Overview

In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, many Fire Island residents were left without land line telephone service, cut-off from the main land and emergency services. Nearly a year later the situation is virtually unchanged. Verizon has decided not to restore service and instead transition residents from traditional copper-based landline onto an inferior and untested wireless product called Voice Link. The trend is not isolated to Fire Island. Large telecommunications firms across the country are seeking permission from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to eliminate long-standing universal service and consumer protection rules. Yet big telecom is not content to merely wait. As the FCC deliberates, the telecommunications lobby is working state by state to deregulate the industry and deny consumers in rural, storm-prone, or other expensive-to-serve areas essential land line service despite public protest. Fundamentally, it does not matter what material a telephone call travels over � what matters is that the customer can reliably complete the call and that it's affordable. Yet these companies are threatening to make access to quality service subservient to company profits, and put millions of Americans at great peril. Due to advances in technology and changing markets, private providers like AT&T and Verizon have an interest in eliminating traditional copper based networks that provided millions with reliable plain old telephone service. On a technical level, AT&T and Verizon have a reasonable argument. The old copper infrastructure is expensive to maintain, there are few remaining engineers who are expert in it, and finding replacement parts is hard. The goal is to move away from copper networks to other forms of connectivity. But that transition shouldn't result in uncertainty and unreliable service. Experience shows that Voice Link is no solution. It uses cellular connectivity and is therefore prone to poor reception and the vagaries of network congestion, meaning that in an emergency there's no guarantee a 911 call will be completed. At a recent town hall Common Cause/New York hosted on Fire Island, seniors voiced concern that Voice Link cannot carry medical alerts, or receive collect calls in the event that a relative or friend needs help. It is incompatible with internet access, fax machines, many credit card machines, and certain security systems - points of concern raised by small business owners in particular. Moreover, in addition to making sure the phone is powered, the user has to recharge the back-up batteries, and pay to replace the rechargeable battery if it fails after the first year. But even if the battery is functioning, it's limited, only providing 2.5 hours of talk time, and a day and a half of stand-by. Victims of Sandy and other natural disasters point out it isn't unusual for power to be out a week or more before being restored. And, as one mother forcefully pointed out, 9 year olds shouldn't have to change batteries in order to call 911 in an emergency. Verizon declined to seek FCC permission before refusing to restore comprehensive service to victims of Sandy and instead used Fire Island as a sort of pilot program for its inferior product. Verizon apparently prefers to apologize after the fact than ask permission. Consumers are not so forgiving, turning out in droves at the town hall we sponsored in Ocean Beach to register their ire at being denied basic services. As one resident referring to Voice Link pointed out to sustained applause, "No one asked us to join this grand experiment and I think it's time to declare that this grand experiment is one grand failure." Another alluded to Verizon's multi-billion dollar bottom line when she declared, "When we're looking at the public safety of my family and my community, I think you could take a little cut in your profits." Fortunately, Verizon is still subject to the Public Service Commission in New York State which held a hearing on Fire Island last week-end, attended by nearly 200 angry residents. But just last year, New York advocates managed to defeat a bill to deregulate consumer protections and allow Verizon to transfer many upstate residents in rural areas over to Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP).. Other states are waging similar battles against deregulation. Colorado nearly passed legislation which would have jeopardized the connectivity of residents hit by wildfires. Fortunately, in Connecticut, a broad coalition was successful in quashing legislative efforts to deregulate the industry. Had it not done so, it's doubtful AT&T would have voluntarily rebuilt in expensive-to-serve parts of Connecticut. All told, 20 or so states have partially or totally deregulated voice services. Technological change is not an argument for deregulation. As Fire Islanders have learned the hard way, if anything, we need strong consumer-oriented leadership from our regulators in Washington and in the states more than ever. Otherwise we'll just see more Fire Islands across the country.

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