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

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

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.

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Comments [11]

Fibre Optics from Australia

I just visited this site for the first time, but you can be sure that I will keep visiting by reading your quality blogs about fiber optics. http://www.cablelaying.com.au/

May. 28 2013 12:25 AM
Harry from Trenton from Trenton NJ

Verizon is doing their very best to eliminate as many employees as possible. Lowell McAdam CEO of Verizon did not come from the old Bell System but is from the new breed of American Businessman that really does not care about service to it's customers or cares about it's employees. The FCC and local Public Utility commissions must clamp down on this greedy company as communications are vital to National security in times of crisis.

Mar. 14 2013 07:35 AM
Harry from Trenton from Trenton NJ

Verizon is doing their very best to eliminate as many employees as possible. Lowell McAdam CEO of Verizon did not come from the old Bell System but is from the new breed of American Businessman that really does not care about service to it's customers or cares about it's employees. The FCC and local Public Utility commissions must clamp down on this greedy company as communications are vital to National security in times of crisis.

Mar. 14 2013 07:35 AM
Harry from Trenton from Trenton NJ

Verizon is doing their very best to eliminate as many employees as possible. Lowell McAdam CEO of Verizon did not come from the old Bell System but is from the new breed of American Businessman that really does not care about service to it's customers or cares about it's employees. The FCC and local Public Utility commissions must clamp down on this greedy company as communications are vital to National security in times of crisis.

Mar. 14 2013 07:34 AM
Harry from Trenton from Trenton NJ

Verizon is doing their very best to eliminate as many employees as possible. Lowell McAdam CEO of Verizon did not come from the old Bell System but is from the new breed of American Businessman that really does not care about service to it's customers or cares about it's employees. The FCC and local Public Utility commissions must clamp down on this greedy company as communications are vital to National security in times of crisis.

Mar. 14 2013 07:34 AM
Mike from Jersey from nj

switching from copper to fiber eliminates Verizon's responsibility to provide service when power goes down you as the subscriber become responsible to provide power to your fios network for continued service copper on the otherhand power is supplied by Verizon FIOS NO POWER NO SERVICE Verizon is shifting more and more responsibility on the subscriber when it comes to wireline "SELF INSTALLS SELF REPAIRS" They want to minimize their workforce to a BARE MINIMUM Forcing you to go wireless greater cost less service they have so much money and power somebody needs to stop this run away freight train.

Mar. 14 2013 02:40 AM
Barbara from Hoboken

Excellent story. Thanks! Only on public radio!!!!

Our home copper Verizon service was restored after many post-Sandy weeks, numerous calls to Verizon, and repeated insistence that we would NOT agree to switch to fibre optic.

Recently Verizon called us to announce that it will no longer support copper-wire service in Hoboken. Is that in fact a Verizon prerogative? If so, are they under any obligation to provide service at the same rate we now pay? Does the Public Service Commission or any other entity have any say in this?

Mar. 12 2013 04:40 PM
Louise from Bergen County NJ

During Sandy, our copper wire phone continued in service when fibre optic phones at our children's and elderly mother's went down, and their cell service was limited by their inability to charge their phones. Cell phones can also be overwhelmed by heavy traffic. We are bombarded by Verizon mailings and emails begging us to change to fibre optic, but it has downsides that your story did not address. All-fibre-optic wiring is not something devoutly to be desired.

Mar. 12 2013 04:14 PM
Mel from Staten Island, NY

Verizon had horrible customer service before the Hurricane. I spent months on the phone with them over my own connectivity issues before the Hurricane, and I totally relate to Nicholas Burnham's quote in the article above, “I've spent countless hours calling Verizon till I'm nearly in tears.”

Even the idea of calling Verizon with a non-disaster related problem is enough to make me cry--simply based on previous experiences being shuttled from one service rep to another as I repeated and repeated my story. (A story of many pages, I might add, that was based on dated notations from many previous calls with Verizon)

I've been there, Nicholas & the rest of you still struggling post Hurricane! Strength to you!! I hope you soon find yourself with phone and internet service back to normal.

Mar. 12 2013 03:40 PM
Mark

Verizon customers' woes are not limited to lower Manhattan. Rotting underground cables have resulted in widespread service disruptions in the Carnegie Hall vicinity, including 28 businesses at 200 W. 57 St. Several of those businesses are medical practices, making it difficult for patients to contact thei doctors.

Mar. 12 2013 12:18 PM
Martha from Hoboken

Terrific, if scary story. Thanks for crowdsourcing an outage map. Yet another reason why I am happy to be a sustaining member.

Mar. 12 2013 08:43 AM

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