A dispute is raging over the future of US telecoms on the holiday resort of Fire Island, on the south coast of Long Island, just outside New York city.
The phone company Verizon is lobbying the US government for a rule change that would allow them to replace the old copper wire landlines damaged in Hurricane Sandy with a new wireless system for home phones.
But locals say their lives are being put at risk because the new system can’t cope with basic telecom services like fax, DSL or even 911.
I took the ferry to Fire Island, a bicycle only haven in the summer, with hundreds of tourists and found myself sailing into a storm.
“Oh, hi Tory is that you …?”
That’s me on the phone from the top deck of the vessel to Tory Jones, one of the many locals who are up in arms about plans by Verizon, the second biggest US phone company, to abandon their landline telephone service to the island.
Tory says: “It’s because we’re a summer community and they can claim that the Hurricane Sandy took the service out and that’s why they’re not going to be replacing the copper lines.”
When Hurricane Sandy hit last year it wiped out part of Fire Island’s fixed copper wire phone system.
Verizon says repairing it would be too costly and it will put in a wireless system for homes instead called Voice Link – effectively a home phone with a wireless connection.
Under present laws, Verizon is obligated to provide a dial tone to home phones. That is all. Voice Link does this but does not easily cope with faxes, DSL or medical updates. To get that residents have to pay extra for a Verizon Wireless service … which is slow at best … in the summer months when the island’s packed with tourists.
Jean and Gene Ufer are outraged at this. They have been married for 33 years and spend a lot of their time teasing each other. They are a lovely, amusing couple.
But Gene, who worked all his life in customer service for the local light company, is not amused with Verizon or the way it handles its customers.
Gene quipped, “I’m 89 years old how the hell much longer can I go?”
His wife, Jean, said: “You’d better keep on going honey.”
His pacemaker needs regular updates that he says can only be done via a landline.
Jean told me: “Voice Link doesn’t work here … it constantly breaks down, everybody who has it hates it. It doesn’t work. You can’t do faxes, you can’t do the medical stuff that you need … we need what we had back.”
Verizon says in a written statement on its website: “Looking at our restoration options and taking into account our customers’ aforementioned preference for wireless communications, the island’s unique topography and the vulnerability of a copper network to future storms Verizon determined that Voice Link technology would be the best solution for our customers who had destroyed or severely damaged network facilities.”
But the people of Fire Island are wondering if the rules are changed and Verizon’s allowed only to provide their island with effectively a mobile phone service, how long will it be before people living in remote communities all over the United States find their landline service disappears as well?
Alessandro Anderes-Bologna runs his own web design firm from the beach. Well, he used to but things are a bit difficult without a landline which gave him unlimited internet data via DSL.
The 4G wireless service he’s paying Verizon Wireless for is super slow with all those tourists on it.
“I would typically use about two to three gigs of data a day running my business – the hot spot is limited to five gigs a month so my bill with this would probably something in the range of seven or eight hundred dollars if I only used that as my solution … we have to run around to other people’s houses who still have DSL connections and to be honest with you they’re saturated too.”
Debi May is a professor from a university in upstate New York, who works from Fire Island in the summer.
‘Don’t forget us’
She has a message to Verizon who she says have begun refusing to repair copper wire equipment when it breaks down.
“Don’t forget about us. I’m mean, we’re here we’ve paid for your services for years we’ve paid taxes for line maintenance over the years if you have to provide a cellular service then provide a cellular service that’s strong enough to work,” she said.
The fight for Fire Island’s telephone service is clearly just getting connected.
The deadline for submissions for and against the idea of phasing out landlines for Voice Link is looming in the autumn.
People in remote communities all over the US are watching closely to see what happens.