July 9, 2013 in Business

Telecom companies abandon copper phone lines

Peter Svensson Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

Robert Post talks to the Associated Press on May 31 about his home, in Mantoloking, N.J., which was flooded during Superstorm Sandy last year. Post has a pacemaker that needs to be checked once a month by phone, but the phone company refuses to restore the area’s landlines after they were damaged by the storm.
(Full-size photo)

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.

Last October, 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 New 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 Phone lines are outdated, the company says.

Mantoloking is one of the first places in the country where the traditional 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 industry 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 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?” said 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 said. “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.

Post’s house in Mantoloking was built 83 years ago. His wife estimates it has been connected to a phone line for 80 years. Now, to get his pacemaker checked, he heads once a month to a friend’s home in Bay Head, the next town over, which still has a copper phone line.

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