Read as much as you want on BostonGlobe.com, anywhere and anytime, for just 99¢.

Phone companies abandon old copper lines

They don’t want to replace copper wire after Sandy

Robert Post, 85, of Mantoloking, N.J., needs a phone to check his pacemaker. The wireless device (right) provided by the phone company does not work with pacemakers.

JULIO CORTEZ/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Robert Post, 85, of Mantoloking, N.J., needs a phone to check his pacemaker. The wireless device (right) provided by the phone company does not work with pacemakers.

MANTOLOKING, N.J. — 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.

Continue reading below

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 Phone lines are outdated, the company says. Now, to get his pacemaker checked, Post heads once a month to a friend’s home in Bay Head, the next town over, which still has a copper phone line.

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.

The number of US phone lines peaked at 186 million in 2000. Since then, more than 100 million copper lines have been disconnected, according to trade group US Telecom.

The lines have been supplanted by cellphones and Internet-based phone service offered by way of cable television and fiber optic wiring.

‘Are we going to handle this transition in a way that recognizes that we have vulnerable populations here?’

Quote Icon

Just 1 in 4 US households will have a copper phone line at the end of this year, according to estimates from industry trade group US Telecom. AT&T would like to turn off its network of copper land lines by the end of the decade.

For most people, the phone line’s demise will have little impact. But there are pockets of the country where copper lines are still critical for residents. As a result, state regulators and consumer advocates are increasingly concerned about how the transition will unfold.

‘‘The real question is not: Are we going to keep copper forever? The real question is: How are we going to handle this transition?’’ says Harold Feld, senior vice president of Public Knowledge, a Washington-based group that advocates for public access to the Internet and other communications technologies.

The elderly and people in rural areas, where cell coverage may be poor or nonexistent, will be most affected by disappearing phone lines, Feld says. ‘‘Are we going to handle this transition in a way that recognizes that we have vulnerable populations here?’’

Verizon says replacing the lines doesn’t make economic sense. When they were originally laid down, the phone was the only two-way telecommunications service available in the home, and the company could look forward to decades of use out of each line.

Now, it would cost Verizon hundreds of dollars per home to rewire a neighborhood, but less than a quarter of customers are likely to sign up for phone service and many of those drop it after a year or two.

‘‘If we fixed the copper, there’s a good likelihood people wouldn’t even use it,’’ says Tom Maguire, Verizon’s senior vice president of operations support.

Verizon also wants to get out of rebuilding phone lines on the western end of New York’s Fire Island, another sliver of sand that was flooded by Sandy.

The island lacks paved roads. It can only be reached by ferry, and its residents are overwhelmingly seasonal. Some of the copper lines still work, but Verizon is no longer maintaining them, to the frustration of restaurant owner Jon Randazzo.

‘‘Really, what they’re doing is abandoning us,’’ says Randazzo, 30.

There’s no cable service on Fire Island, making it more dependent on Verizon than Mantoloking, where residents can get phone and Internet service from Comcast by cable.

The surviving copper phone lines on Fire Island often double as DSL, or digital subscriber line, Internet connections. As a result, Randazzo’s restaurant, The Landing at Ocean Beach, lost Verizon Internet service for a weekend last month, leaving it without a way to process credit cards.

New York state regulators have given Verizon provisional permission to consider its wireless Voice Link boxes as stand-ins for regular phone service. But the box doesn’t work with remote medical monitoring devices, home alarm systems, or faxes. It can’t accept collect calls or connect callers with an operator when they dial 0. It also can’t be used with dial-up modems, credit-card machines, or international calling cards.

Loading comments...

You have reached the limit of 10 free articles in a month

Stay informed with unlimited access to Boston’s trusted news source.

  • High-quality journalism from the region’s largest newsroom
  • Convenient access across all of your devices
  • Today’s Headlines daily newsletter
  • Subscriber-only access to exclusive offers, events, contests, eBooks, and more
  • Less than 25¢ a week