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Post-Sandy Telecom Melodrama

Villians and victim

How about a little cheap melodrama?

An AP story (Homeowners in Sandy’s path angered by phone companies’ refusal to restore copper landlines) is making the rounds today about an 85 year old heart patient – the victim – who can no longer connect his pacemaker to his doctor from his home in Mantoloking, N. J. because Verizon – the villain – has replaced his wired telephone service with a wireless equivalent:

Robert Post misses his phone line.

Post, 85, has a pacemaker that needs to be checked once a month by phone. But the copper wiring that once connected his home to the rest of the world is gone, and the phone company refuses to restore it.

In October 2012, Superstorm Sandy pushed the sea over Post’s neighborhood in Mantoloking, N.J., leaving hundreds of homes wrecked, and one floating in the bay. The homes on this sandy spit of land along the Jersey Shore are being rebuilt, but Verizon doesn’t want to replace washed-away lines and waterlogged underground cables. Phone lines are outdated, the company says.

Mantoloking is one of the first places in the country where the traditional phone line is going dead. For now, Verizon, the country’s second-largest landline phone company, is taking the lead by replacing phone lines with wireless alternatives. But competitors including AT&T have made it clear they want to follow. It’s the beginning of a technological turning point, representing the receding tide of copper-wire landlines that have been used since commercial service began in 1877.

Few stories tug at the heart strings like a sad tale of a senior citizen left high and dry by a massive corporation fixated on its bottom line; short of puppy torture, this pretty well takes the cake. The writer, Peter Svensson, is good at this kind of thing: he’s the journalist who broke the story about Comcast preventing people from sharing copies of the Bible with each other over the Internet. One might well say Svensson is the master of tech policy melodrama on the basis of these two stories alone.

Writers who go for the emotions occasionally leave out salient details that might interfere with their manipulative narrative. In this case, Svensson fails to mention what kind of place Mantoloking, N. J. is. According to Wikipedia, it’s the most affluent community in New Jersey, with a median household income of $200,833. It’s also a yachting mecca that has produced Olympic champions, but its population is declining. If this story is supposed to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” it fails. The chances are that Mr. Post is extremely well-heeled, has many communication options, and is simply being cantankerous. But let’s not pre-judge.

The kernel of truth in the story is that Verizon is not going to replace the copper telephone wires that were damaged by Sandy in Mantoloking and similar communities such as Fire Island, N. Y. This isn’t going to happen because it shouldn’t happen. Copper telephone wire is an obsolete technology that costs an awful lot to replace. Even if Verizon were a charity rather than a for-profit enterprise with employees, shareholders, and customers to look after, it would make no sense to “invest” in obsolete copper telephone wire in 2013. Buggy whips are in the same boat.

It doesn’t take genius or foresight to see this: Verizon’s Mantoloking customers have told them they don’t want “plain old telephone service” any more by cutting the cord on POTS in favor of mobile, satellite, and cable TV-based telephone services. Svensson admits that “80 percent of calls to and from the island were wireless” even before Sandy destroyed the phone wires, and the cable service certainly accounts for much of the other 20 percent.

It may be true that Robert Post has to connect his pacemaker to a network equivalent to POTS to send data to his doctor, but it’s far from certain. For one thing, newer pacemakers connect wirelessly to a home-based network interface that uses the Internet to connect to the doctor’s office. The FCC has dedicated some radio spectrum for this specific application, and patients have used these devices since 2009. The fitness devices made by such firms as Garmin, Withings, and Fitbit manage to communicate health data to cloud-based Internet services with nary a phone line on an hourly basis, which beats the pants off Post’s pacemaker’s monthly check-in. Pacemakers only last two to 10 years, so Post is probably due for an upgrade if he’s using one that doesn’t support Internet check-in.

But there’s more. It turns out Comcast offers broadband, TV, and phone service in Mantoloking that would allow Post to conduct his monthly pacemaker check-ins as he always has. Svensson acknowledges this:

Most of his neighbors in Mantoloking have cable phone service from Comcast Corp. that can do most of the things Voice Link can’t. The service, for instance, could relay Post’s pacemaker information. But Post just isn’t eager to switch to the cable company. He says he doesn’t trust them. And he’s not alone. Customer perception of cable TV providers has historically been poor, due to service outages and annual price increases, according to surveys for the American Customer Satisfaction Index.

Post’s neighbor, Garret Sayia, is fine with cable.

