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Public has longer to comment on proposed changes to Verizon land lines

The State Public Service Commission is extending a  public comment period on whether it’s a good idea for Verizon to stop providing land line service  to some customers and supply a wireless telephone connection instead.

Verizon so far is only replacing the land lines with a wireless alternative to homes with copper lines severely damaged by Super Storm Sandy on Fire Island, off of Long Island. But it is seeking permission from the state’s Public Service Commission to expand the wireless option, known as Voice Link, to other customers if the copper land lines are in disrepair and it makes sense not to replace them.

Opponents worry the move opens the door to the phone company’s abdication of land lines in other regions of the state.

Bill Ferris, with AARP says it would be premature to allow a switch. The group has asked the PSC to conduct a more thorough investigation.

“Is Voice Link a good alternative to land lines?” Ferris asked. “At this point we don’t think it is.”

According to a report given by Verizon’s director of telecommunications at a PSC meeting in May, Voice Link  would need electrical current in order to operate. Ferris says that could be a problem in the aftermath of major storms like Sandy, Irene and Lee.

“We all know when a storm hits in upstate New York or downstate, the lights go out and they can stay out for a while,” Ferris said. “ Voice Link will not work.”

The option of dialing zero for an operator would no longer exist with voice Link.  And users would also be required to dial a ten digit number, with the area code, even for local calls, instead of the current 7 digit numbers.  

But Ferris says, more importantly, Voice Link will not work for seniors who are dependent on Life Alert devices to notify medical professionals by phone when they fall ill.

“It’s really their communication to the outside world if something happens to them,” Ferris said.

A spokesman for Verizon denies that the request to the Public Service Commission is a back door way to end the company’s responsibility to maintain the land lines. John

Bonomo says worries about the limitations of Voice Link are overblown.

“Some of the critics of our Voice Link service have taken this ‘the sky is falling’ kind of theory,” Bonomo said. “But really nothing is further from the truth.”

Bonomo  says Voice Link, in many cases, can work better and more reliably for customers than deteriorating copper lines.  The company installs a box, around the size of a hardcover book, near the telephone, that connects the line to Verizon’s wireless service, provided through cell phone towers. And he says the average customer won’t notice anything different.

“It has a dial tone, it has the same 911 capabilities,” Bonomo said. “The bill that you receive, the price of the service, is either the same or better than what you are currently paying.”

Bonomo says for now, if voice Link will not work as well as a land line, then the company will not force the customer to switch their service.  He says if someone is in a rural area that has spotty cell phone coverage, then the company would continue to maintain the existing land line. And he says if a person is dependent on a Life Alert system, then they would not have to switch either. He says the current version of Voice Link also is not compatible with ankle bracelets given to convicted criminals sentenced to home confinement.  

AARP’s Ferris says his organization is not against adopting new technology, but they simply want it to work as well as the old system that it’s replacing.

“We think this new technology should be tested before it’s applied throughout  the whole state,” Ferris said.

But the trend , over time, is that the usage of copper land lines is rapidly declining.  Bonomo says customers have been voluntarily dropping the service for years, from 50 million landlines around a decade ago, to just 17 million today.  But he says the copper land line infrastructure is “not going away any time soon”.

The Public Service Commission recently extended a public comment period on whether Verizon should be permitted to offer the wireless telephone connection instead of land lines in some cases.  Comments will be accepted until September 13th.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.