Wireless may replace phone lines in Sandy-ravaged areas of N.Y., N.J.

Carrier says copper replacement isn't feasible for some Fire Island, N.Y., and Mantoloking, N.J., customers; critics complain to FCC, others

Hurricane Sandy devastated coastal areas in New Jersey and New York last October and left some Verizon Communications customers without copper phone lines.

Verizon offered an emerging fixed wireless technology called Voice Link to those customers, located mainly in Fire Island, N.Y, and Mantoloking, N.J, in lieu of spending millions of dollars to replace the damaged copper lines with copper or fiber optic cable.

The offer prompted hundreds of customers to send complaints that continue to be received by the Federal Communications Commission, the New York Public Service Commission and the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities.

Their chief complaints are that Voice Link provides voice connections, but not data for Internet via DSL over copper as before, doesn't offer fax services and won't work with some alarm systems, including some wearable alarms used by the disabled or elderly.

Customers who lost copper and get Voice Link must consider setting up data services with a cable or satellite provider, or perhaps using a wireless phone as a Wi-Fi access point with a wireless carrier, probably Verizon Wireless.

Voice Link can connect to sets of phones in a home or business with a small 4-in. x 4-in. x 1-in. box that uses an antenna to wirelessly access Verizon's CDMA 1xrtt network, sometimes called 2.5 G wireless.

Verizon produced a short video to describe the technology, noting that some customers like the service.

Some opponents of the move see Verizon's response to Hurricane Sandy as a test case on how the FCC and other public agencies will to treat customers nationwide who depend on aging copper-based telephone networks in an era of expanding wireless technologies. The issue today is most relevant in areas where a natural disaster suddenly knocks out copper-based infrastructure, and where replacing the damaged wires with copper or fiber cables is impractical and/or not in the interest of carriers.

Fire Island residents are "alarmed at the request Verizon has presented before the [FCC] and believe that approving this petition will inflict negative consequences on rural and hard-to-serve communities and consumers, including loss of affordable and reliable basic telephone services, which is the only form of communication many remote communities can access..." said Fire Island resident Jim Rosenthal in a letter sent to the FCC. The letter arrived at the FCC offices on July 17.

Public Knowledge, a public interest group, has filed ex parte opinions before the FCC, urging a broader review of how the the agency weighs cases involving carriers such as Verizon that plan to use alternative technologies to replace copper wires damaged in natural disasters.

The FCC left its public comment period open until July 29. The New York commission also has extended its review until the fall.

The FCC could decide without comment to allow Verizon to move ahead with Voice Link in the Sandy-affected areas.

In a blog post, Public Knowledge laid out its case against the Verizon plan in May, saying that the Sandy victims should not be treated like Verizon's "guinea pigs." In a related blog post on July 9, Public Knowledge outlines ways that the FCC could set up and monitor carrier technology upgrades to wireless -- or any other technology -- in coming years.

For its part, Verizon responded head-on to the critics, posting a blog item on July 11 arguing that the carrier has not forced Voice Link on anyone just to to try-out a new product.

Verizon has been the only landline provider in Fire Island for decades.

"Where Sandy wiped out our [copper] facilities, there was no wired home phone service of any kind after the storm and we carefully considered the options that would be most effective in meeting consumers' immediate needs, as well as the long-term needs of the island," said Tom Maguire, senior vice president of national operations support in the Verizon blog post.

In the blog post and in a separate interview with Computerworld, Maguire noted that Voice Link offers enhanced 911 emergency services and uses a rechargeable battery back-up in case of a power outage.

Maguire also said that Voice Link is not being offered to customers getting well-functioning service from copper, including for DSL data. "Overall, our copper network provides excellent service to customers, but for voice-only customers experiencing chronic problems on that network, Voice Link is an excellent option," he said.

Maguire said it doesn't make sense to replace copper with copper or fiber in some areas, especially where further water and wind damage are more likely.

The overwhelming trend nationally is towards using wireless smartphones and tablets, he added, noting that many young customers aren't even using wired services in homes or small businesses, opting instead to go all-wireless.

At Verizon alone, 56 million customers in 12 states were served by copper technologies in 2000. That number has been reduced to about 17 million today, with another 2 million using fiber technologies, Maguire said.

"We're constantly trying to keep copper up and running, but we run into stuff like copper found to be in poor condition ... [it] gets rained on or soaked and corrodes," Maguire said.

He estimated about 535 customers in Fire Island and another 100 in Matoloking will ultimately get Voice Link. In both communities, wireless is now in wide use.

Verizon has estimated that it would cost $5 million, or about $17,000 per customer, to replace the copper lost on the west side of Fire Island, where there are about 300 year-round residents. The area's population swells to many thousands during peak summer tourist season.

At $17,000 per affected customer -- 635 in all -- replacing all the lost copper could cost nearly $11 million. Verizon didn't estimate the costs of installing Voice Link.

Prior to installing Voice Link in Sandy-hit areas, Verizon had been marketing the product in Virginia, Florida and other states where it has customers using copper. About 2,000 customers nationwide use Voice Link today, Maguire said.

"Less than 5% of all our copper customers are candidates for Voice Link, in places where they've had multiple troubles with copper over the years, and don't have the need for FAX or alarm monitoring," Maguire said.

Maguire said that Verizon is constantly upgrading the capabilities of the Voice Link technology. Originally it had no precise E911 service. That capability has been added to Voice Link, along with support for ADT, a major security service.

"In the grand scheme, we might develop data capabilities for Voice Link," Maguire said. "But faxing, is that really important? Nobody faxes any more." Someday, even LTE could be supported, though LTE today is just for data.

Voice Link today also doesn't connect to radio signals sent out from ankle bracelets worn by home detainees. It's an area that Verizon needs to address to help local court systems keep track of people legally detained at their homes, Maguire said.

Verizon and other carriers are constantly evaluating new small cellular technologies that can be used in homes or small businesses to connect to wireless networks instead of using copper or fiber, he added.

Just this week, Nextivity announced it is working with AT&T to provide its Cel-Fi smart signal booster for use on the AT&T wireless network. The Cel-Fi technology is already offered by T-Mobile US.

So far, Cel-Fi technology only works with GSM carriers, whose list doesn't include Verizon Wireless or Sprint. An LTE-only version of Cel-Fi is planned for release early in 2014, and thus could potentially impact Verizon and Sprint.

Cel-Fi doesn't require a DSL connection to the Internet as do femtocell devices, another variety of small wireless technology, according to Werner Sievers, CEO of Nextivity. He said for customers with poor indoor wireless service, the Cel-Fi technology can boost a signal from four to 50 times.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen, or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed . His email address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

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