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Disaster, meet opportunity: Verizon's plan to push wireless on copper landline customers

Disaster, meet opportunity: Verizon's plan to push wireless on copper landline customers

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Last Friday, Verizon filed a proposal with New York state that would allow it to abandon traditional copper telephone lines in favor of wireless service in select areas. Companies like Verizon and AT&T have been trying to leave these old and costly copper networks behind them, but FCC protections around telecom services have largely prohibited it from happening. Now, Verizon wants New York to approve a measure by May 18th that would allow it and other carriers to offer only wireless phone service under either of two circumstances: if their facilities become substantially damaged, or if wireless service were determined to better serve customers in a specific region. Perhaps opportunistically, Verizon is focusing on network damage caused by Hurricane Sandy as reason for making the change.

"Do you count this as impairment or not?"

The company has already begun to implement the plan in a few communities. Verizon announced that it will not be repairing the damaged copper networks in Fire Island, New York and Mantoloking, New Jersey, as well as some costal towns that surround the latter. Instead, the company is rolling out a fairly new program called Voice Link, which includes an in-home box that connects to Verizon's wireless network, and is said to act almost exactly as traditional phone service would. But Verizon hasn't filed a similar rule proposal with New Jersey, and without such a change passing in either state, the company could be violating certain FCC regulations.

Carriers can't reduce traditional phone services without receiving FCC approval because of the extent that communities rely on them, but in many cases they can replace those services with equivalent or improved offerings. Without the proposal passing, “the legal question becomes, 'do you count this as an impairment or not,'” Harold Feld, senior vice president of Public Knowledge, told The Verge in a phone interview. Because Verizon is treating Voice Link as an equivalent service — if not an upgrade — to existing copper wire phone offerings, the company likely thinks that it sits on the brighter side of the legally gray issue, if it thinks that issue is gray at all.

Even under the current rules, Feld suspects that the FCC won't take action, but it's almost certain that wireless service will be a compromise for some residents. Certain systems that run over traditional lines, such as burglary alarms and DSL internet, won't function over Voice Link. And while Verizon says that the in-home box has a backup power supply with 36 hours of standby battery life or two hours of talk time, it can't continue to operate during an extended blackout the way copper service could. “There are a lot of things that ought to raise concerns," Feld said. "The first is, none of the people in these areas volunteered to be beta testers for this technology.”

Verizon is eager to leave copper behind

Verizon wouldn't go into detail on the laws and regulations that govern the implementation of Voice Link, but a spokesperson maintained to The Verge that the company is following all applicable rules. It believes that the proposal it made in New York speaks to the company's intentions — to provide robust telecom services to the community in Fire Island — but it doesn't clarify whether or not the proposal's acceptance is needed to gain full legal clearance, nor what it could mean for the future.

New York's Public Service Commission hasn't responded to the proposal yet, but if it were to accept it — and Verizon is pushing for them to do so very quickly — it will open up more than just Sandy-related opportunities for the company to leave copper behind. There's little doubt that Verizon will view costly, remote areas as being better served by wireless connectivity, and the company could then begin asking permission to take those communities over to wireless as well.

For now, Feld is curious to see if Voice Link will actually work as seamlessly as Verizon promises, "It ought to worry us that we’re seeing entire communities with a technological choice flipped without any details besides Verizon’s sales fliers."

Verizon's full statement is below:

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Verizon recognized how advances in communications technology could be used to improve the customer experience. Voice Link is an excellent solution to provide reliable voice serve to customers after any kind of weather-related event or emergency situation which otherwise would negatively impact customers served by a traditional copper network infrastructure (e.g. broken poles, downed wires and trees, flooding).

Voice Link is specifically designed to provide many of the same voice features and functions that customers enjoy today with copper-based landline telephone service, including enhanced 911, Caller ID with name, call forwarding and three-way calling.

From a regulatory perspective, Verizon has conducted extensive outreach with industry groups and regulators on both the federal and state levels to discuss this new technology and how it may fit in with current regulations – which in many cases haven’t been updated in decades.

Verizon abides by all rules and regulations – both state and federal – related to the provisioning of voice services and submits filings where it is may be necessary, depending on each state’s regulatory environment. At this point, we’ll let our filings speak for themselves.