Verizon Concedes to Build Fire Island a New Fiber Network

Following a "hostile" public meeting over phone service on Fire Island, N.Y., Verizon has agreed to rebuild a fiber network there.

Verizon Communications has changed its position on how best to handle telephone service on Fire Island, the Long Island beach community that was last year ravaged by Superstorm Sandy.

At a time when the major carriers are considering a shift away from the copper-based networks to Internet Protocol-based (IP) solutions, Sandy literally washed away much of the Island's copper infrastructure. Verizon, saying that laying new copper would be too costly, too disruptive to the small island and possibly even moot, as another storm could undo the work, responded with an IP-based solution called Voice Link.

Voice Link plugs into an existing phone jack, uses a customer's same number and comes at a price comparable to landline service. But Fire Island residents have complained that those are the only ways in which Voice Link resembles their old phone service.

Calls are dropped, echo-ey or don't go through, and sometimes 911 can't be reached.

Verizon, which has reiterated a commitment to offer phone service that's as good or better than what residents had before, has conceded.

"Our customers are why we are in business—we rely on them and they rely on us. This is especially true on Fire Island, where we are the only wireline provider and the premier wireless company," Tom Maguire, senior vice president of National Operations Support for Verizon, said in a Sept. 10 blog post.

"It is because of this commitment that we have decided to deploy fiber to the western portion of the island," Maguire continued. "The main driver of this was simply that our customers told us they were interested in a wider set of services beyond voice—services that no other company was willing or able to provide."

On Aug. 24, Fire Island residents gathered for a state Public Service Commission hearing on the issue, during which they voiced more than their desire for a broader solution set. Newsday described the crowd of roughly 175 people, who spent four hours listening to their neighbors offer testimony, as "sometimes hostile."

"We are glad the FCC and the new York Public Service Commission stepped up to make sure this happened, we're glad the community of Fire Island demanded it, and we are even more happy that Verizon admitted their mistake and corrected it," Harold Feld, senior vice president of consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge, said in Sept. 10 statement.

Feld has applauded AT&T for reaching out to the FCC for a dialogue concerning the issue of retiring the nearly decade-old copper networks.

"We hope the FCC will take the lesson of Fire Island to heart that both providers like Verizon and consumers everywhere need certainty when disaster hits," Feld added in his Sept. 10 statement. Feld further urged the FCC to begin a proceeding to "provide guidance" to carriers when they're replacing networks destroyed by disasters.

Verizon's Maguire said the carrier's new fiber network should be completed in time for the summer 2014 tourist season.

A Verizon spokesperson told Bloomberg the decision doesn't apply to areas such as New York State's Catskills and parts of New Jersey where, post Sandy, residents have also been given Voice Link as a copper replacement.