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 Mantoloking home to the rest of the world is gone, and the phone company refuses to restore it.
Hurricane Sandy destroyed much of Post's neighborhood in Mantoloking, leaving hundreds of homes wrecked and one floating in the bay. Homes in Ocean County are being rebuilt, but Verizon doesn't want to replace its network of underground cables. Phone lines are outdated, the company says.
Mantoloking is one of the first places in the nation where the traditional phone line is going dead. For now, Verizon, the country's second-largest land-line 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 land lines that have been used since commercial service began in 1877.
State regulators and consumer advocates are increasingly concerned about how the transition will unfold.
Changes in service in South Jersey would have to be approved by the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities. For phone customers who live in rural or isolated parts of South Jersey, Verizon is the "provider of last resort," which means it is obligated by law to provide service, BPU spokesman Greg Reinert said.
"For most of the state, Verizon is the provider of last resort for hard-line service. Obviously there are issues the board will have to decide in the future. Less and less people are using hard-line service," he said. "So, it's a policy decision the board will have to make."
Land-line use in America peaked at 186 million in 2000. Since then, more than 100 million copper lines have been disconnected, replaced largely by cell phones or Internet-based phone service.
By the end of 2013, just 1 in 4 households will have a copper land line, according the trade group US Telecom. AT&T would like to turn off its network of copper land lines by the end of the decade.
South Jersey has recent examples of what can happen when financial decisions trump service. Parts of rural Cumberland County fought for years with phone companies over spotty or nonexistent service in Stow Creek and Greenwich townships.
"I'm in favor of private industry, but this is an instance where companies have to be more in tune with the needs of the public," Cumberland County Freeholder Samuel Fiocchi said.
Large sections of western Cumberland County had little or no cellular phone coverage, he said.
"They did a calculation of how many cell customers were out there. The numbers were so low, it wasn't cost effective," Fiocchi said.
After residents complained, county and state lawmakers exerted pressure on cell carriers to install more cell towers or fiber networks. The BPU in May ordered Verizon to improve its service to rural Cumberland County.
"They didn't have land-line service because the copper was so old. They didn't have high-speed Internet. They didn't have mobile-phone service," said state Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic.
Phone service was even worse when it rained, he said.
"It's a tremendous public safety and business issue," Van Drew said.
Cumberland County's example suggests the state will have to closely watch Verizon's moves in Mantoloking or other parts of New Jersey where the company changes service, he said.
"We have a responsibility to ensure that people who live in these areas have service. I've had conversations with the governor's office. They feel there is still a responsibility there," Van Drew said. "I think there's value in opening this up about how this service can be provided."
Consumer advocates say this issue will become more pressing in years to come.
"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.
Verizon says replacing land lines doesn't make economic sense. When they were originally laid, the telephone was the only two-way telecommunications service available. Verizon could look forward to decades of consumer business from 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.
Verizon says just 855 of the 3,000 homes it wants to abandon in Mantoloking had traditional phone service before the storm hit.
In other areas, Verizon is replacing copper phone lines with optical fiber, which allows the company to offer cable-like TV services and ultrafast broadband. Water can short out and corrode copper wire, but optical fiber is made of glass and transmits light rather than electricity, so it's far more resistant to flooding. But the cost of wiring a neighborhood with fiber optic lines can run more than $1,000 a home.
If New Jersey refuses to give permanent permission for the switch from landline to wireless phone service, Verizon could be forced to rebuild the phone network in Mantoloking. Unlike cable and wireless companies, landline phone companies have regulatory obligations in most states to supply lines at a reasonable cost to anyone who wants one. They also need federal approval to end service.
In New Jersey, state regulators are talking to Verizon about Mantoloking but haven't approved the landline-to-wireless switch that Verizon has already started. It could, at least in theory, deny Verizon's application and force it to rewire copper phone lines back into the town.
In Washington, the Federal Communications Commission is looking at an application from the country's largest landline phone company, AT&T Inc. AT&T isn't dealing with storm damage, so it has the leisure of taking a longer view. It wants to explore what a future without phone lines will look like by starting trials in yet-to-be-decided areas.
Staff writer Michael Miller contributed to this report.