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In the days and weeks following Superstorm Sandy, millions across our state were left without power, disconnected from friends, family, neighbors, and emergency personnel but for one single copper wire: their traditional telephone service.  Indeed, for many, this served as their sole connection to the outside world during a time when power lines and cell towers fell, and backup batteries were drained. Their tried-and-true traditional telephone was there for them. It was their one constant. It was their lifeline.

Now that lifeline is threatened, and may be taken away.

Verizon has proposed a new product, "Voice Link", which uses cellular technology, to replace traditional phone service in a number of New Jersey communities, many of which were heavily impacted by Sandy. There are a myriad of reasons to debate the current technological capabilities of a service that cannot transmit data, is not compatible with many home security systems that rely on traditional telephone service, and cannot connect those who need it to medical alert services. However, the issue here is not just about the functionality that Voice Link offers, or for that matter, fails to offer.

It’s about legal obligation.

The law mandates that Verizon maintain reliable, affordable basic telephone service.  The legislature and New Jersey Board of Public Utilities have not released them from that obligation. The company cannot decide for itself to ignore the law and regulatory authority. That’s not the way it works. And that’s exactly why the NJ Board of Public Utilities and the NJ Division of Rate Counsel recently opposed Verizon’s proposal to the Federal Communications Commission to force Voice Link on customers.

The fact is, Voice Link may be a perfectly acceptable option for some people, in some situations. But it cannot be the only option. And that’s why the law exists in its current form. Voice Link is purported to be reliable. But if power runs out, and the backup batteries die, it will be of no use at all. It is purported to be comparable. But to get the same level of services, such as internet access comparable to that provided by the traditional telephone network, the financial impact on consumers could be much higher.

Verizon is legally obligated to provide residents of each and every town throughout the Garden State with access to affordable, reliable landline telephone service. If and when the next big storm comes, when the power goes out, the batteries become drained, and the darkness falls, the very people that Verizon is seeking to disconnect will be the ones who need their traditional telephone service the most.

 

Jim Dieterle

State Director

AARP New Jersey