Fire Island residents sound off on Verizon phone service

A mass of opposition showed to express disapproval

A mass of opposition showed to express disapproval against Verizon's plan to implement wireless phone system in place of Fire Island's land lines. (Aug. 24, 2013) (Credit: Johnny Milano)

A state Public Service Commission hearing on Verizon's proposal to replace landlines with wireless service on western Fire Island drew a vocal crowd in Ocean Beach on Saturday.

Citing damage from superstorm Sandy, the phone service provider has said replacing copper wire infrastructure is too costly and that future storms could damage old technology.

But full- and part-time residents, first responders and politicians voiced concern Saturday over the reliability and adequacy of Verizon's replacement, a system called Voice Link that some residents are already using.

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About 40 of the roughly 175 in attendance testified during the four-hour hearing, describing problems with dropped calls, poor sound quality and difficulty receiving and making calls.

James Betz, owner of Maguire's Beach Front Dining, said the system has hurt business and he's been unable to confirm some reservations. "When you dial out, there's numbers that just don't work."

Verizon representatives said they wanted to reach out to all customers to find out what problems they were experiencing. Before Sandy, Verizon provided landline service to about 2,700 customers in western Fire Island. "We're absolutely committed to our customers on Fire Island," said Kevin Service, Verizon president of the Northeast region, to a sometimes hostile crowd.

"We'll make sure Voice Link works as good or better than the service we've provided out here for the past 10 to 20 years."

Others said reliability problems posed dangers.

Marki Knopp, 65, a retired goldsmith who splits her time between Ocean Bay Park and Teluride, Colo., with her husband Steven said he was taken out by helicopter last week for a medical emergency. "I called 911. I didn't get a dial tone. It was a matter of life and death."

She got through on her cellphone. While she was talking to 911 on her cellphone, another 911 operator called her back on her Voice Link phone. Her husband, who is recovering, has a heart condition that is monitored with a system that uses a landline but doesn't work with wireless, she said."Minutes mean lives out here," said state Sen. Phil Boyle (R-Bay Shore), adding that new technology should not be tested on a barrier island. "The first responders here do a great job when they get a call, but they have to get the call."

Verizon representatives said 911 calls are getting through.The Voice Link system uses a building's or house's existing coaxial phone wires but instead of connecting to the phone network via copper wire or fiber optic cables, it communicates wirelessly with Verizon's cellphone antenna systems on the island.

Some people complained that they had been forced from DSL Internet service onto costly wireless Internet service.

Bruce Minoff, 76, a retired private investigator who spends summers in Dunewood and winters in Florida said before the hearing that his combined phone and Internet bill had gone from about $150 a month to $260 after losing DSL.

"It's mainly the Internet that's so much more," he said.

Tom Maguire, senior vice president for national operations for Verizon, said they were working on a more affordable option for Internet.

The Public Service Commission is taking comments until Sept. 13. Comments may be sent to secretary@dps.ny.gov, or mailed to Secretary, PSC, 3 Empire State Plaza, Albany, NY 12223-1350. Verizon must report to the commission an evaluation of its service by Nov. 1. The Public Service Commission will decide whether to allow Verizon to forgo its landlines.

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