Verizon’s plans to eliminate landline service permanently for a few hundred residents on New York’s Fire Island may be a preview of how hurricanes will lead to the erosion of the country’s phone system.
Verizon Communications (VZ) has asked for permission to offer a wireless service to the western end of the island, instead of replacing the copper wires that were damaged during Hurricane Sandy. Landlines, of course, are already an endangered species. More than one-third of Americans rely solely on wireless already, according to the Federal Communications Commission. But cutting the cord is different from having it cut for you, and Verizon’s plans have drawn local and national criticism. The plan is on hold as the Public Service Commission, a state regulator, considers the request.
But this goes beyond one beach community. There are plenty of places where Verizon and AT&T (T) would rather not replace copper wiring nor lay fiber optic cable to replace it. Instead, they’d rather connect people over the airwaves. This could be the future of phone service for people who live in parts of the country that are less profitable to serve. Verizon isn’t simply asking for a post-Sandy reprieve; it’s asking for permission to stop providing landlines in areas where it won’t make money doing so.
Other than the fact that it doesn’t require expensive infrastructure, the wireless service Verizon is offering on Fire Island, called Voice Link, falls short. It can’t support broadband Internet, fax machines, some medical devices, or alarm systems. It also requires power to operate, which could be a major shortcoming during future storms. Verizon says that people on Fire Island can use other wireless services to supplement Voice Link, while acknowledging that this means higher prices. It dismisses concerns about battery life.
Eric Schneiderman, New York’s attorney general, is not persuaded. He says Verizon is shirking the responsibility it agreed to when it was granted a local monopoly. “It is clear that Verizon is leveraging the storm damage from Sandy as part of its long-term strategy to abandon its copper networks,” he wrote in a letter to the Public Service Commission.
Tom Maguire, Verizon’s senior vice president of national operations support, doesn’t necessarily disagree. He says that most of the company’s voice traffic on Fire Island already comes from wireless networks, a trend that is mirrored pretty much everywhere else. When asked whether Verizon could estimate the proportion of its customers that would eventually lose access to wired phone service, he responded: “I think the more appropriate question is, in 20 years, will anyone care?”
It’s certainly true: Most of Verizon’s customers will have access to the company’s new fiber optic network and, therefore, landlines. But as Schneiderman points out, phone companies are a kind of public utility. They have been given subsidies to provide a public service, even when it’s not profitable to do so.