Sandy Put a Spotlight on Verizon, AT&T Plans to Phase Out Copper

Superstorm Sandy ensured that Verizon's and AT&T's plans to transition away from 100-year-old copper networks won't be little-noticed.

The aftermath of Superstorm Sandy has accelerated a situation that wireless advances have been nudging phone companies toward: the transition of the nation's 100-year copper telephone networks to Internet Protocol-based (IP) systems.

On Nov, 7, 2012, days after Sandy pummeled the coasts of New York, New Jersey and beyond, AT&T filed a petition asking the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to "begin a dialog" about how to address the matter and suggesting a pilot program be put into place.

At the time, Harold Feld, senior vice president of consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge, hailed the AT&T news, which was part of its $22 billion Project Velocity IP plan, as "the single most important development in telecom since passage of the Telecommuncations Act of 1996."

What made the news important, Feld said, was that the laws governing telephone service apply to literally the copper lines, not the concept of telephone service.

Currently, Verizon Wireless has a pilot of sorts already well underway. On Fire Island, a 32-mile stretch of beach towns off Long Island, Sandy destroyed the copper system. Verizon offered customers on Fire Island a quick fix it calls Voice Link—a wireless system that plugs into an existing phone jack, uses a customer's same number and comes at a comparable cost as landline service.

Now, Verizon wants to make Voice Link the permanent solution on Fire Island, where it says repairing the copper network would be costly, very disruptive to the towns and possibly only temporary, as future storms could undo the work.

Customers, however, are livid about Voice Link, complaining of echoes and delays—when there is service. On weekends and holidays, service can be non-existent, complained one Fire Island resident on a long list of complaints on the New York Public Service Commission (NYPSC) Website.

According to the NYPSC, Verizon's Voice Link is also incompatible with medical alert systems and credit car machines, it doesn't allow for DSL, it doesn't allow customers to make certain kinds of calls they could make on wireline phones, and some fax machines and other equipment aren't compatible with it.

Further, calls to 911 "may be subject to network congestion and/or reduced routing or processing speed."

On June 7, Verizon filed documents with the FCC requesting permission to discontinue "certain domestic telecommunications services" in parts of New York and New Jersey.

In May, the FCC invited comment on a series of pilot programs related to transitioning the phone network. And in June, it invited comments on the matter of allowing Verizon to brush from its hands the complicated matter of restoring copper service to the still-damaged shoreline.

Consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge offered the FCC its feedback in a July 8 filing.

"It's hard to think about the Commission's proposed trials without acknowledging that we are already witnessing one carrier in the midst of its own failing 'pilot program' in Fire Island, New York," PK's Feld, said in a July 9 statement.

"The public outrage expressed in the [NYPSC] proceeding on Verizon's Voice Link deployment shows a vivid example of how not to run a pilot program to the FCC," Feld continued. "This is a strong reminder that future pilot programs must be handled responsibly."

PK's filing offers four pieces of advice. One, structure the pilots to gather specific data, rather than treating them as policy-setting processes in and of themselves. Two, make sure the trials are transparent. Three, in designing the trials, collaborate with state and local entities. And four, have a clear way of winding down the trials and—and here the residents of Fire Island will hope the FCC is paying particular attention—"[ensure] that customers can return to their old service if they want."

The deadline to submit comments regarding Verizon's request is July 29.