Residents Forced To Live Without Landlines

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Last fall, Hurricane Sandy damaged homes, buckled boardwalks and ruined much of the infrastructure of the small vacation spot of Fire Island, just off the coast of New York. The storm also destroyed many of the island's copper phone lines. But the island's only traditional phone company has no plans to replace them. Instead, Verizon is offering customers a little white box with an antenna it calls Voice Link.

"It has all the problems of a cellphone system, but none of the advantages," says Pat Briody, who has had a house on Fire Island for 40 years.

Essentially, Voice Link connects home phones to the Verizon Wireless network on the island. It has a traditional-sounding dial tone and 911 service, but that's about it. You can't use Voice Link to access the Internet. Some businesses can't process credit card transactions. Many alarm systems and health monitors won't work with Voice Link. "I don't think there's anyone who will tell you Voice Link is better than the copper wire," says Steve Kunreuther, the treasurer of the Saltaire Yacht Club.

But Fire Island and a few other communities hit hard by Sandy have no other choice, even if residents don't like it.

Verizon insists that for most purposes, Voice Link is equivalent to a traditional land line. "I really take exception with the fact that some people think that Voice Link is an inferior product," says Tom Maguire, Verizon's senior vice president for national operations support. Besides, most calls on the island already come from cellphones anyway, Maguire says, just like in the rest of the country.

For nearly a century, the government has promoted universal access: the idea that anyone should be able to get a reliable home phone connection at a reasonable cost. But phone customers have been ditching traditional phone service. Some now get their home phone from the cable company. Others have gone completely wireless. Verizon has seen a 67 percent drop in the number of customers using copper landlines since 2000.

Regulators have to decide whether universal access still matters. Another question, asks Harold Feld, is, "Do we not care anymore?" Feld is the senior vice president of the consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge.

"Is this something where the phone service of the future is going to be great where you can get it and great where you can afford it," he says, "but it's not going to be a public utility anymore, it's not going to be protected anymore, so you better hope you live someplace where it works right?"

Traditional phone companies like Verizon are still required to offer universal phone service in most places where they operate. Their competitors, like cable companies, are not, says Feld.

"Verizon and AT&T have been saying, 'Well look, it's not fair. We're no longer monopolies anymore. We can't subsidize the poor areas with the rich areas so we want a change,' " Feld says.

So, in a sense, Voice Link is a kind of compromise. It's the phone company saying: We'll give you a phone line, but one that's cheaper for us to operate.

From now on, when copper lines have problems, or if fiber optic lines aren't available, Verizon says it's going to promote Voice Link as a customer's best option. Each customer who switches to Voice Link saves the company about $600 a year.

It's up to regulators to decide whether that's a fair trade, and they're watching Fire Island as a test case. State regulators and the Federal Communications Commission are accepting public comments on the matter.

And they're getting an earful. Summer resident Connie Lawler told NPR she was distraught over the loss of her copper wires.

"If you can help us, you'll be our guardian angel," she said.

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