Group files complaint against Verizon on 'forced' IP conversions

Verizon is converting some traditional telephone customers to VoIP without their permission, advocacy group says

Verizon Communications is forcing customers in southern California to move from traditional telephone service to voice over IP or wireless services, a consumer advocacy group has said in a complaint filed with the state.

Verizon, in its "forced migration," is ignoring state and federal laws requiring it to provide telephone services to California residents, The Utility Reform Network (TURN) said in a complaint filed Monday with the California Public Utilities Commission. The telecom carrier is ignoring requests for repair of its existing copper-based network and forcing customers to VoIP service over Verizon's Fios broadband service, TURN said in its complaint.

"Verizon is deliberately neglecting the repair and maintenance of its copper network with the explicit goal of migrating basic telephone service customers who experience service problems," Regina Costa, TURN's telecom research director, wrote in the complaint. "These migrations are often without the customers' knowledge or consent."

A Verizon spokesman said the company is reviewing the complaint and will respond to the CPUC.

"Verizon remains focused on providing our customers with the best possible service over the platforms that we have available to them," spokesman Jarryd Gonzales said in an email. "Where our all-fiber network is available, it provides a reliable platform that can support anything ranging from traditional telephone service to next-generation technology services, depending on the customer's needs."

TURN has received several complaints from Verizon customers, including elderly customers, who have been converted to VoIP without their permission, the group said.

VoIP service doesn't have the same state or federal regulatory protections that traditional telephone service has, TURN noted. "Verizon is migrating these customers to a largely deregulated fiber-based telephone service that is inferior to basic phone service in certain key respects," Costa wrote.

VoIP service doesn't work during power outages, and may not work with some medical alert services, TURN said. The group pointed to other Verizon attempts to convert traditional telephone customers to IP-based services, including Verizon's abandoned attempt to move customers on New York's Fire Island to a fixed wireless service called Voice Link following Hurricane Sandy in October 2012.

Verizon later reversed its decision after complaints that Voice Link did not work with fax machines, medical alert services, home security monitoring systems and credit card machines.

Verizon does not yet offer Voice Link in California, TURN said.

TURN's complaint comes after the U.S. Federal Communications Commission voted in January to allow traditional telephone carriers to run trials to convert customers to IP networks. The trials are supposed to help inform the carriers and the FCC about potential problems with a conversion to IP networks as carriers look to retire their copper networks.

The FCC is "carefully examining how the changes in networks and services--including the transition from copper to fiber--affect customers and in particular whether they reflect the core values in the statute of public safety, universal service, competition, and consumer protection," an FCC spokesman said Tuesday.

TURN asked the California commission to order Verizon to repair its copper networks and restore traditional telephone service to customers who want it.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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