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.
“It’s a horrendous situation. … We don’t let General Motors build a highway and decide what size cars to let on the road,” said Joe Plotkin, marketing director for Bway.net, a New York Internet provider. “The small guys have tried to fight this re-monopolization of the network infrastructure.”
He and other smaller rivals contend that the communications market is fast becoming a two-player game between giant phone and cable companies, diminishing consumer choice.
AT&T Inc. and Qwest Communications International Inc. also are retiring their copper networks, but they are not touching the so-called “last mile” of copper wiring that runs from each customer’s dwelling to the central office where other lines aggregate. Laying fiber, a robust pipeline, through the last mile is much more expensive because each line goes to a particular home or business.
Verizon is taking the pricey route because it thinks fiber offers a superior service that will lure customers away from cable operators, who now offer telephone service in addition to television and high-speed Internet.
Besides limiting options down the road, the switch to FiOS can have other implications. Unlike copper-connected phone service, FiOS doesn’t work during power outages once a backup battery fails — not even for emergency calls. Home alarms and certain other devices work best with copper.
Mr. Rabe, the Verizon spokesman, said the company will restore copper to homes if the customer insists, but Verizon would rather not reconnect the copper and will try to persuade the customer to agree. At any rate, the phone giant provides ample warning, he said.
An example of what Mr. Rabe describes as adequate notice is the fine print on Verizon’s FiOS policy, which is printed on its Web site. It says “current Verizon Online DSL customers who move to FiOS Internet service will have their Verizon Online DSL permanently disabled after their FiOS conversion.”
Bill Kelm, a FiOS customer in suburban Dallas, filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission last year because of Verizon’s “inconspicuous” policy rules.
“It’s buried within these long terms of service that people never take the time to read,” he said. “It needs to be more conspicuous.”
Although Mr. Kelm has no quarrel with FiOS itself — he pays $145 a month for television, Internet and phone — he would like to have been told before he signed up that Verizon would cut the copper. He was counting on Verizon’s clearly advertised 30-day money back guarantee in case he didn’t like the service and wanted to switch back.
“I blew a gasket,” Mr. Kelm said. “The 30-day money back guarantee was worthless in my opinion.”
He also is concerned that Verizon initially priced its current FiOS lower only to jack up rates once the subscriber is reeled in.
“Then, you’re stuck,” Mr. Kelm said.