More than 100 Fire Island residents thronged a Verizon meeting in Ocean Beach this week to protest the company's proposal to shift some of the barrier island from copper landlines to wireless cellphone service.
At the meeting hosted by state Sen. Phil Boyle (R-Islip) at the Ocean Beach Community House on Tuesday, residents said they distrusted Verizon's promises that emergency calls would go through on the new Voice Link system, despite patchy cell service in some parts of Fire Island.
They also complained about Voice Link's reliance on electrical outlets and batteries, and its inability to support high-speed Internet service, which was discontinued for some customers after superstorm Sandy last year.
Sandy damaged miles of underground cable on western Fire Island, according to Verizon, and the company decided to replace downed landlines with Voice Link. On May 16, the state Public Service Commission issued a temporary approval for Verizon to implement the wireless service on western Fire Island.
Steve Placilla, commissioner of the Ocean Bay Park Fire Department, noted that Verizon was not asking schools, government agencies or emergency services to make the switch. "If it's not reliable for our fire departments, it's not reliable for our constituents," he said to applause.
Thomas Maguire, a Verizon senior vice president, said in response that "the service for 911 is nearly identical to copper."
Residents also questioned the ease of use of Voice Link, which may need battery replacement to make calls if there's a power outage and the phone batteries are dead.
"I'm concerned about emergency service calls," said Tara McBride of Lonelyville. She said if her 9-year-old child had an emergency, he'd have to deal with the new system and "that could be 10 to 15 minutes" of delay. "It's very scary."
Martha Mason of Seaview said the technology was too new and unproven for Fire Island. "I don't like being used as a guinea pig," she said.
The lack of high-speed Internet also bothered residents. "There is no replacement for Internet," said Gene Levy, president of the Fair Harbor Community Association. "That is what Verizon is saying."
Maguire said that replacing the copper line infrastructure would be prohibitively expensive. "If a piece of copper is gone beyond repair, we're not going to replace it," he said. He later added, "Some of you have had years of bad service on Fire Island. What we're trying to do with Voice Link is make service better."
The PSC is accepting comments on Voice Link until Sept. 13, and the commission plans to hold a public meeting at noon on Aug. 24 in Ocean Beach.