As regular readers know, Verizon and I have had considerable differences about Verizon’s plan to replace the copper phone network on Fire Island destroyed by Superstorm Sandy. Today, Verizon acknowledged that customers do not find Voice Link an adequate substitute for traditional copper-based phone and DSL. Verizon will deploy FIOS to Fire island by next Memorial Day, offering voice and broadband (but not TV — everyone on Fire Island already has satellite and offering cable programming would seriously drive up the cost). Verizon will continue to offer Voice Link as a less expansive alternative for those who want it.
I’m pleased that Verizon has stepped up and recognized that customers just did not regard Voice Link as a substitute service for a traditional copper line — no matter how much Verizon at first tried to tell them otherwise. I’m also pleased because this is exactly what I asked Verizon to do back in May — replace copper with FIOS and offer Voice Link as a cheaper alternative to those who don’t want to upgrade to fiber. Which leads to the first important lesson from this: Always Listen To Harold — it will make your life ever so much easier and save us all so much needless wasted time and effort.
In the category of lessons that might actually stick, however, I will note once again how critically important having a state commission providing oversight and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) providing oversight proved to be. Without these important public forums to provide a focus for these complaints, and without the threat of regulatory backlash, no one would have any reason to believe that customers were unhappy and Verizon could have simply forced them to take whatever it wanted to provide. Instead, people stood up for themselves and forced Verizon to respond.
As we finish the series finale of the summer sitcom That Darned Voice Link, I reflect below on how we all learn some very important lessons . . .
From the time Verizon filed its application with the NYPSC to landline service on Fire Island with Voice Link back in May, I expressed grave concerns with forcing storm victims to take an unproven technology in place of the traditional copper-line phone and DSL broadband they had before Sandy struck. Worse, Verizon warned Voice Link callers might not reliably reach 9-1-1, that fax machines, medical devices, and security systems might not work with Voice Link, and that customers would have to switch to much higher-priced mobile broadband plans to keep their Internet access.
Pointing to our Five Fundamental Principles that we at PK think should guide the transition of the phone network, I wrote at the time:
Verizon should not use Sandy victims as guinea pigs for its new technology.
I can sympathize with Verizon not wanting to invest money in copper lines it hopes to replace anyway, but Verizon does have an alternative. It can extend its FIOS build out to these communities and offer Voice Link as a cheap alternative on a voluntary basis. This lets customers decide if they want to be Beta testers or pay for an upgrade. There will still be problems for some (fiber is not compatible with every old technology either), but the possible compatibility problems for customers moving from copper to FIOS are well understood and handled on a routine basis by Verizon’s customer service.
If the principle of consumer protection means anything, it surely protects victims of natural disaster from being forced to switch to untested alternatives with no safeguards or protections. Sandy victims deserve the choice of upgrading to fiber rather than being guinea pigs for Verizon’s new Voice Link.
Its important to acknowledge that without the NY State Public Service Commission (NYPSC) and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) providing regulatory oversight, nothing would have stopped Verizon from rolling out whatever service they thought “good enough” for a local community with no other provider. The hundreds of complaints by customers and others before these agencies, and accompanying press attention, forced Verizon to acknowledge that Voice Link simply does not substitute for a landline.
At the same time, I want to applaud Verizon for stepping up and acknowledging the reality rather than trying to fight it out to the bitter end. Confronted with a growing chorus of angry customers and possible regulatory pushback, Verizon did the right thing and agreed to bring FIOS to Fire Island. Yes, this was also the smart thing of cutting its losses once the situation totally blew up on it. But remember: “Policy is not about getting people to do the right thing for the right reason, policy is about getting people to do the right thing for their own reason.”
There are still a number of loose ends that need to be addressed and lessons to learn. For one thing, Verizon hasn’t said what it intends to do about Mantaloking, NJ. True, Mantaloking has a wireline provider in the form of Comcast, but Comcast is a Title I VOIP provider. Whether the state of New Jersey, and the FCC, consider that enough of a replacement is still an important policy question.
Most importantly, the FCC still needs to provide guidance to carriers on their responsibilities when a natural disaster destroys their existing copper network. Much of the expense and confusion around this process could have been avoided if Verizon had a clear understanding of what the law required. Public Knowledge, joined by 18 other public interest organizations, filed a letter with the FCC in July asking the FCC to start a proceeding to provide this guidance, so that all carriers – and more importantly, all Americans – know what to expect when rebuilding their communities.
Americans rebuilding their communities have a right to expect a communications network as good, or better, than what they had before they lost everything in a disaster. I’m glad Verizon has agreed to acknowledge that responsibility, and that they will step up and do what needs to be done. I’m glad that the NY PSC and the FCC stepped up and met their responsibilities to force Verizon to put the public interest ahead of profits. But most of all, I’m glad the people of Fire Island and elsewhere stepped up to make their voices heard.
Stay tuned . . . .
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