New Jersey Island Won’t Get Its Landlines Back After Sandy Because Copper Is Too Expensive

Gather close, you young folk, and listen to a tale of times past, when everyone had phones that connected them to the rest of the world through wires. In days gone by, people relied on these so-called landlines especially in times of natural disasters or power outages. As such, one New Jersey island’s residents are none too pleased that Verizon won’t reinstall its landlines after Hurricane Sandy destroyed the original lines.

The New York Times says some residents of Mantoloking are especially peeved that Verizon didn’t fix the lines after Sandy had her way with the island. Verizon said it was too expensive to replace all those copper lines, and instead installed a wireless service called Voice Link that it says is even better.

“So what if there are no landlines?” you might be saying. “After all, I don’t even know anyone who has one anymore besides my Grandma.”

Proponents of landlines, including many of the residents the NYT spoke to, point to the fact that landlines work when the power is out, because those copper lines carry not only voices, but electricity, unlike wireless networks and fiber-optic lines which require batteries. Those services can fail during a blackout.

Beyond that, there are other concerns: Consumer advocacy groups and the AARP are petitioning regulators to keep companies from refusing to replace copper lines, because not only do backup batteries only provide two hours of talk time, but 911 calls might not go through in such blackouts because of network congestion, as Verizon warns about Voice Link.

And then there are medical devices like many pacemakers that require periodic tests over phone lines and cannot be transmitted over Voice Link. Faxes can’t go through most wireless networks and many home security systems also depend on copper phone lines to reach the help at the other end.

“They told us this was the greatest thing in the world,” one resident said, but he claims that about 25% of his calls through Voice Link don’t go through the first time he dials, or even after multiple tries. He says calls are often interrupted by clicking noises and you can hear another person on the line on occasion.

Unfortunately for the residents of Montoloking and elsewhere, it appears that the old way of providing telephone service will follow the fate of the telegraph — it’s just too pricy to replace copper, and besides, argue phone companies, many homes use cordless phones, which require electricity and as such, would be just as ineffectual as wireless service in the case of a blackout.

Verizon says it’s looking into other alternatives for the island, and that Voice Link is just a stopgap to connect people in the meantime. But unless someone wants to install emergency carrier pigeon colonies on house rooftops or perhaps start training people in smoke signals, whatever the future is, it probably won’t involve copper wires, or any wires whatsoever.

One potential solution: Verizon could provide a fiber-optic cable system like it did after residents of Fire Island, N.Y. raised a fuss over Voice Link in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

On a New Jersey Islet, Twilight of the Landline [New York Times]