Big disconnect: Phone companies retiring landlines

2013-07-09T00:00:00Z Big disconnect: Phone companies retiring landlinesThe Associated Press The Associated Press
July 09, 2013 12:00 am  • 

MANTOLOKING, N.J. - 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 Phone lines are outdated, the company says.

Verizon isn't alone in its thinking. AT&T would like to turn off its network of copper landlines by the end of the decade.

Mantoloking is one of the first places in the country where the old 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 one in four U.S. households will have a copper phone line at the end of this year, according to estimates from industry trade group US Telecom.

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 be reached only 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, who needs the phone line for credit-card transactions..

"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 by cable.

"The real question is not: Are we going to keep copper forever? The real question is: How are we going to handle this transition? Are we going to handle this transition in a way that recognizes that we have vulnerable populations here?"

Harold Feld, advocate for access to communications technologies

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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