Verizon quietly cutting copper phone lines

Seventy-five-year-old Neil Altman was gasping for air as he described run-ins with Verizon last fall when he and his wife, Gilda, were making a last stand against the telecom company's plan to disable their copper-based phone line.

"You need to calm down now," Gilda told her husband, who suffers from myasthenia gravis, a form of progressive muscle weakness. She rubbed his arm at their Drexel Hill dining room table. He nodded. "To be honest, I didn't even know we had copper," Gilda said. "What do we know about telephone technology?"

A lot now.

Verizon, one of the nation's largest phone providers, has begun without a formal announcement to stop operating legacy copper and modern fiber lines on the same telephone poles. Instead, it is transitioning to all fiber, a potential concern for hundreds of thousands of Verizon customers in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and other states where the phone giant operates.

Verizon says that "copper retirement" eliminates the redundant costs of running old and new networks. Moreover, high-capacity fiber lines will be the high-speed technology of the future, not copper.

But hard-core copper customers such as the Altmans won't be easily won over. They're happy with the legacy phone service that beeps with a dial tone during electric power outages. They don't want to pay higher prices and they resist being told what to do by the local phone monopoly.

To make a switch palatable, Verizon is offering fiber service at the same monthly price as copper and throwing in a free installation of the "optical network terminal" that connects the home to the company's fiber backbone. The box can be installed inside or outside the home. Verizon also is giving free backup with 12 D-size batteries to keep phones working during outages.

"We are not attempting to upsell here," said Verizon spokesman John O'Malley said. Customers with voice and DSL Internet services over copper wires will be offered phone and Internet over fiber at the same price, he said.

Thomas MacNabb, Verizon's director of operations for wireline support, said that the copper lines in 44 wire centers or zip codes in Pennsylvania and other states are the first to be decommissioned this year - kicking off Verizon's multiyear "network transformation."

The first zip codes in the Philadelphia region slated for copper retirement are Drexel Hill (19026), Bristol (19007), Tacony (19135), Fox Chase (19111), and Jenkintown (19046).

Verizon says that about 10 percent of its customers still use copper-line phones and DSL Internet even in areas with fiber upgrades.

The corporation served about 18 million customers with landline voice service in 2015, regulatory filings show.

Verizon could retire copper in Philadelphia and its suburbs. But some rural and lower-income parts of the region won't see the retirement of copper any time soon because Verizon hasn't upgraded those areas with fiber.

"We want to figure out how we can crawl before we run," MacNabb said of the copper retirements, adding that Verizon doesn't want to "come across [to customers]as if we have a gun to their heads" to switch to fiber.

He was answering questions on the Altmans, who filed informal and formal complaints with the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission in November.

Verizon has said for years that it would continue to operate copper even as it rolled out fiber.

Many believe, though, that as consumers come to expect higher Internet speeds, copper would have to be replaced.

Last August, the Federal Communications Commission enacted new rules for companies retiring copper phone lines that included a 90-day notice for consumers. The new rules haven't taken effect yet because of bureaucratic processes in Washington.

Generally, say company, consumer-advocate, and regulatory officials, Verizon has a legal obligation to provide dial-tone local phone service.

The state PUC regulates Verizon's local phone service, and residents who believe Verizon isn't fulfilling its obligations can file complaints there.

Neil and Gilda Altman live in a tidy Drexel Hill rowhouse. They have a copy machine and a fax, but no Internet. Both are former public school teachers in New Jersey who watch over-the-air broadcast TV.

Neil Altman said he knew nothing of copper retirements until "out of the blue" Verizon mailed him a notification dated Oct. 14, telling him to contact the company within 30 days to avoid a break in phone service.

Altman called and was told that if he didn't switch, Verizon could stop his phone service and he could face a big reconnection fee.

Altman pushed back, telling Verizon he was sick and that he felt comfortable with the dependable copper-line phone that worked during electric outages. Hard of hearing, Altman also could clearly hear on the old phone.

Gilda Altman, 72, feared losing the couple's phone number, which she used for her business, tutoring students in English as a second language, and for reaching family, friends, and doctors.

"I told Neil that 'I don't care what you do about this thing. I don't want to lose this phone number,' " she said. If Verizon disconnected the phone, they could lose the number, the Altmans were told.

They described six weeks of frantic calls with Verizon and officials from the PUC, FCC, and the Office of Consumer Advocate in Harrisburg.

They filed an informal complaint with the PUC, but that didn't seem to slow Verizon. Facing a Verizon-imposed Dec. 1 deadline to transition to fiber, the Altmans filed a formal complaint in the third week of November with the aid of a lawyer from the Office of Consumer Advocate, hoping to stay the company's actions. It didn't.

Worried about losing their phone number, the couple took a bus - they don't own a car - to an AT&T store near the 69th Street Transportation Center and bought a wireless AT&T phone in late November so they could port their Verizon phone number to it.

"We had a gun to our heads," Gilda Altman later told PUC Administrative Law Judge Darlene Heep at the March 3 hearing.

The session dragged on for six hours.

Heep is expected to issue a briefing schedule for more documents after she reviews the hearing transcript, a PUC spokesman said.

MacNabb said after the hearing that Verizon had adjusted its outreach on copper retirements to senior citizens. "We want to use this as a learning experience," he said. Verizon also began giving customers 90 days' notice on copper decommissionings at their homes in December, spokesman O'Malley said.

Said Gilda Altman, "We are seeking to get copper back. That's all."

bfernandez@phillynews.com

215-854-5897

@bobfernandez1

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