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Deadline on Fire Island phone plan extended

The headquarters for Verizon Communications Inc. in Manhattan.

The headquarters for Verizon Communications Inc. in Manhattan. Credit: AP, 2005

The deadline for submitting comments to the state on Verizon's plan to replace some landline home phone service with a new wireless technology has been extended for more than two months, to give customers and others the chance to use and evaluate the service.

Respondents will now have until Sept. 13 to submit statements to the Public Service Commission. But so far, the opposition seems to be dominating the responses.

As of Tuesday, the previous deadline, the state attorney general's office and 17 fire districts and departments from Suffolk County had submitted comments asking the commission to bar Verizon from replacing its copper landline service with the new wireless hybrid, Voice Link.

The plan to replace copper landlines in New York with Voice Link started on western Fire Island, where superstorm Sandy wiped out many phone lines. Verizon officials said the Oct. 29 storm flooded miles of their underground cables, and rather than face costly repairs, they wanted to replace landlines with a new technology they said would be more storm-resistant.

Verizon has defended the new technology as "robust" and more reliable than aging copper landlines.

But Verizon, the sole landline provider on Fire Island, has faced a storm of criticism from village and fire officials and residents, as well as Verizon union workers, the AARP and the state attorney general's office, among other groups.

Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman has expressed concern that Verizon is trying to implement Voice Link in other rural parts of New York, such as the Catskills. In a letter Tuesday, Schneiderman's office recommended to the PSC that Verizon be required to repair landline service to its areas of service, "or sell its franchise to another provider that will."

The Suffolk County first responders in a letter Tuesday described Voice Link as unreliable and spotty, especially at times of high usage, since it operates off the wireless network. Voice Link also does not support DSL Internet, fax or alarm system capabilities, and because the system is powered through an electrical outlet, it has limited battery life during a power outage, they said.

"Coverage is inconsistent from location to location, and calls are more likely to be blocked or dropped due to poor signal strength or at times of high usage," the letter read.

Verizon spokesman Lee Gierczynski countered in an email Tuesday that "decades-old copper wiring is far more prone to failure during weather emergencies, unlike advanced wireless networks."

He said Verizon will maintain the copper network where it makes customer service and business sense to do so. "The vast majority of our copper customers have no issues at all with their service; we are only considering the universe of customers where the copper network is not supporting their requirements. Again, the exception is the storm-impacted areas in the western portion of Fire Island and a few New Jersey barrier communities where copper facilities were damaged beyond repair."

In May, the Public Service Commission approved a temporary order allowing Verizon to install Voice Link on the western part of Fire Island, to give residents a dial tone, adding that they would gather public comment and evaluations on Voice Link's quality and service before allowing the company to discontinue and replace landline service elsewhere in the state.

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