Understanding the Verizon-Fire Island Drama in Five Easy Steps


fire island1.) Hurricane Sandy hits: Fire Island—that extremely long, narrow strip of land off the south shore of Long Island—was very nearly washed away when Hurricane Sandy hit last October. Besides destroying houses and businesses, the super storm also damaged Verizon’s copper wiring—which had provided phone and DSL Internet connection to the island—beyond repair.

2.) Phasing out copper: In the wake of the super storm, Verizon realized that the destruction of its copper wires was actually the perfect opportunity to phase copper out for good, and replace it with fiber optic cable—something the company had wanted to do for months, even before the hurricane hit. “In the long run, fiber is a more reliable technology,” said John Bonomo, Verizon’s director of media relations for the Northeast area. And yes, fiber’s great and all, except that Verizon FiOS hadn’t yet been offered on Fire Island.

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3.) Verizon offers Voice Link: In the spring of 2013, with landlines and FiOS out of the question, Verizon announced it would offer a new phone option to its 600 Fire Island customers: Voice Link, a phone system that operates off the wireless network. “As the rebuilding continues after Hurricane Sandy, we want our customers on Fire Island to know that we stand ready to serve you,” Verizon’s website said. “[Voice Link] is an innovative solution for quickly getting you back in service and improving service quality and reliability for you.” 

4.) Fire Island fights back: Despite Verizon’s Tom Maguire’s insistence that Voice Link was a reliable service, residents of Fire Island and telecommunications advocates weren’t pleased with the device. Some said Voice Link offered faltering service, and feared it would collapse during a 9-1-1 call or another Sandy-like catastrophe. Others complained that Voice Link didn’t come with Internet connection. All seemed frustrated that Verizon’s mindset appeared more geared towards business than actually helping Fire Island recover from the storm. “Verizon should not use Sandy victims as guinea pigs for its new technology,” Public Knowledge’s Harold Feld wrote in a blog post.

5.) A compromise at last: On Tuesday, Verizon caved, finally announcing it would bring fiber optic cables to Fire Island. “It is because of this commitment that we have decided to deploy fiber to the western portion of the island,” Mr. Maguire wrote on Verizon’s website. “The main driver of this was simply that our customers told us they were interested in a wider set of services beyond voice—services that no other company was willing or able to provide.” Verizon expects to have the fiber installed on Fire Island by summer 2014.

“Make no mistake,” Mr. Maguire insisted, “At Verizon, our customers come first…every time.”