Voice Link isn't the magic bridge off the PSTN; broadband is

Samantha Bookman, FierceTelecom

Verizon (NYSE: VZ) is apparently taking part in the move by incumbent carriers to shift customers away from the PSTN. First with its policy to move "chronic" customers off of copper; then with the deployment of Voice Link, a wireless service targeted at voice-only customers in rural areas where the carrier has not laid fiber.

However, the company is now taking it in the teeth over Voice Link's deployment on Fire Island, N.Y. Its successful bid to amend the state's tariff to allow the wireless unit to replace dedicated wireline networks on the island aroused the suspicion of both the CWA union and the state Attorney General. When the carrier began offering Voice Link as an option to vacation home owners in the Catskills region, the AG took action, asking the state for an injunction to stop further deployment.

It's clear that Verizon hopes to use Voice Link as a bridge to move customers away from the PSTN--in fact, SVP Tom Maguire, who heads the program, told the Wall Street Journal this week that it is a way to gradually phase out legacy lines.

In an earlier interview with FierceTelecom, Maguire explained that the genesis of the Voice Link program started as a solution to a migration problem.

"The issue is our fiber infrastructure isn't everywhere. Some areas don't have a parallel path (of copper and fiber) available," he said. "After listening to a ton of phone calls from customers about the migration process, I felt it was important to develop something that replicated copper's key functions but eliminated its frailty. That's where Voice Link started."

Verizon sped up the rollout of Voice Link because it saw an opportunity to jump away from its copper lines in Mantoloking, N.J., and Fire Island, N.Y., island communities with a small year-round population.

As test cases go, I'm sure it seemed like a good idea on paper. Maguire pointed out that only 20 percent of residents on the west side of Fire Island used wireline voice service; the remaining 80 percent of the 500 full-time residents used wireless services.

"To invest in copper on Fire Island didn't make sense. Neither did fiber because people are seasonal," Maguire told FierceTelecom.

Here are a few other things that may have guided Verizon's decision to put Voice Link forward as the solution for Fire Island, Mantoloking and other rural areas.

  • Wireless is becoming the consumer's main voice service. Residential customers are becoming more and more dependent on wireless handsets and smartphones. Some have completely turned off wireline voice service in favor of their wireless phones.
  • Cell phone service is sometimes more reliable than traditional voice service. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, these became more reliable lifelines than the copper infrastructure. Cell towers have 48-hour or longer battery backups, and carriers were able to manage and reroute traffic in many cases.
  • The PSTN has changed at the last mile. For many customers, particularly fiber subscribers, POTS isn't POTS anymore. Their voice service is IP-based and depends upon consumer premise equipment to complete a call. When the power goes out, the CPE either doesn't work or is on a very limited battery backup (eight hours on ONTs installed for Verizon FiOS, for example). Hence, reliable wireline service is not easily accessible.

But here's why the Voice Link solution isn't likely to work as an alternative to legacy copper.

  • Voice isn't the only communications solution anymore. It may not even be the best solution. Subscribers who turn off wireline voice service often have high-speed broadband available to them, and therefore many more options to communicate in addition to their wireless handsets.
  • When Voice Link is your only link, it's not a better service. People are connecting to the outside world in many more ways than in the past--it's rewiring our brains, researchers say. So voice-only service with no other options isn't going to meet consumer needs. That's on top of the fact that, if Voice Link service is disconnected for non-payment, it's all the way off--911 service is not available when the unit is turned off.

    Add to that all of the other service issues that customers, business owners and the New York Attorney General have with Voice Link. It cannot support faxing. Caller ID doesn't work, according to reports. And the current units being deployed do not support data--leaving in the lurch, for example, Mantoloking businesses that need to process credit card transactions.
  • People want broadband. It's that simple. The speeds are addictive, even if residential consumers really don't need them (yet). The ballooning number of applications and services are addictive. And more importantly, the ability to do life-altering things like look for a better job, learn new skills and access municipal and utility services makes broadband a necessity, not a luxury.

It's clear that Verizon is hunting for a cost-effective way to transition off of the PSTN and go all-IP. But Voice Link isn't it.

The reality hasn't changed in well over a decade. To get people over to IP, to ensure long term profitability and to have the same kind of stable and ubiquitous network, carriers like Verizon and AT&T (NYSE: T) are going to have to knuckle down and invest in fiber. Or they're going to have to work on more creative solutions to affordably roll out more fiber, maybe by partnering with other providers or even, heaven forbid, municipal providers.--Sam | +Sam Bookman | @FierceSamantha