Home telephones have connected the world with copper wires for decades. But some customers who were happy with that traditional, copper-cable-based phone service are complaining that Verizon is pushing them to get fiber-optic lines they don’t want so the company can sell consumers features they didn’t ask for.
"This is just outrageous," said Elisabeth Waugaman of Potomac, Md. Waugaman is upset with Verizon because she says the phone company called her and said her neighborhood was experiencing phone service problems.
"He said, 'Well, what we need to do is, in order to fix this, we have to go to every single house in the neighborhood to update the wiring,' " said Waugaman.
Waugaman had plain old telephone service on a copper phone line. She agreed to be a part of a neighborhood fix, but when Verizon showed up at Waugaman’s house she noticed the technician was not servicing the entire neighborhood.
"Neither house on either side of me or across the street has been marked, so I knew there was something wrong with this," said Waugaman.
Waugaman contacted Verizon. A customer service representative told her the technician was hooking her up for FiOS – cable, internet and telephone through a fiber optic line.
Waugaman says she did not sign up for FiOS.
"They're going in and saying one thing and doing another," said Waugaman.
Waugaman’s complaint and others got the attention of Montgomery County Maryland’s Office of Consumer Protection.
"Consumers are filing complaints with us alleging that Verizon is engaged in deceptive marketing practices," said Eric Friedman, Director of Montgomery County Office of Consumer Protection.
Verizon is a regulated utility which provides telephone service, much of it on copper wires.
But Verizon is also a communications company that competes in the unregulated world of providing television, internet and phone through fiber lines. It’s unregulated service is called FiOS.
"The real problem is that Verizon is really two companies in that sense: A regulated company and an unregulated company," said Friedman. "And when a consumer is interacting with them they don't know which company they're dealing with."
The Maryland Public Service Commission has received similar complaints, accusing Verizon of not repairing copper so it sell more lucrative fiber services.
One example is the complaint that reads: "Verizon says they will disconnect my copper line and I will not have telephone service without FiOS."
The complaints are not just in Maryland. NBC4 has obtained nationwide complaints from the Federal Trade Commission.
This complaint out of Narberth, Pa. in 2013, reads: "They send salesmen to the door to bother me. This bordering on harassment. They are saying copper is to be phased out."
This complaint comes out of Portland, Ore. in 2009: "… going back to my previous phone service was no longer an option as Verizon had replaced my copper line."
Another complaint came out of Long Beach, California in 2012: "…. Verizon is unexpectedly cutting off phone service and then pressuring us to switch to more expensive FiOS when we ask what’s wrong with landline."
There are also complaints on Verizon’s website. There, a consumer wrote, "Can Verizon demand and order me to switch to FiOS… I have no problem with my copper line????"
NBC4 asked Verizon whether it was systematically eliminating copper and replacing it with fiber.
"We are maintaining copper; copper is a great product. It's very old but it works for a lot of people and it will continue to work," said Tony Lewis, Region Vice President for Verizon.
Copper is expensive to fix, so when there is a continuous problem, Verizon admits it often replaces copper with fiber to ensure customers have a phone line.
"Our position is this no matter what type of network you're served on our responsibility is to provide you that service," said Lewis.
But when Verizon upgrades a house to fiber, it becomes easier for its unregulated side to upsell other services that would not be possible on copper. Some regulators worry Verizon, the regulated phone company, is creating customers for the unregulated Verizon and consumers are being misled.
NBC4 asked Verizon if there was any deceptive marketing practices taking place.
"Absolutely not," said Lewis. "It would be a travesty for us to even dream about being deceptive to a customer base who can walk away from us."
Whether it’s because consumers are confused, or because Verizon representatives are making mistakes, regulators say they want the confusion cleared up.
"All we're saying is they've got to give full disclosure to consumers [and] not misrepresent to consumers, any information about copper," said Friedman.
If you have a question or complaint about Verizon telephone or Verizon FIOS, local regulators handle those issues.
- In Maryland, contact the Maryland Public Service Commission.
- In Virginia, contact the Virginia State Corporation Commission.
- In DC, contact the Public Service Commission of the District of Columbia.
- And, overall, the Federal Trade Commission takes complaints on misleading marketing.