TURN Demands Halt To Verizon Cord-Cutting, Doesn’t Want Customers Put At Risk
Verizon has been accused of refusing to fix landline phone service in order to force customers onto Internet packages with voice service that may falter during power outages.
The Utility Reform Network (TURN) filed an emergency motion (PDF) last week with the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) that asked the agency to “order Verizon to repair the service of copper-based landline telephone customers who have requested repair or wish to retain the copper services they were cut off of,” TURN announced. The group accused Verizon of “deliberately neglecting the repair and maintenance of its copper network with the explicit goal of migrating basic telephone service customers who experience service problems.”
Verizon spokesperson Jarryd Gonzales told Ars that these claims are “blatantly false.”
“We have identified certain customers in fiber network areas who have had recurring repair issues over their copper-based service recently or clusters of customers in areas where we have had recurring copper-based infrastructure issues,” Gonzales wrote in an e-mail. “Moving them to our all-fiber network will improve the reliability of their service. When these customers contact us with a repair request, we suggest fiber as a repair option. If the customer agrees, we move their service from our copper to our all-fiber network. There is no charge for this work, and customers will pay the same rate for their service. Most customers recognize and appreciate the increased reliability of fiber and gladly agree to the move to fiber. Few customers across our service area have chosen to stay with copper, and, once on fiber, few ask to return to copper… Nobody is forced to take our services, nor are customers given new services without consent or knowledge.”
Customers who don’t want fiber “can remain on copper and we’ll fix their service issues,” Verizon said. If customers move to fiber and then decide they want to return to copper, “we will return their service to copper.”
Residents opposed to giving up copper-based landline service—plus a Verizon employee—spoke out at a public hearing Tuesday in front of the California Senate’s Energy, Utilities, and Communications Committee. They said Verizon is making wireless service—not fiber—the only option for some customers.
Martina Ortega, who identified herself as a worker in Verizon’s language assistance copper repair center, said, “I have been trying to help a customer who has been out of service since January.” Ortega said she contacted a supervisor who “told me it would be too expensive to repair and that the customer’s only option would be Voice Link,” a wireless Internet service. “To this date the customer has been out of service.”
Ortega said company rules prevented her from informing the customer about the option to complain to the Public Utilities Commission. Ortega said whistleblower protections are important, as she is aware of Verizon’s plan to force customers to migrate to services they do not want.
A man who identified himself as a San Jose resident said, “Voice Link is a very shoddy, grossly inferior phone service that Verizon is trying to force onto its phone customers… Voice Link is about as useful as talking with a can and string.”
Verizon may not have actually deployed Voice Link to anyone in California just yet. “Verizon’s migration program has been expanded nationally to involve migration of copper landline phone customers to a fixed wireless service called Voice Link in areas where FiOS has not been deployed,” TURN said in its complaint. “It is not clear when Voice Link will be offered in California. But the CPUC must be vigilant and ensure that the problems identified in customer complaints about Verizon’s forced migration practices do not make a repeat appearance when Voice Link arrives.” The Communications Workers of America union has been warning that Verizon’s Voice Link is heading to California since at least July.
“Both FiOS and Voice Link rely on the public power system, and, during lengthy power outages, phone service—including access to 911—will cease to operate when the batteries at a customer’s home are depleted,” TURN wrote. FiOS Digital Voice can operate for up to eight hours on backup power, Verizon says. Verizon advertises the same amount of backup time for Voice Link.
An early start on shutting down the phone network
While the Federal Communications Commission is considering proposals to let phone companies stop maintaining older landline infrastructure by 2020, AT&T and Verizon currently have plenty of landline customers. The California incident is reminiscent of a controversy last year in Fire Island in New York. After Hurricane Sandy wiped out infrastructure on much of the island, Verizon sought permission to stop repairing damaged wireline phone networks, hoping to make a wireless product called Voice Link the only option in the most heavily damaged areas.
In Fire Island, “Residents called the wireless service substandard, and [New York Attorney General Eric] Schneiderman said it would deprive customers of the ability to use wireline-dependent services such as fax machines, alarm systems, medical alert devices, and DSL,” Ars wrote at the time. “Battery life was also a concern, especially during blackouts.”
Verizon eventually relented and pledged to bring FiOS, its fiber product, to Fire Island.
In California, TURN said there are “indications in the customer complaints” that calls to Verizon’s repair lines do not always result in a trouble ticket being generated. TURN’s announcement states:
TURN cited customer complaints from Long Beach, Torrance, and Cerritos that accuse Verizon of refusing to fix customers’ copper service.
TURN telecommunications director Regina Costa said “Verizon’s practice of allowing its copper network to deteriorate and then attempting to migrate basic telephone service customers to either FiOS or Voice Link without notice, explanation, or choice is harmful to the public.”
Basic telephone service customers who are forcibly switched lose valued regulatory protections and service quality. Verizon’s FiOS and Voice Link services rely on the power system, and during lengthy power outages, phones—including access to 911—will cease to operate when the customers’ batteries are depleted.
Complaints cited by TURN include one from a customer whose grandmother’s phone line was suspended “due to the fact that she has not upgraded… She is an elderly woman and does not wish to be forced into having something that… she does not require.” Verizon informed them that the woman would be without service if she refused to switch.
Verizon is quick to offer FiOS installation, but requested repairs of copper-based phone service are subject to long delays if they happen at all. One complaint stated “Verizon is threatening that if we don’t switch over to digital and get rid of copper that their response time for fixing any phone problems will go from one to two days to two weeks.”
Verizon issued another statement saying that “Verizon remains focused on providing our customers with the best possible service over the platforms that we have available to them. Where our all-fiber network is available, it provides a reliable platform that can support anything ranging from traditional telephone service to next-generation technology services, depending on the customer’s needs.”
Customers will not lose regulatory protections related to the traditional switched network, Verizon further said. “This will not change a customer’s phone service to VoIP or FiOS,” Verizon said. “Their phone service is still provided by our conventional switched network, not over the Internet. We’re simply changing the infrastructure over which their service is delivered from copper to our more reliable, all-fiber network.”
Despite being connected to the conventional switched network, the fiber-based voice service has the eight-hour power of FiOS Digital Voice, Verizon confirmed.
Verizon’s actions harm the most vulnerable, group says
TURN’s complaint to CPUC said that “As a regulated telephone corporation and carrier of last resort, Verizon is obligated to maintain adequate facilities, including performing repairs necessary to provide basic telephone service of reasonable quality to its customers.”
The state utility commission, TURN said, should investigate whether Verizon’s customer migration practices take advantage of senior citizens, poor people, and those with limited English-speaking skills.
“Verizon misleads or lies to basic phone service customers who request service repair about its attempts to migrate them to a different service. Verizon does not always inform customers that they are being migrated to FiOS,” TURN’s complaint said. “In some instances, Verizon has migrated senior citizens without their consent.”
Verizon should be required to provide data on customer migrations and provide proof that customers migrated to FiOS receive the same voice service at the same price and receive service “subject to the same regulatory oversight as the customer’s previous copper-based service,” TURN said.
Most substantially, TURN argued that “The Commission should issue an order requiring Verizon to: 1) repair the service of copper-based landline telephone service customers who contact the repair center; 2) restore copper-based service to customers who wished to retain it but were migrated to FiOS or Voice Link; and 3) cease the deceptive and misleading marketing practices reported by Verizon customers in their complaints to the Commission.”