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Big disconnect: Telcos abandon copper phone lines

Wednesday - 7/10/2013, 3:44pm  ET

In this Friday, May 31, 2013 photo, Robert Post, 85, talks to The Associated Press about his home, in Mantoloking, N.J., which was flooded during Superstorm Sandy last year. Post has a pacemaker that needs to be checked once a month by phone, but the phone company refuses to restore the area's landlines after they were damaged by the storm. Verizon doesn’t want to replace washed-away lines and waterlogged underground cables because phone lines are outdated, it says. Meanwhile, the company is offering a wireless device that can be plugged into home phones for service, but the system does not work with pacemakers or fax machines. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

PETER SVENSSON
AP Technology Writer

MANTOLOKING, N.J. (AP) -- Robert Post misses his phone line.

Post, 85, has a pacemaker that needs to be checked once a month by phone. But the copper wiring that once connected his home to the rest of the world is gone, and the phone company refuses to restore it.

In October 2012, Superstorm Sandy pushed the sea over Post's neighborhood in Mantoloking, N.J., leaving hundreds of homes wrecked, and one floating in the bay. The homes on this sandy spit of land along the Jersey Shore are being rebuilt, but Verizon doesn't want to replace washed-away lines and waterlogged underground cables. Phone lines are outdated, the company says.

Mantoloking is one of the first places in the country where the traditional phone line is going dead. For now, Verizon, the country's second-largest landline phone company, is taking the lead by replacing phone lines with wireless alternatives. But competitors including AT&T have made it clear they want to follow. It's the beginning of a technological turning point, representing the receding tide of copper-wire landlines that have been used since commercial service began in 1877.

The number of U.S. phone lines peaked at 186 million in 2000. Since then, more than 100 million copper lines have already been disconnected, according to trade group US Telecom. The lines have been supplanted by cellphones and Internet-based phone service offered by way of cable television and fiber optic wiring. Just 1 in 4 U.S. households will have a copper phone line at the end of this year, according to estimates from industry trade group US Telecom. AT&T would like to turn off its network of copper land lines by the end of the decade.

For most people, the phone line's demise will have little impact. But there are pockets of the country where copper lines are still critical for residents. As a result, state regulators and consumer advocates are increasingly concerned about how the transition will unfold.

"The real question is not: Are we going to keep copper forever? The real question is: How are we going to handle this transition?" says Harold Feld, senior vice president of Public Knowledge, a Washington-based group that advocates for public access to the Internet and other communications technologies.

The elderly and people in rural areas, where cell coverage may be poor or nonexistent, will be most affected by disappearing phone lines, Feld says. "Are we going to handle this transition in a way that recognizes that we have vulnerable populations here?"

Verizon says replacing the lines just doesn't make economic sense. When they were originally laid down, the phone was the only two-way telecommunications service available in the home, and the company could look forward to decades of use out of each line. Now, it would cost Verizon hundreds of dollars per home to rewire a neighborhood, but less than a quarter of customers are likely to sign up for phone service and many of those drop it after a year or two.

"If we fixed the copper, there's a good likelihood people wouldn't even use it," says Tom Maguire, Verizon's senior vice president of operations support.

Verizon also wants to get out of rebuilding phone lines on the western end of New York's Fire Island, another sliver of sand that was flooded by Sandy. The island lacks paved roads. It can only be reached by ferry, and its residents are overwhelmingly seasonal. Some of the copper lines still work, but Verizon is no longer maintaining them, to the frustration of restaurant owner Jon Randazzo.

"Really, what they're doing is abandoning us," says Randazzo, 30.

There's no cable service on Fire Island, making it more dependent on Verizon than Mantoloking, where residents can get phone and Internet service from Comcast by cable. The surviving copper phone lines on Fire Island often double as DSL, or digital subscriber line, Internet connections. As a result, Randazzo's restaurant, The Landing at Ocean Beach, lost Verizon Internet service for a weekend last month, leaving it without a way to process credit cards. The line started working again after four days, but he's afraid it will go out again for good.

"I had to have my waiters write down the credit-card number, the expiration number and the CVV (security) code. It took me over three and a half hours to process all my credit cards on Saturday. That's pretty ridiculous," Randazzo says.

Verizon provided service to about 2,700 lines on western Fire Island before the storm. But even then, 80 percent of calls to and from the island were wireless. Now, few of the lines work, but the cellular service is fine.

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