Longtime Verizon Landline Customers Angered Over Outages | chelseanow.com

Longtime Verizon Landline Customers Angered Over Outages

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

BY WINNIE McCROY | On Mon., Sept. 17, about 50 Verizon customers residing in various parts of Manhattan gathered in the basement of Our Lady of Pompeii Church (25 Carmine St.) for a town hall, to address continuing outages of landline phone service among longtime Verizon customers. Service has been affected by manhole explosions, like the June fire at W. 15th St. and Ninth Ave., as well as inclement weather, construction mishaps, 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, Region President of NYC Service Delivery and Field Operations. “I don’t like meeting you under these conditions, but we are here to take action. I’m accountable for this and my team is here to help get your issue resolved as quick as possible.”

Representing Verizon was Richard Windram, Director of State Government Affairs at Verizon, plus several others from the company. State Senator Brad Hoylman and Assemblymember Deborah Glick were on hand, as well as a representative from the office of City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, whose district runs from Canal St. to W. 63rd St. (Johnson’s office organized the event).

Beasley said phone cables in this area were 100 years old and explained that the copper landline network was in major decline for physical reasons. He explained 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 the structural integrity of these lines — 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 fiber optics, which can be spliced together at the breaking point. Currently, 2.5 million NYC customers are wired for Fios. Verizon is still attempting to get the remaining one million 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 these (mostly older) residents of Greenwich Village and Chelsea are 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, then hector Verizon for refunds.

“My landline has gone out three times since November 2016; this outage started in March,” said longtime Leroy Street 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.”

Driver said twice Verizon gave her a Voice Link wireless phone as a stopgap measure. She complained that because it doesn’t show her number, banks and credit cards companies “get suspicious.” She was also concerned about the effect outages could have on those like the elderly disabled woman in the apartment below her, wondering what would happen in the case of an emergency. [Windram said you can register to identify and prioritize your line as a special needs line if you are over 62, blind or disabled.]

Joseph Beasley (standing), Verizon’s regional President of NYC Service Delivery and Field Operations, with other Verizon officials. | Photo by Winnie McCroy

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

Said Windram, “When it comes to Fios, 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.”

Due to how the lines are laid, a “block” is defined by Verizon as the physical land between bordering paved streets. Those behind you and next to you are on your “block” — but the buildings across the street from you are not. Once you get permission from all buildings on your block to install fiber optics, Verizon still needs to survey the block, make sure everything is accessible, design the network, order the materials, and schedule the production team to go out and install it.

HELP FROM ELECTEDS | Some community members implored elected officials to force holdouts on their blocks to switch to fiber optic. Sen. Hoylman averred, saying that the government could not force people to let Verizon on their property. He told City Media that he planned on looking at upgrading SB8311, a law passed last year that prohibits landlords from interfering with telephone upgrades.

“It was watered down to only apply to commercial locations, and I think Albany needs to consider broader language that would apply to residents, and add some enforcement provisions,” said Sen. Hoylman. “It is unacceptable that property owners can block someone from getting something as crucial as this.”

Verizon retiree Marie Warren tasked the government — specifically, Assemblymember Deborah Glick — with helping get her service restored when it went out from April 12 to May 16.

“I guess I’m one of the lucky ones; I know how the system works because I was a PSC [NYS Dept. of Public Service] manager,” Warren said. “Verizon sent us service dates they kept postponing again and again. They are anesthetized from customers’ predicaments, so we are forced to file PSC complaints and hassle our elected officials. When they finally showed up they fixed it within two days, doing a cable splice to two buildings down the block. We waited 34 days; some have had it much worse. If I hadn’t filed it I would still probably be out of service.”

Beasley said that 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 you 24 hours’ worth of call time.

Assemblymember Glick told City Media 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. Even if it takes more than one day, they might be resolving three or four problems,” Glick said. “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 their cable network, while they’d only been working on theirs for 15 years. They promised the end result would be worth it.

“Verizon is here to stay,” said Beasley. “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.”

State Senator Brad Hoylman was on hand to advocate for his constituents. | Photo by Winnie McCroy

MONEY FOR NOTHING | 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.

Angered, Jeff Franklin 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 after paying in advance, she finally canceled service, and found her account in collections over a $16 fee, noting that, “I’m no longer a Verizon customer. I was for 45 years. My mother was. But ruining my credit over les 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?”

Said Glick, “These major cable cuts have affected not only individuals but small businesses like doctors’ offices, frustrated by being out of service for weeks at a time. They offer some sort of Voice Link forwarding service, but it does not have the same flexibility, so small businesses have had a hell of a time. It’s cold comfort to them that Verizon is working on something else. And paying for a service that you don’t have is adding insult to injury.”

Still, Beasley stuck around and took the heat, saying, “It’s not our intent to bill you when you’re out of service. 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 said. “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.”

In a statement to City Media the day after the town hall, Speaker Johnson noted his office “is frequently contacted by constituents, many of whom are seniors, who have problems with Verizon phone and Internet service.” Verizon, he said, “heard loud and clear that people are experiencing real problems with their service” and committed “to creating a task force dedicated to working on these issues.” Constituents who need assistance can call Johnson’s district office at 212-564-7757.

Local resident Jeff Franklin (foreground) said he’d gone 30 years without a single problem, but now has experienced five outages in the past five years. | Photo by Winnie McCroy