Landliners outraged over Verizon outages

About 50 people gathered at Our Lady of Pompeii Church to demand answers from Verizon about outages. Photos by Winnie McCroy

BY WINNIE McCROY | On Mon., Sept. 17, about 50 Verizon customers from various parts of Manhattan gathered in the basement of Our Lady of Pompeii Church, on Bleecker St., for a town hall to address continuing outages of landline phone service by the provider.

Service has been affected by manhole explosions, such as the June fire at W. 15th St. and Ninth Ave., as well as inclement weather, construction mistakes and cascading outages in other parts of the city.

“I’m here today to be accountable for the customer service you’ve been experiencing, but I also want to educate you about our plan,” said Joseph Beasley, Verizon region president of New York City service delivery and field operations. “I don’t like meeting you under these conditions, but we are here to take action.”

Also representing Verizon was Richard Windram, director of state government affairs, along with several others from the company. State Senator Brad Hoylman and Assemblymember Deborah Glick were on hand, as was a representative of City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, whose district includes the Village and Chelsea.

Beasley explained that phone cables in this area are 100 years old and that the copper landline network is in  a major decline due to physical reasons. He said that copper wire landlines are couched in a paper that must remain dry, which is covered by a lead sheathing pressurized with air to repel water.

When weather or construction mishaps compromise these lines structural integrity — like when a contractor on W. 18th St. drove a pylon straight through the copper mainline — they become unpressurized, water gets in, heats up the copper, and it dissolves the line. To reconnect service, technicians need to access each individual building’s lines — unlike with fiber optics, which can be spliced together at the breaking point. Currently, 2.5 million New York City customers are connected to Fios. Verizon is still attempting to get its remaining 1 million users wired with fiber optics.

“The copper network is at the bottom of the infrastructure in New York City,” Beasley said. “And there have been dozens of manhole fires, one significantly that lit everything on fire because of a welding mishap and completely destroyed the network, elements of two manholes and everything in between. The 2,700 customers on fiber-optic networks were almost immediately back up, because it is basically indestructible. But the remaining 500 or so copper-line customers were spread across 1,700 buildings and we had to literally access each individual building to restore it. We still have 25 customers out of service from that June 17 manhole explosion.”

But those at the town hall, mostly older residents of Greenwich Village and Chelsea, were mad that the landline they had installed 40 or 50 years ago has of late become unreliable, and furious that they are being forced to continue to pay their bills under threat of collection, and then having to hector Verizon for refunds.

“My landline has gone out three times since November 2016. This outage started in March,” said longtime Leroy St. resident Senta Driver. “And they are still sending me bills. They do give me refunds when they restore service, but I’m assuming if I finally give up and switch to another carrier, I won’t get a refund.”

Still, Verizon officials said they would continue to restore copper-wire landlines, while replacing them wherever possible with fiber-optic lines. Yet even this process can be complicated, as they explained to one co-op manager who said she’d been trying to switch her building over to Fios for three years.

“When it comes to Fios,” Windram said, “it’s not enough to just get permission for your building. It runs through your basements or behind your buildings sequentially, so you need to have every property on your block give us permission to install. If you’re the fifth house on the block, we still need the other four.”

State Senator Brad Hoylman, at rear center, was on hand to advocate for his constituents.

Some community members implored local politicians to force holdouts on their blocks to switch to fiber optic. But state Senator Hoylman said government could not force people to let Verizon on their property.

Beasley said the average customer was only without service for about 30 hours, and noted that for those on Fios, outages were very short. He also said that when Fios is installed, it comes with an emergency D-cell battery pack that gives the customer 24 hours of call time.

Assemblymember Glick told The Villager that Verizon ranked high on her office’s list of constituent complaints, and said she personally had problems with both the lack of skilled technicians on hand to address copper-line problems and the inefficiency of Verizon’s customer service.

“Why a tech company doesn’t have the ability for a technician to check other open work orders they could resolve while at a building seems incredibly inefficient, not to mention aggravating,” Glick said. “Even if it takes more than one day, they might be resolving three or four problems. And fiber optic may be the wave of the future, but I also think people are concerned about the cost of bundled services, and maybe they don’t want to put all of their eggs in one basket. Especially when Verizon has had such a poor track record of restoring services, people are nervous about having all their services in the hands of one provider.”

When a customer compared Verizon to Spectrum, Windram said it took Spectrum 20 years to install its cable network, while Verizon has only been working on its network for 15 years. They promised the end result would be worth it.

“Verizon is here to stay,” Beasley declared. “If poor service feels like we’re walking away from you, it’s not. We want to get you off copper and onto Fios [at the same price]. New York City’s Fios network is the most advanced in the world — more than Singapore or Hong Kong. But building a new network comes with challenges: digging up streets, getting right of access, coming up with agreements on the look it will have in public hallways, building it future-proof to handle storms. If you want to compare copper to fiber optics, look at Lower Manhattan: The manholes there fill up with salt water every day with the tides, and the network has proven almost indestructible.”

Local resident Jeff Franklin, gesturing, said he had gone 30 years without a single problem, but now has experienced five Verizon outages in the past five years.

Although some vowed to never give up their copper landline, most looked forward to getting the reliable fiber-optic network they’d heard so much about. But almost all of those suffering outages were united in one thing: their anger over being billed for a service they didn’t receive, and then having to haggle with customer service reps for a refund.

Jeff Franklin angrily demanded that Verizon “either fix the copper or replace the copper. One or the other; neither is no answer. Get the Fios in to replace these copper lines and get people automatic credit through the billing department.”

One woman complained she didn’t even know when her copper landline was out. Beasley said Verizon had no way of knowing, either. Experiencing five outages since March 2, she filed a PCS complaint, and said she got a call from a Verizon regional manager within 48 hours. She also felt she shouldn’t have to call Verizon and “stay on hold for an hour to get my $63 service credit.”

Another said that, after paying in advance, she finally canceled service, and found her account in collections due to a $16 fee.

“I’m no longer a Verizon customer,” she said. “I was for 45 years. My mother was. But ruining my credit over less than $20? I want it taken off.” Beasley promised to take care of this “pretty quickly.”

Echoed another woman, “You’re a high-tech company. How are you telling me you’re just getting the ability to figure out how to stop charging people when you know they don’t have service?”

Still, Beasley stuck around and took the heat.

“It’s not our intent to bill you when you’re out of service,” he assured. “We recently made system upgrades and I know that’s working. I want to be accountable to everyone in here who feels like they’re being screwed. I will make sure no one is paying when they are out of service.”

Windram promised that their initial intent was to fix the copper lines, but admitted it was a short-term fix.

“The long-term plan is to get fiber optics into your home,” he stated. “We designed the network to get rid of these day-to-day issues. It would be irresponsible to build a network that didn’t resolve the issues. In the long run, we think we’ll be better off.”

“In the long run, we’ll all be dead,” groused Franklin. “I’ve gone 30 years without a single problem. Now I’ve had five outages in five years.”

Nonplussed, one woman sighed and said, “There is just so much difference between what you’re describing, which sounds phenomenally wonderful, and what actually exists.”

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