Brooklyn Heights

Verizon hangs up on landline customers in Brooklyn

Trump’s FCC reduces consumer protections

September 11, 2018 By Mary Frost Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Numerous complaints about Verizon slow-walking repairs to landlines surfaced in Brooklyn Heights this summer. Consumer watchdogs say it’s part of a nationwide plan to rip out copper landlines and replace them with fiber and wireless. Shown: Verizon workers take a break while repairing damage from a tornado on 69th Street in 2007. Eagle file photo by Odelia-Bitton

If you’re a Verizon customer who uses a traditional landline in your home or business, you may soon be facing an unpleasant surprise.

Over the summer in Brooklyn Heights, numerous customers, with no warning, discovered their phones no longer had a dial tone.

Kevin Carberry, an independent real estate broker specializing in Brooklyn Heights brownstones, co-ops and condos, told the Brooklyn Eagle that the phones at the six work stations in his home office on Columbia Heights were recently shut off with no warning.

“I noticed I was getting no calls on my business line and when I checked, the line was dead,” he said. When he got in touch with Verizon, “I was informed that my service was out and my voicemail was not activated.” Verizon told him that there had been a major interruption to a trunk line and repairs would take 3 to 6 months.

Carberry said Verizon provided him with a “wireless gizmo” [Voice Link, which connects to a cell phone tower] that would answer one phone. “I have six stations,” he said, and trying to answer all the calls on one phone is not feasible for him. “I had all the calls forwarded to my cellphone. What a mistake.”

What bothers Carberry the most is Verizon’s “cavalier attitude,” he said. “To be without a business phone for 3 to 6 months with no answering service is outrageous. I complained that their solution is not a solution to my problem. Their fix was to charge me to forward calls to me.” Their solution is not “consumer friendly,” he said.

The Eagle has received complaints from other Brooklyn Heights residents concerning their Verizon landline service outages as well.

Jeffrey Smith, an area activist who checks up on a number of elderly residents, wrote via email on June 29, “Over the last two weeks I have received mounting reports of home phones suddenly becoming inoperative (no dial tone) with little or no warning over a wide area of Brooklyn Heights. When people call Verizon (through an outside or cell phone), they are told that the outage is due to ‘cable problems’ or ‘the installation of new cables.’ Beyond this, they are offered little or no further information.” The residents were told repairs would take roughly two weeks, Smith said.

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Smith called the outage a serious concern because wired landlines are used for home security systems, fire and intrusion alarms and personal emergency notification devices for the disabled and elderly.

“Pendants are used by the hundreds among the elderly and impaired in the general downtown area. This provides the option of living independently. But given a service interruption, especially a prolonged outage, such a situation could spiral into a tragedy,” he said.

When the Eagle reached out to the Brooklyn Heights Association to learn if the organization had received any complaints, Executive Director Peter Bray said their own phone service had been affected.

“The BHA’s DSL line stopped functioning in mid-May and despite endless promises by Verizon to repair it, it is still not in service. Instead, Verizon provided the office with a device that establishes our internet connection through cell phone towers, though it is not 100 percent reliable and there are days when the connection is intermittent,” Bray said.

He added, “The last time I spoke to Verizon, I was told by a representative that Verizon has no intention of repairing our line, which is part of the old copper network. The line will only be restored when the building we are in switches to FIOS, the fiber optic network, which is something we do not control. In the meantime, we have to make do with a band aid approach to our problem.”

Happening Across the Nation

The problem is not limited to Brooklyn Heights or New York City, according to the non-profit Washington, D.C.-based public interest group Public Knowledge.

Across the country, copper lines are being replaced with fiber or wireless networks that use Internet Protocol technology, which can provide faster and better phone service. But new rules adopted by the FCC under the Trump administration do not contain sufficient consumer protections or sufficient outreach to the 49 million customers who are still using landlines, Public Knowledge says.

The technology transition will be a good thing in the long term, Daiquiri Ryan, Policy Fellow at Public Knowledge, told the Eagle. In the meantime, however, Verizon and AT&T “are not taking care of their copper” network. She said the FCC under President Trump “rolled back all the consumer protections the previous administration put in place.”

The Voice Link units customers are given as a replacement “are so unreliable they don’t even consistently call 911,” she said. Landlines, by comparison, continue to work even when the power goes out, and they are compatible with credit card machines, faxes, alarms and medical devices.

“For the disabled and elderly, it’s a huge deal,” she said. The FCC eliminating advance notice requirement could make a big difference “if grandma falls.”

The problem is there’s no competition, Ryan added. “Seventy percent of Americans only have the choice of one or zero landline providers.”

Depending on the carrier, customers with a complaint have only a certain number of days to contact the FCC to oppose their repair or landline replacement, and the average consumer won’t be able to navigate the process, she said. She recommended people affected complain directly to Verizon. “Let them know that you know this is about copper retirement, and know Verizon is trying to push [you] into a higher contract.”

Because of the cost to replace copper with fiber (about $30,000 a mile) consumers will be paying higher costs for the upgraded service, she said. “Verizon is the only provider; they can charge what they want.”

Public Knowledge says the problem can be even worse in rural areas, where service providers like Verizon can virtually abandon their customers, and in places like Fire Island, where Verizon was blocked from abruptly terminating service to the entire island in 2013.

“They just let the [copper wires] rot when they stop working,” she said. Public Knowledge is fighting in the 9th Circuit to “get some of these rules back on the books,” she said.

“Verizon’s tactics are definitely Trumpian,” said one longtime Heights-based business owner, who fears retribution from Verizon.

“I need a fax, I need a hard line,” he added. “It is typically short-sighted and again, Trumpian, to allow the abuse of something like underground cables under public streets … it’s a public trust, for God’s sake.”

A Verizon spokesperson told the Eagle on Tuesday that Verizon would be looking into the cases we reported, and would have no comment until they knew “what’s going on with individual customers.”

Another incentive for Verizon to rip out landlines is the fact that most employees of Verizon’s landline business are unionized, while most wireless operations are not. As landlines disappear, unions slowly lose ground. In Brooklyn, however, wireless workers voted to join Local 1109 in 2014 and won a contract in 2016 after joining landline workers on the 49-day strike against Verizon. According to CWA, the workers fought off “an extremely aggressive anti-union campaign.”

FCC Rule Changes

According to Telecompetitor.com, the FCC adopted rules in November 2017 eliminating certain consumer notice requirements, enabling service providers to discontinue certain low-speed data services that had been grandfathered and eliminating the need for service providers to receive FCC approval before upgrading legacy services.

The FCC is expected to give permission to the phone companies to stop maintaining the old copper networks somewhere around 2020, according to ARsTechnica, “potentially bringing an end to the century-old regulations that guaranteed universal service and other consumer protections.”

In a press release, the commission said the new rules “allow carriers to invest in modern networks rather than devote scarce resources to outmoded legacy services.” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said that carriers such as Verizon could save $40 to $50 per year per home if they were not required to maintain copper infrastructure.

The FCC changes flew under the radar because the public was more focused on the net neutrality fight going on at that time, Ryan said. “Net neutrality is our number one issue — 85 percent of people want net neutrality back on the books. So many FCC protections have been rolled back. It’s been a stressful year and a half.”

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