL REAL INTEREST IN THE OUTCOME HERE. This isn’t just about a publicly traded profit maximizing firm with responsibility to shareholders, etc. Verizon, to use the quaint and out-of-fashion term, “is affected with the public interest.”


Traditional voice service provides critical infrastructure. We have told people for 100 years “you can rely on this. This service is so important and so crucial to our lives and our economy as a nation that you don’t just get to act like another business. The fact that other technologies and companies get to play by different rules does not change the fact that – for now at least – you are still a public utility that operates in ‘the public convenience and necessity.’


It is fashionable in Washington and in state legislatures to sneer at the very notion of public utility and the operation of any business in the public interest. Libertarians rail against it as an invidious form of New Deal Socialism that ought to go the way of the Glass-Stegall Act and other New Deal regulations. Free Market think tanks deride public utility regulation as a left-over from the regulated monopoly days that holds back regulation. And with so little actual regulation left, it has become easy to forget that plain old telephone service, POTS, remains a regulated public utility.


Until you mess with it. Then people remember and get pissed.


And that, perhaps is the biggest lesson of Fire Island for all of us. All that public utility stuff still matters. Because while the tehnology changes, the social needs and goals do not. If we are going to rewrite the hundred-year old deal with our communications networks, then it is going to be a mutual negotiation between the public and providers – not something where providers tell us “this ought to be good enough” and expect people to take it.


Stay tuned . . . .