Most Americans take reliable communications and internet service for granted, but the basic principle of universal service is under attack. Affordable access isn't a luxury - it's a basic necessity. On the one side, big telecommunications providers want to make billions selling service without any consumer protections attached. This is an issue with national implications, but the front line can be found on Fire Island, NY, a resort community off Long Island.
As part of Common Cause's Media and Democracy Reform Initiative, Common Cause/NY sponsored a town hall on Fire Island last week. We heard from residents and learned firsthand about the impact of Verizon's unilateral decision to stop providing landline service to some Verizon residents after Superstorm Sandy devastated parts of the Island. We got an earful!
A capacity crowd of 160 filled the Ocean Beach Community House on August 13th, joining me, Common Cause/NY Organizer Ian Hoffman, NY State Senator Phil Boyle and Assembly Member Anthony Garbarino to hear from and question 5 Verizon employees. The meeting focused on the future of telecommunications on Fire Island, where many residents face serious challenges getting a reliable dial tone.
Verizon employees were on the hot seat from the get-go. The knowledgeable crowd was armed with facts and figures, and their contact ext messages and emails with Verizon customer service, and photos, to make their case in no uncertain terms that the Voice Link they were now offered was simply not an adequate substitute for the landline and DSL service they had before the storm.
Participants spoke about their concerns regarding safety, because their calls to fire and police were not going through. Many older residents were very upset and fearful because they can't use LifeAlert with Voice Link.
Several mothers of small children spoke passionately about how they need the reliability of traditional landline service for their children to reach them and to be secure in the knowledge that, if they needed emergency help, they would be able to reach 911. Firefighters spoke about not being able to get calls from residents.
Several residents talked about how their businesses were affected by the lack of, or extraordinarily high cost of, internet connection. One resident heatedly pointed out that he had lost substantial revenue because potential renters wouldn't rent a house without reliable broadband internet.
Before the storm, his properties had DSL. Everyone complained that the substitute wireless hotspots were not comparable to DSL. The residents did not accept Verizon's explanations; in fact, many said flat-out that they were not being told the truth and that the Verizon representatives simply didn't know what was happening on the Island.
Speaker after speaker contradicted the Verizon employees' statements, based on firsthand experience. Many demanded to know why Verizon wasn't offering faster and more reliable fiber optic services to replace the landlines.
Numerous residents accused Verizon of denying Fire Islanders reliable service because Voice Link is cheaper than maintaining the landline system or putting in fiber optics. The Verizon employees didn't contradict them.
Verizon has asked both the New York Public Service Commission and the FCC to allow it to substitute Voice Link for copper landline in Fire Island and other locations in New York and New Jersey, claiming that Voice Link is an equivalent service. Experience on Fire Island clearly shows that it isn't, with residents vociferously describing Voice Link as "a failed pilot" and an "experiment that hasn't worked." Yet Verizon persists in its efforts to force customers to give up traditional telephone and DSL for unregulated wireless "substitutes." Today it's New York and New Jersey; where will Verizon try this next? This isn't an isolated incident -- disaster can strike anywhere. From residents of our coastal communities that are threatened by hurricanes, or the western states that are prone to wildfires, or in Great Plains where tornadoes are common, everyone should care about whether, and how, their communities would be rebuilt after a natural disaster.
Our goal in sponsoring the Town Hall was to gather information that will help people understand the real world consequences for ordinary Americans if phone and internet service is no longer regulated. The experiences of the Fire Islanders provide a cautionary tale. They will have an opportunity to inform the NY PSC about their experiences when the Commission holds a hearing on Fire Island this coming Saturday. Common Cause will be there, and at the FCC, to insure that companies like Verizon provide the basic service that Americans have come to expect.
Office: Common Cause New York