AG: Verizon breaking law in effort to end some land line service


Some 136 years after the creation of the first telephone exchange, Verizon is embarked on a long good bye to traditional land line telephone service.

New York’s attorney general today filed an emergency complaint with the Public Service Commission accusing Verizon of illegally trying to replace landline service to summer houses in the Catskills with a cellular-based service called Voice Link.

If Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s claim is true, Verizon is moving in violation of a PSC order issued just weeks ago that barred it from installing Voice Link anyplace outside Fire Island without explicit PSC approval.

Verizon disputes that it’s acting illegally. “The order did not preclude us from offering it as an option in other places,” said company spokesman John Bonomo. The key word in Bonomo’s statement is “option.” The company says customers in the Catskills can stick with copper line service if they’d like.

But there’s no doubt Verizon is acting in line with a statement by company CEO Lowell McAdam, who is quoted in papers Schneiderman’s office filed earlier with the commission as saying Verizon wants to drop its traditional copper wire service in places where it sells FiOS Internet services and in rural places where wires are costly to maintain.

“The vision that I have is  … every place we have FiOS, we are going to kill the copper. We are going to just take it out of service and we are going to move those services onto FiOS … [T]hat is a pot of gold in my view,” McAdam said.

“And then in other areas that are more rural and more sparsely populated, we have got LTE [long term evolution, the successor to wireless 3G] 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.”

Voice Link works like traditional land line service, except instead of running a wire to customers’ homes, Verizon gives them a box that connects over the air with the cellular system. Voice Link is no good for folks wanting fax or data hookups, but it’s fine for those who just want voice service. Verizon has tried out Voice Link elsewhere in the US, and decided it works pretty well. A Verizon union rep in Florida reported on one installation here.

On May 3, the company asked the Public Service Commission for permission to install Voice Link at houses in western Fire Island where landlines were knocked out by Hurricane Sandy.

But the actual wording of its petition would have allowed Verizon to install Voice Link “as its sole service offering” anyplace its wires are “unusable” or “beyond reasonable repair” or where Voice Link is a “reasonable” offering “in light of the geographic location, the availability of competitive facilities to serve those customers or groups of customers, or in light of other criteria acceptable to the Commission.”

Consider the astonishing sweep of the Fire Island request: Verizon, a direct descendant of the original Bell Telephone Company started by Alexander Graham Bell, wanted permission to cease offering a consumer product that has been available for more than 100 years. Yet this history-making demand was hidden away in a document Verizon claimed affected only 2,700 Fire Island homes and businesses.

Schneiderman’s office called out Verizon’s deception. It said it feared “Verizon will rely on this provision to abandon its copper landline network in rural areas across New York.”

Verizon amended its request so that it would only cover Fire Island. The PSC granted the request with a slew of limitations explained in this press release. The PSC’s public file on the topic is here, and the order itself is here.

According to the emergency petition filed today, Communications Workers of America reps told the state that “Verizon has delivered a pallet load of Voice Link devices to its Monticello Installation/Maintenance Center, and has instructed its technicians in that region to provide summer seasonal customers returning to Catskill vacation homes, who have long been received Verizon wireline service, only Voice Link.”

Two summer home owners in the Catskills have also complained, the AG says: “Only by firmly refusing Voice Link were both customers able to keep their wireline service.”

Schneiderman wants the PSC to consider fining Verizon more than $100,000 for violating its order in the Fire Island case.

Here’s a statement issued by Verizon this afternoon:

“Verizon’s VoiceLink is an innovative and proven product that already is providing quality and reliable voice telephone service to residents of Fire Island and other areas.  It is a repair option for our customers who have had continued and lingering difficulties with their copper-based telephone service.  It uses wireless technology which has proven to be resilient, and which millions of people use millions of times each day.”

About Bill Sanderson

I'm a New York-based journalist, and a former reporter at the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire, the Bergen Record in New Jersey, and the New York Post. My work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, and Politico New York. Twitter: @wpsanderson.
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