Plenty of Life Left in Copper-Line Phone Service, Say Consumer Advocates

At NJ Spotlight webinar, advocates argue that customers, especially elderly ones, should not be switched to wireless without their permission

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The state needs to be much more aggressive in studying the impact of switching customers from their traditional copper-line phone service to new wireless networks, according to consumer advocates.

In a webinar hosted by NJ Spotlight, a representative from AARP and a longtime telecom consultant argued that consumers, particularly older customers, should be given the option to retain so-called landline phone service, instead of being switched to a new technology, sometimes without a choice.

The issue has emerged as a contentious one in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, when homeowners in New Jersey and New York who lost phone service during the storm were told that their landline service would be replaced by a wireless system, dubbed Voice Link by Verizon Communications.

With rapid changes in the telecom sector, many customers are abandoning conventional phone service in favor of new technologies like wireless. For traditional phone companies, the change can mean a big boost in profits, with wireless service outperforming landline offerings in delivering earnings for the company.

For some, the wireless trend is not welcomed.

Approximately 2,000 customers in New Jersey are now served by the wireless system, most by their own choice, according to Lee Gierczynki, manager of media relations for Verizon.

AARP, however, fears that the number of customers losing traditional phone service will only grow, in part because the combined voice, wireless, and cable TV programming offered by Verizon is much more profitable to the company. Many older customers, however, cannot afford those services, AARP said.

“This is a very critical issue,’’ said Coralette Hannon, an AARP senior government affairs staff member. “We have seen these issues happening around the country.’’

In New Jersey, the organization is pushing a bill (A-2459) that would put a one-year moratorium on replacing copper phone lines with other services. The bill won approval from an Assembly committee but has not yet been posted for a vote in the Assembly.

AARP contends that many consumers want to keep their links to the traditional phone network, a factor that should prompt the state to do more to preserve the service. “New Jersey could learn and do better from other states,’’ Hannon said.

The organization has asked the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities to study the issue, including how phone companies can continue to meet their obligations to provide reliable and affordable service to all of its customers. The agency has not acted on the request.

Similar investigations are occurring in other states, such as California and Illinois, based on consumer complaints, according to the AARP.

“The group we are concerned about doesn’t always have access to broadband,’’ added Susan Baldwin, a telecommunications consultant who served four years as the director of the telecom division of the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities.

Baldwin noted that only 12 percent of senior households have dropped their landline phone service in favor of wireless. “Consumers want to choose, rather than have that choice foisted upon them,’’ she said.

Gierczynksi said the company is not forcing most of its customers, outside of Mantoloking, to abandon their traditional phone service. “It’s a niche product, only going to a small segment of our customer base,’’ he said.

He also disputed allegations by AARP that the Voice Link service is not as reliable as traditional phone service and that customers could not reach 911 from the service.

The backdrop to the debate is an effort by telecom companies, citing the increased competition in the sector, to end the state’s regulation of traditional phone service, a step the Legislature has so far refused to do.