The end of the line for landlines

Verizon refuses to restore landlines after Superstorm Sandy, signaling technological transition

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MANTOLOKING, N.J. -- Robert Post misses his phone line.

Mr. 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 Mr. 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.

Mantoloking is one of the first places in the country where the traditional phone line is going dead. For now, Verizon 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 1 in 4 U.S. households will have a copper phone line at the end of this year, according to estimates from industry trade group US Telecom. AT&T would like to turn off its network of copper land lines by the end of the decade.

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, D.C.-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, Mr. Feld says.

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. Some of the copper lines still work, but Verizon is no longer maintaining them, to the frustration of restaurant owner Jon Randazzo.

"Really, what they're doing is abandoning us," says Mr. 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 from Comcast by cable.

In other areas, Verizon is replacing copper phone lines with optical fiber, which allows the company to offer cable-like TV services and ultrafast broadband. Water can short out and corrode copper wire, but optical fiber is made of glass and transmits light rather than electricity, so it's far more resistant to flooding. But the cost of wiring a neighborhood with fiber optic lines can run more than $1,000 a home.

"Everybody would love for us to put in fiber, but that's just not practical," Mr. Maguire says.

If New York and New Jersey refuse to give permanent permission for the switch from landline to wireless phone service, Verizon could be forced to rebuild the phone network on Fire Island and in Mantoloking. Unlike cable and wireless companies, landline phone companies have regulatory obligations in most states to supply lines at a reasonable cost to anyone who wants one. They also need federal approval to end service.

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