“Everybody here wants the cable for Internet and TV,” Sayia says. “The other thing is — who needs wires?” he adds, holding up his cellphone.

I wonder why cable non-user Post “doesn’t trust” the cable company while his cable-using neighbor trusts it just fine. I doubt service outages are really a factor, simply from personal experience. I’ve been using cable broadband for more than ten years, and I can count outages lasting more than five minutes on one hand. Yearly price increases? Not for broadband: I pay the same price today for broadband service today that I did ten years ago, despite the speed being ten times faster. In inflation-adjusted dollars, I pay less. There’s no doubt the TV programming costs are higher now than they were ten years ago, but that’s an entirely different story. But non-users wouldn’t be aware of these things.

Perhaps Post is nervous about cable because of the melodrama that various writers have ginned up about their practices in recent years; writers like Peter Svensson, for example. People who’ve followed tech policy since 2007 are bound to be familiar with his infamous story on Comcast’s Bible censorship that helped set off the “net neutrality” controversy:

An AP reporter [Svensson] attempted to download, using file-sharing program BitTorrent, a copy of the King James Bible from two computers in the Philadelphia and San Francisco areas, both of which were connected to the Internet through Comcast cable modems…

Not all Comcast-connected computers appear to be affected, however. In a test with a third Comcast-connected computer in the Boston area, we were unable to test with the Bible, apparently due to an unrelated error. When we attempted to upload a more widely disseminated file, there was no evidence of blocking.

The Bible test was conducted with three other Internet connections. One was provided by Time Warner Inc.’s Time Warner Cable, and the other came from Cablevision Systems Corp. The third was the business-class connection to the AP’s headquarters.

Why the Bible? According to Svensson, “it’s not protected by copyright and the file is a convenient size.” Had it been a different book, a TV show, a music CD, or a movie, I’m guessing that the Christian Coalition’s Michele Combs wouldn’t have been invited to testify at an FCC hearing on network management, however. In public policy, melodrama promotes irrational outcomes.  The Comcast articles of 2007 also manufactured and justified a notion, “net neutrality,” that didn’t actually exist before Comcast violated it except as a proposed regulatory principle manufactured out of whole cloth. Svensson made it out to be a long-standing tradition of the Internet, when it was actually a new-fangled regulatory notion that still lacks a clear meaning. He also pretended that peer-to-peer file copying systems had many legitimate uses when we all knew that their primary use was copyright violation regardless of what their potential may have been.

The story that Svensson refused to tell in 2007 is relevant to the current controversy over Voice Link: Comcast reduced the bandwidth that peer-to-peer (mostly) piracy-oriented programs could use in order to preserve the performance of such OTT voice services as the Vonage Voice over IP service. Comcast attempted, in a somewhat ham-fisted way, to prevent P2P from swamping its network with packets while they were waiting for a standards committee to finalize the details of a technical upgrade, DOCSIS 3, that would permit their network to handle four times as much traffic. That’s done now, the network it upgraded, a new network management system is in place, and Comcast’s Vonage users are happy.

The reality is that Verizon is “refusing” to waste money on a network that nobody (or next to nobody) wants any more, largely so they can invest more money on the fiber and mobile networks that people actually want. Ancient pacemakers and other antiquated modem-based services are being replaced by alternatives that natively use IP, often over Wi-Fi or cellular (or a combination of the two) to communicate with cloud services. So why should Verizon maintain an obsolete parallel network when the demand for such a network is next to nil? It makes no sense.

Again, the only people inconvenienced by Voice Link are modem users: all the affected services (fax, credit card terminals, home security, etc.) are modem-based services that can easily be replaced with more modern systems that communicate over the Internet. Internet service is available in the areas affected by Sandy from mobile networks, cable, and satellite. There is literally no modern communications service that must be serviced by the plain old telephone service any more, even if there are a few hold outs who simply don’t want to upgrade their old gear. The DTV transition faced the same problem, ultimately resorting to an expensive and largely wasteful “converter box” to appease confused voters.

Isn’t it about time that we dropped the cheap melodrama and tried a little reality-based tech policy? It may not work out, but it would be an interesting experiment. The people of Mantoloking and Fire Island are not victims, and the PSTN is well past its sell-by date.

Journalists who try to manufacture outrage over the inevitable march of technological progress are not helping the affluent and recalcitrant citizens of these privileged communities, they’re simply tugging at readers’ heart strings for a few cheap clicks.



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