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Motherboard

How Hurricane Sandy Pulled the Plug on Landlines

Storm battered Mantoloking, New Jersey, and Fire Island, New York, might very well see the death of the landline sooner than the rest of us.

by Lex Berko
Oct 17 2013, 1:30pm
Image via Robert Scoble on Flickr.

Landlines are dying. 

In the first half of 2012, over a third of American homes had scrapped their landline service for wireless-only lives, according to a 2012 CDC report. While this will eventually be the case for all of us, in the aftermath of superstorm the likes of Hurricane Sandy, two sectors of the East Coast—Mantoloking, New Jersey, and Fire Island, New York—have found themselves unwittingly at the frontier of landline death. 

Mantoloking and Fire Island were both battered by Sandy, at least in part because of their proximity to water. Sandy flooded homes, destroyed bridges, and ruined beaches. But also among its targets were the traditional copper landlines that have kept residents in touch for generations.

Destruction can breed opportunity. Communications companies saw their chance post-Sandy to push towards a new, all-fiber optic and wireless future. In both areas, Verizon has emphasized their wireless service Voice Link in lieu of rebuilding the damaged copper-based landlines.

Such plans have been met with discontent from some locals. Landlines are not yet entirely vestigial. And for those who insist—depend, in some cases—on traditional landlines, it’s more than mere nostalgia.

Sandy storm damage, Mantoloking, NJ. Photo via US Fish and Wildlife. 

As several other media outlets have pointed out, fiber optic lines stop working along with the electricity in the case of a blackout, which isn’t true of traditional methods of telephony. Wireless services like Voice Link may face congestion that doesn’t allow urgent calls, like those to 911, to get through. Additionally, other increasingly-antiquated technologies, including fax machines and alarm systems, rely on wire lines to operate. 

In other words, transitioning to fiber is not as simple as it might sound.

To hear Verizon and AT&T tell it, there are at least two major reasons why copper landlines need to go. The first is fairly obvious: Landlines are costly to maintain. According to NPR, Verizon’s proposal to switch to an all-wireless network in Fire Island will save it $600 per month per customer. Furthermore, the companies also hope that the switchover will enable them to eliminate some of the century-old regulatory measures governing the industry. 

In a November 2012 petition to the Federal Communications Commission regarding a switchover to Internet Protocol (IP) networks, AT&T wrote of their desire "for a more friendly regulatory environment (that is, a less extensive regulatory environment) as part of the IP transition,” Ars Technica reported. AT&T itself wrote in the petition that it "believes that this regulatory experiment will show that conventional public-utility style regulation is no longer necessary or appropriate in the emerging all-IP system.”

Fiber hub, via US Dept. of Energy.

Both sides are fairly obstinate in their positions. Citizens of Mantoloking have enlisted the AARP to fight for the continuance of the copper landline system. The community on Fire Island has found Verizon’s Voice Link lacking and struggles with its inconsistent service.

Ultimately, the question is when, not if, landlines will go quietly into the night. As is, we’re just trying to figure out how the transition should proceed—what, when, how. For now, however, there is at least one town in America for which landline telephones will stick around for at least a little while: Mink, Louisiana, which only built its landline communications network a mere eight years ago.

@heyiamlex