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December 07, 2016
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Landlines going the way of the dodo?

Undersheriff Eric Chaboty, left, assemblywoman Aileen Gunther and county legislator Gene Benson address reporters on July 10 about the importance of landline communication.
TRR photo by Fritz Mayer

Politicians and emergency workers gathered at the Sullivan County 911 Center on July 10 to sound the alarm about Voice Link, a wireless product being offered to some customers of Verizon. Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther led the charge against Voice Link, and pointed out that it does not work with fax machines, credit card processing devices, medical alert systems and high speed Internet service.

A statement on the Verizon website from Tom Maguire, a senior vice president of the company, says “Outside of a few areas where Sandy destroyed the copper, we will not offer Voice Link to any customer who has existing DSL services or any sort of electronic medical or legal monitoring.”

But Gunther sees it differently. She said, “At the end of the day, this is about Verizon abandoning its landline telephone network in favor of wireless.” She added, “Time and time again, wireless companies like Verizon have shown that they are not interested in investing in the infrastructure necessary to create reliable wireless service in Sullivan County.”

Verizon has been granted temporary permission by the Public Service Commission (PSC) to install Voice Link technology on a portion of Fire Island this summer rather than rebuild the copper-wire network that was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy, and that has prompted protests by some consumers there.

The matter has also prompted attorney general Eric Schniederman to file a statement with the PSC that says, “The commission should not jettison wireline service merely because Verizon business strategy prefers a wireless business plan. Many incumbent local exchange providers continue to provide wireline telephone service to customers both in New York and across the nation. The commission should instead require that Verizon divest those portions of its New York franchise where it is no longer willing to provide wireline service and replace Verizon with another carrier.”

The Maguire statement says, “Where Sandy wiped out our 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.”

In a separate petition filed on June 27, Schniederman wrote that Verizon had shipped a large amount of Voice Link technology to Monticello and was instructing its technicians, when called on to repair a phone, not to repair the old system but instead to install Voice Link. Schneiderman wrote, “Only where a customer forcefully refuses Voice Link will Verizon repair the wire line service.”

In an affidavit, a Monticello resident said that Verizon representatives repeatedly tried to convince him to switch to Voice Link rather than restoring his existing phone service.

The Maguire statement said, “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 for them. Where they declined the Voice Link option, Verizon repaired their copper service.”

Schniederman also wrote that offering the Voice Link outside of Fire Island was illegal.

At the press conference with Gunther, Pete Sikora, the New York State legislative director for Communications Workers of America (CWA), said, “Verizon currently wants to abandon its landline service in areas where it does not offer its fiber optic lines,” such as in Sullivan County and other areas of the Catskills. The biggest problem with this, he said, is a public safety issue, because when cell phones go down, as happened in Hurricane Sandy, landlines still often work and allow people to communicate with each other.

Sikora also said that Verizon could save a great deal of money if it no longer needed to employ technicians to maintain the landlines in rural areas.