After Sandy, A Bumpy Transition from Copper to Fiber Phone Lines

Sandy’s floodwaters severely damaged 95 percent of Verizon’s downtown copper-wire phone network. Shortly after the storm, Verizon announced it would replace copper with fiber-optic cable. But months later, fiber hasn’t reached everyone, and many businesses and residents are still without basic communications services. 

How many Verizon customers are still without phone or internet?

Unlike electrical outages, the number of phone and internet outages is not publicly reported. Last month, a Downtown Alliance study found 94 businesses south of Chambers Street missing phone or internet service (Verizon disputed that finding in an email to WNYC. The company would not say what the total number of Sandy-related outages is.)

WNYC is tracking Sandy-related service interruptions through an outage map (scroll to the bottom).  While far from complete, it gives some idea of the geographic extent of the problem.

How come so many people still have no service?

Verizon says Sandy was an unprecedented disaster. There may be another reason, however, why so many Verizon customers are at their wits’ end: they literally do not count.

In 2010, regulators with New York’s Public Service Commission acknowledged big changes in the way people communicate. Consumers were dropping their old land lines and replacing them with cell phones or phone via cable. The Commission saw this competition as a good thing and concluded that land line phones no longer needed strict oversight. Performance standards, which once applied to 100 percent of Verizon’s residential phone lines, now applied only to “core” customers like the blind and rural subscribers. That’s group makes up about eight percent of the total of residential land line customers.

In a 2012 letter to the PSC, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman wrote that “the Commission is ignoring how promptly the company responds to repair requests from 92% of its customers," and noted service quality declined each year following the rules change.

“The fragile economic condition of many small businesses puts them at risk of financial disaster if they suddenly lose telephone service, and their provider is unable to restore service promptly,” Schneiderman’s letter said.

So how are businesses and individuals coping?

Verizon customers are muddling through in different ways. Some have canceled their service and switched to other providers, though making the switch is isn’t as easy as choosing Pepsi over Coke. The New York Civil Liberties Union spent three months trying to port its phone lines to another carrier.  It finally succeeded at the end of last week.

For those without service, trying to find solutions, they have become frustrated with customer service at Verizon. 

“I've spent countless hours calling Verizon till I'm nearly in tears,” wrote Nicholas Burnham, an East Village customer with no phone or internet at home.

As a substitute, Verizon is offering customers replacement services, such as mobile internet jetpacks for internet subscribers and call forwarding services for phone customers.

When will all of lower Manhattan have fiber?

When Verizon has completed re-wiring the area with fiber. In December, Mayor Bloomberg said in a speech that finishing the job by May was “just not acceptable.”

But Verizon is not committing to a specific date. Verizon executive director Chris Levendos said completing the job is logistically complex and requires gaining access to private properties.

“It’s a terrible incident that our customers have gone through,” Levendos said. “But the silver lining is, what we’re left with from a telecommunications perspective is better than what we had before, by leaps and bounds.”

So what are the pros and cons of fiber optic service?

Fiber optic cable can move data much faster than either coaxial cable or copper lines (Verizon claims downloads of 29.4 Mbps for average downloads on its FiOS network).

Fiber optic is also less susceptible to corrosion when it comes into contact with water.

Verizon has pledged to continue providing reasonably-priced voice service for customers who do not buy data plans. The Public Service Commission will oversee this service.

But switching to fiber may mean further erosion of the decades-old principle of common-carriage, under which the monopoly powers of phone companies were tempered by government regulation.

“[Verizon] can choose which customers to serve, it can decide what to charge them. It can make sure that competitors don’t serve buildings particularly in the business district,” said Susan Crawford, a professor at Benjamin Cardozo School of Law. “And it won’t be subject to any price regulation. Or emergency services reporting. All of that goes out the window when Verizon replaces copper with fiber.”

 

WNYC's outage map is crowdsourced and cannot be considered authoritative. WNYC reconfirms all outages weekly. To report a phone or internet outage to WNYC, email newsroom@wnyc.org, and put "outage" in the subject line. 

Please note this map is no longer being updated. The last update was in early May.