Verizon has asked the FCC for permission to discontinue a number of legacy copper-based products in the Northeast. This signals the company’s ongoing plan to pull down copper wires and go to an all-digital network.
Specifically Verizon wants to eliminate their Voice Grade, WATS Access Line, Bonded Digital Link, Digital Data, and DIGIPATH Digital Service II. These are somewhat obscure services, mostly used by businesses, and which for the most part have been supplanted by better products over the years.
What this filing doesn’t specifically say is that Verizon will eventually accompany this tariff change by a request to remove their copper network. That’s what they did earlier this year in New Jersey.
I find it hard to criticize the company for wanting to move customers from copper to fiber. I have a lot of small telco clients who have done the same thing over the last decade. There are a few customers that worry about such a transition because they have some legacy function like fax machines, health monitors, burglar alarms or T1s that they are afraid won’t work with the updated technology. For the most part there are not very many such applications around that can’t be made to work on fiber. Fiber technology can emulate almost every TDM copper-based function.
There comes a point where it doesn’t make economic sense to maintain an old copper network for a tiny handful of customers using old applications. I have a hard time thinking that customers have a right to stay on copper when there is something better available.
But I also think the public unease over these transitions is because the public doesn’t trust Verizon. Verizon got a lot of bad press after hurricane Sandy hit Fire Island and the company wanted to replace the destroyed copper with cellular service.
The problem is that Verizon doesn’t have fiber everywhere –not even close to everywhere. What happens where there is no fiber availability? When Verizon built FiOS they only built fiber where the costs to do so were low, and this resulted in a patchwork fiber network – where one street or one subdivision has fiber, but the next doesn’t. The company also largely built fiber in the suburbs of the major cities and they largely ignored downtown urban neighborhoods as well as smaller towns and all rural areas.
AT&T is being open about its plans to move homes to a fixed cellular connection. But as Verizon starts pulling down more copper they are either going to have to build new fiber to people or offer the same kind of cellular connections as AT&T. And it doesn’t seem likely that Verizon is going to extend FiOS fiber networks today to neighborhoods they judged too expensive to build fifteen years ago.
Verizon’s union members have been complaining for years that the company has been neglecting the copper plant – and these technicians are right. It’s a behavior we have seen from all of the large telcos for decades. Twenty years ago Verizon started trying to find a buyer for their network in West Virginia. It took them more than a decade to finally sell it to Frontier, and during the interim they cut maintenance to the bone. But this is not a singular example and huge parts of the Verizon, AT&T and CenturyLink networks are in bad shape due to many years of neglect.
The shift away from copper is inevitable. A lot of these networks were built in the post WWII decades and they have lasted longer than intended. It’s a testament to the high standards of the old Ma Bell system that these networks are still working today. Critics of Verizon want the company to maintain the copper networks for a few more decades – but that is unrealistic, and in many cases becoming technically impossible, and it’s time to shift focus to make sure Verizon doesn’t start quietly dropping homes and leaving them stranded with no communications options.