Farah Javed, THE CITY
Dr. Ida Messana, a Queens internist specializing in geriatric medicine, started experiencing internet, fax and landline phone issues in her Forest Hills office last summer and noticed a concerning side effect.
Many of her elderly patients, who depend on phone calls and faxes, as opposed to emails and texts, stopped coming because they could not reach her.
“We lost dial tone on my fax line, so I couldn’t receive or send any faxes. Imagine my patients waiting for their CAT scans, X-rays, their reports of blood, all different kinds of things,“ she explained.
Turned out her fax machine was working, but the line was out. She also relied on the line for DSL internet service to her office.
While her connectivity problems were resolved five months later, Messana fears future service outages. A Verizon technician told Messana that her phone lines are copper, which the company phased out in favor of fiber optic wires.
Most telecommunications companies these days tout their high-speed fiber optic lines, which send light down thin filaments of glass, but copper wires are still in use for some households.
When those metal wires corrode without proper upkeep, New Yorkers who rely on them are left without service.
Out With the Old
Copper wires use technology dating back to the mid 19th century but can actually be more effective in a blackout because they connect customers to a local switching office. Those offices have their own batteries and generators, so old-school calls are less impacted by power outages.
But Verizon has resolved to let those lines wither for business and logistical reasons.
“The copper infrastructure is old, expensive to repair and maintain, and can’t support high-speed Internet connections,” explained Fraida Fund, a research assistant professor at NYU Tandon’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “Fiber is technically a much better medium for communications; you can transfer data faster over fiber than over copper.”
“For a service provider, the economics favor moving everyone to fiber, especially in urban areas,” she noted.
When Messana tried to make the switch to fiber in November, Verizon said her area was due for an installation, but was “postponed.” When she asked for an intended start date, she received no answer, and still hasn’t.
Verizon maintains that its fiber optic network — marketed as FiOS internet and cable service, among other products — is far more reliable for customers and lower-maintenance for crews than copper.
“Because fiber-optic cables are non-metallic, they’re immune to many environmental factors that cause copper cable to deteriorate,” company spokesperson Chris Serico told THE CITY.
“As a result, fiber lines are generally more durable, more energy- and space-efficient, have a much longer lifespan, require significantly fewer repairs, and yield fewer outages than copper lines,” he added.
When Superstorm Sandy hit in 2012, Verizon’s copper lines across the city were damaged by salt water. But instead of repairing those lines, the company started installing fiber optics in their place.
In less than seven weeks after the storm, Verizon announced they put more than 5,000 miles of new fiber strands in Lower Manhattan alone.
Copper cables were left by the wayside.
The New York Public Service Commission supported Verizon’s switch to fiber-optics to replace the damaged copper network, but noted that copper customers still deserve service.
“In a competitive market with many choices for voice, video and Internet service providers, it is simply uneconomical to expect Verizon to maintain parallel copper and fiber networks,” James Denn, a spokesperson for the PSC, told THE CITY.
“However, consumer protections must still be our focus during Verizon’s Network Transition to fiber, so we closely monitor migrations to ensure adequate customer notification takes place and expect repairs to copper lines where fiber does not exist,” he added.
In early 2017, Verizon issued a public notice identifying 65 company switching centers and thousands of addresses around the city where it would retire service on the old metal wires.
At those locations, the notice read, “Verizon will: (1) no longer offer services over copper facilities; and (2) cease maintaining the copper facilities.”
The 2017 list included one location in Forest Hills, on 70th Road, which is about a six minute walk from Messana’s office at 71st Road, although Verizon wouldn’t confirm that it would be the switching center that served her.
“I think that they should be held accountable for this disaster. It’s 10 years later. These copper wires are no better now than they were after Sandy,” said the doctor who also lost service after hurricanes Henri and Ida.
“These storms are not under their control. They’re not under my control, and clearly they’re not the control of the state, but they should be held accountable for maintaining their equipment.”
Other Wire Worries
A few years ago, homeowners in eastern Queens had a separate issue with the lack of maintenance on the copper wires. A 2017 complaint with the city Department of Environmental Protection charged that continuously leaking water pipes costing tens of thousands of dollars were the result of the aging telecom equipment.
DEP investigators in 2018 found that stray current from the copper wires was indeed causing the expensive leaks through a form of metal corrosion known as electrolysis.
Initially, Verizon disagreed with the agency’s findings and announced its own investigation. Ultimately, the company never took responsibility but reimbursed the homeowners in exchange for them dropping their claims. Verizon did not respond to multiple email requests for a comment.
“We’re not talking about one or two or five or 10 [busted water pipes], we’re talking about dozens,” said former City Councilmember Barry Grodenchik, who represented the area at the time, said in a 2019 press conference on the issue.
“Let me do the math for you: One person having a broken water main into their house is bad luck on one block, two of them is a coincidence, 32 in such a short stretch of 188th Street is a statistical impossibility unless there is an intervening force.”
Messana had filed a complaint with the Public Service Commission on Aug. 13, and the agency said it would ensure that Verizon keeps in touch with its customers.
“When a system is upgraded to fiber, Verizon is still required to offer a basic service subject to its tariff at the same terms, rates and Commission protections,” said the PSC’s Denn. “There is no requirement that a customer subscribe to any of Verizon’s FiOS-brand services or combination packages,” Denn said.
Messana concedes that Verizon was in communication with her, as evidenced by her 15 customer service tickets, but her lack of service persisted for months.
On Sept. 10, Messana’s internet, which had been out since July, came back but her fax had no dial tone. She reported the problem to Verizon and a representative told her the issue would be fixed by Oct. 25, more than a month away.
“So I said, well, that’s not really tenable in a doctor’s office, and they said that they would do a workaround, ‘’ she said. “They sent me this contraption, I guess it was like a wireless system where I could receive and send faxes.”
She had no fax service for the two weeks the setup took to arrive, and then more various problems, including internet connectivity in the months that followed.
Despite outages, the doctor was still billed for the time her internet was down.
“It’s unconscionable that a public utility is allowed to just run us ragged here,” she said.
“When there’s a migration of a customer’s service from copper to fiber, Verizon works closely with its customers to ensure the transition happens as seamlessly as possible, and there is no charge for the migration of regulated services from copper to fiber,” Serico said.
When Messana’s office address was put into the company website’s FiOS finder on Thursday, it said: “Verizon Home Internet services isn’t currently available at your new address.”
Messana hasn’t had a service issue since November, but she still has the temporary fax machine Verizon sent.
“One of my patients who has been with me during this whole thing and knowing that she’s not able to reach me, said, ‘Verizon is not your friend,’” Messana recalled. “That really encapsulates that. Verizon is not your friend.”
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