Bridging the copper-to-fiber gap needs more than Verizon, AT&T interim solutions

Samantha Bookman, FierceTelecomTwo weeks ago, Verizon (NYSE: VZ) announced it would be replacing damaged and destroyed copper voice lines on some of the barrier islands off Long Island, N.Y., and in New Jersey with its recently developed Voice Link service. This device provides basic--very basic--voice service to customers via a distributed antenna network as well as by linking to the Verizon Wireless cellular network.

Voice Link, Tom Maguire told FierceTelecom, provided a fast, affordable way to get residents of remote areas like Fire Island, N.Y., and Mantoloking, N.J., reconnected, without having to replace the original copper wiring in those areas. Because the affected areas have so few year-round residents--less than 500, for example, on the side of Fire Island where Voice Link will be deployed, and about 800 in New Jersey--the device is touted as the perfect solution. Maguire reiterated that stance in a statement published Monday on the telco's public policy page.

"Looking at our restoration options and taking into account our customers' aforementioned preference for wireless communications, the island's unique topography and the vulnerability of a copper network to future storms; Verizon determined that Verizon Voice Link technology would be the best solution for our customers who had destroyed or severely damaged network facilities," Maguire wrote.

But Voice Link is not an interim solution in these areas. Verizon isn't replacing the copper wiring, but it also has no plans to run fiber onto the barrier islands, either. (In fact, residents waited more than six months just to receive the Voice Link solution.) And while Maguire said that Voice Link will be deployed in other rural regions around the United States beginning this month as an alternative to traditional wireline service, its solution on Fire Island may set a troubling precedent in the rush to migrate off of legacy networks.

Here's the problem: Verizon and its fellow RBOC AT&T (NYSE: T) are hunting for ways to move customers off of copper, without incurring too much expense along the way. From a business perspective, that makes sense. But for consumers, it's an inconvenience at best--and for those stuck in rural areas whose networks get damaged, it can be far more than that.

Verizon began a policy of shifting "problem" DSL customers--those who have two or more truck rolls in a six-month period--to a fiber network in areas where it is available. AT&T, meanwhile, is reportedly "backing away" from DSL customers, or penalizing them for going over their broadband usage limits while not penalizing U-verse customers.

But even though both carriers (along with others) are pricing their fiber offerings attractively compared to DSL, neither incumbent has built out high-speed wireline networks to the same extent as their legacy plant, meaning a huge number of their existing customers have no place to migrate if they want streaming-quality Internet service.

One way to deal with unwanted legacy customers, particularly in areas where the incumbents don't want to build fiber, is to shunt them off to other providers. Karl Bode pointed to Verizon's recent wireless spectrum and marketing partnership with Comcast (Nasdaq: CMCSA), noting that the carrier is intentionally pushing customers in areas affected by Sandy toward signing up with the cable provider instead for their broadband service. This, along with Verizon's interim Voice Link solution, need to be paid much more attention by the FCC, he said.

"The migration requires a real conversation--one we're not having," Bode said.

It's pretty clear that high-speed, fixed-line broadband is the way to go when it comes to connecting Americans to IP-based services. Even though residential customers don't need huge speed boosts right now, most of them want those speeds to be available. While some might say that the complaints about Voice Link and Verizon's migration strategy are just more griping by unions worried about losing influence with the carrier, it's troubling that Verizon just isn't interested in providing basic wireline service, or taking advantage of the opportunity to boost its fiber footprint in places, both rural and urban, that could benefit economically from the speed advantage.--Sam