A Voice Link from Verizon.
Story by Dan Hust
MONTICELLO July 5, 2013 Verizon’s plan to launch a new wireless service nationally has also launched a local controversy over its commitment to its wired services.
In the past week, Verizon, the NYS Attorney General’s Office, the Communications Workers of America (CWA) union, and AARP have sent arguments to the NYS Public Service Commission (PSC) over Verizon’s new Voice Link offering.
As detailed in a story in Tuesday’s Democrat and a variety of media reports including the New York Times Voice Link provides Verizon customers with a home phone system that operates on the cell network, without directly connecting to the company’s copper or fiber-optic landlines.
Lower costs and improved service have been cited as advantages, while concerns have been raised about reliability and usefulness.
But the PSC fight seems to more be over implementation and has been localized by the fact that Voice Link equipment was delivered to Verizon’s Monticello facility and that the AG’s Office found a Monticello resident to provide testimony.
Here’s what Verizon and the CWA, the union that represents Verizon’s lineworkers, had to say about the issue in interviews Wednesday with the Democrat.
“There’s been a lot of misinformation in the press,” said Tom Maguire, Verizon’s senior vice president of National Operations Support and a key part of Voice Link’s development.
For one, he said Verizon is not abandoning its landline services throughout the state, including in Sullivan County.
“I don’t think it’s something people need to be worried about,” he said. “... If we are providing service to people today, our intention is to continue providing service tomorrow.”
But Maguire said a combination of factors including marketplace demands and the company’s responsibility to customers are bringing about a new telecommunications world.
“At the end of the day, we’re going to have a combination of three different networks,” he predicted.
He’s speaking of traditional copper telephone lines, fiber-optic wire (branded as FiOS by Verizon), and wireless.
FiOS is not yet a widespread option in Sullivan County, but wireless coverage has been growing in recent years.
“I don’t think it’s a matter of us removing copper,” Maguire said. “I think it’s more of what’s going to happen in the marketplace.”
He noted that around a decade ago, Verizon had 53 million landline customers, which as of last year had decreased to 19 million.
“Where did all the people go?” he asked, answering that with cable, Internet and wireless companies now offering phone services.
“People have been leaving the copper infrastructure by themselves,” he said. “... Voice Link is our reaction to those changes in the marketplace.”
Down on Fire Island, the PSC is considering Verizon’s desire to make Voice Link the only option due to Superstorm Sandy’s decimation of the wired system and the fact that the majority of Verizon’s calls on that barrier island are already made wirelessly.
As Maguire put it, it doesn’t make sense “to employ a gazillion people to maintain an infrastructure that no one’s using.”
But people in Sullivan County still rely on those copper lines, even if they are more expensive to maintain. So Maguire said his company is only offering Voice Link as an optional replacement.
Being a wireless home phone user himself, he feels customers won’t notice a difference.
“We thought a lot about trying to follow this notion of ‘sameness,’” he said, referring to Voice Link offering the same quality as a landline.
Nevertheless, he did admit that the current generation of Voice Link does not offer data services, meaning that home security, health alert, fax, credit card processing and Internet devices won’t function with it. (He estimated that data services may be offered with the next generation of Voice Link now under development.)
So Verizon customer service reps are trained to determine whether or not a customer could switch to Voice Link or should stay with a copper/fiber connection, he said.
Voice Link is prepared to be launched nationally, but the reason the equipment was seen earlier in Monticello, indicated Maguire, is due to the region’s number of seasonal summer communities.
“Some of the camps up there, the outside infrastructure gets iffy,” he explained, adding that residents of such communities often “are not data-centric.”
Maguire said he doesn’t agree with the AG’s objections, noting that the affidavit from the Monticello resident confirmed that his copper-based phone system was restored the same day he rejected the Voice Link service.
As for employees worried whether they’ll have a job, he acknowledged that the workforce has and may continue to shrink but that new job opportunities will arise as a result of the technological changes.
“I think there will be an evolution,” Maguire said.
CWA’s NYS legislative director, Pete Sikora, views Verizon’s PSC request as a thinly veiled attempt to transfer as many people over to wireless as it can, more for their bottom line than for the benefit of their customers or employees.
“It’s because Verizon wants to abandon its landline network,” he said, pointing to comments made by Verizon’s CEO, Lowell McAdam, last year that strongly indicated the company is eager to dump its copper network wherever it can.
“In other areas that are more rural and more sparsely populated, we have got LTE built that will handle all of those services, and so we are going to cut the copper off there. We are going to do it over wireless,” McAdam was quoted as saying to financial analysts in June of 2012.
Sikora sees that future not as one of innovation but of regression.
“Without landline service, there is no DSL, so the local cable service becomes the monopoly,” he pointed out.
In addition, customers who rely on other forms of data transmission through their phone lines the aforementioned health alert, home security and credit card processing services, for example would be out of luck (until Verizon upsells them on its more expensive 4G data services, he predicted).
“The biggest problem,” Sikora said, “is the public safety problem.”
In the current Voice Link system, if power is lost, a battery backup will last at most two days, and even then, not every cell tower has an emergency generator to remain able to relay calls during outages, he explained.
Should another multi-day disaster like Sandy or Irene hit, “people are not going to be able to communicate with 911, and that’s a scary thought.”
It’s a scary time for the workers he represents, as well.
“They’ve cut the head count in our membership by half over the past decade,” said Sikora, who felt Verizon is too narrowly focused on profit and not on the hard-working employees who have contributed to its success.
Indeed, a switch to wireless has the potential to further cut into the lineworkers’ ranks, Sikora acknowledged.
He characterized Verizon’s attempt to expand Voice Link beyond Fire Island as incompatible with the current PSC rules, a stance the AG’s Office supports.
“Verizon is now violating the law,” Sikora argued, claiming that in some cases, people are feeling pressured into accepting Voice Link by Verizon. “... They’re not actually offering it as an optional service. Customers are being told they realistically won’t get any service if they don’t take Voice Link.”
(Verizon refutes this charge.)
So he’s hoping the PSC will halt further rollout of Voice Link and is urging customers to contact the AG’s Office if offered that service as the only option for their home phones.
He’s also hoping Verizon puts more effort into updating and maintaining its wired network, as Sandy may not be the last devastating storm to hit New York, upstate or downstate.
“[Verizon] doesn’t maintain the network properly,” he charged. “Imagine if nobody had landline service, without backup power, and a disaster struck.”
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The Public Service Commission is accepting comments on Verizon’s Voice Link proposal through September.
For more information and a complete list of documents (updated daily), visit the PSC’s website at www.dps.ny.gov and search for Case 13-C-0197.