No looking back with FiOS

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PHILADELPHIA

When Henry Powderly II ordered Verizon Communications Inc.’s fiber-optic service (FiOS), he knew he was about to be connected to the future of telecommunications.

He also got unplugged from its past — which meant that while Mr. Powderly was gaining features, he was losing some telecommunications options.

Verizon’s installer — without warning, Mr. Powderly says — removed the copper wires that used to carry his phone calls. For most of the world, copper still links homes and businesses, as it has for a century.

Verizon’s new high-bandwidth fiber lines are fully capable of carrying calls along with Internet data and television with room to grow. But once the copper is pulled, it’s difficult to switch back to the traditional phone system or less expensive digital subscriber line (DSL) service. Verizon isn’t required, in most instances, to lease fiber to rival phone companies, as it is with the copper infrastructure.

What’s more, anyone who owns Mr. Powderly’s house in the future will face higher bills with FiOS than another home with copper. Right now, for instance, Verizon’s DSL plans cost as little as $15 a month. FiOS Internet starts at $30 a month.

“I was not given an option,” said Mr. Powderly, a 30-year-old Long Island, N.Y., resident.

As it hooks up homes and businesses to its fiber network, Verizon routinely disconnects the copper and, many subscribers say, not telling them upfront or giving them a choice. More than 1 million customers have signed up for FiOS, which is offered mainly in the suburban areas of 16 states.

Verizon spokesman Eric Rabe said customers should have been notified at least three times — once by the sales representative when FiOS is ordered, by the technician before copper is cut, and through paperwork given to the customer. Some customers say that hasn’t happened.

The New York phone company has made it clear that its entire network is going to fiber optics. Verizon plans to spend $23 billion to make fiber optics available to 18 million homes by 2010. Network maintenance savings could top $1 billion a year, Verizon said.

“It’s a huge expense to maintain those copper networks,” said Scott Randolph, federal regulatory director at Verizon. “At some point in time, it would not make sense to operate two networks.”

Mark Cooper, research director at the Consumer Federation of America, says there are other reasons for snipping the wires.

“They don’t want to maintain it; they don’t want the expense and they don’t want the competition,” he said.

Under the Telecommunications Act of 1996, incumbent phone companies such as Verizon must lease their copper network to rivals. That is generally not the case for next-generation fiber systems. Verizon has filed more than 100 notices with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to retire portions of copper throughout its network.

The FCC allows the retirement of copper as long as public notice is given so the phone companies can work together to ensure the smaller companies’ access. But rivals say access at reasonable prices is not guaranteed and it’s just a matter of time before they are cut off.

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