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

July 23, 2013 08:01 AM ET

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.

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