Fire Island and the New Social Contract

by Mike Wendy on July 14, 2013

There’s been a lot of coordinated criticism lately on how Verizon has worked to reestablish weather-damaged services to the New York vacation resort of Fire Island.  Some have loudly accused Verizon of shirking its “social contract” because it has replaced its wired copper service with a new one called Voice Link, which many of the island’s 500-or-so residents are reported not to like.

Oddly, it seems Verizon’s critics – that is, the corporate-funded “consumer advocates,” unions and their media allies – want Verizon to make residents “whole” by delivering back to them FDR-era, copper communications technology in the face of a world which has gone all IP and smartphone.  In their mind, Voice Link won’t do because, well, it’s wireless (a particular sticking point for the unions).

How’s that for progress?

Letting no good deed go unpunished (or, no crisis go to waste), the critics have gone ballistic on Voice Link.  They see the change as a picture of bad things to come.

But, really, what’s so bad here?

Fire Island has at least three wireless broadband providers (including Verizon), which service the community. 80 percent of those on the island use these wireless options for voice services (and more).  Yes, on the western part of the island, the copper service has been washed out.  Consequently, a handful of residents – about 500 – no longer have their copper voice and other services, which relied on that infrastructure.  But Verizon has given them a substitute, one that will evolve and become better as time goes on (unlike copper).

If there were life left in that copper, Verizon would be back with it.  But, as the company notes, the marketplace has moved on.

This has the paid-for activist crowd in a lather, though.  They believe that only they get to decide what the “social contract” is and who gets to move on.  The marketplace – you know, its spontaneity and uncontrollability – ain’t in the contract’s fine print.  So, there ain’t no movin’ on goin’ on here.

The transition to the 21st Century shouldn’t be shackled by these professional extortionists.

Last I looked, a company working to serve customers in a competitive environment doesn’t want to harm them. They can leave, and quickly at that.  So, it’s in the company’s best interests to make good on its “social contract.”  Of making sure that residents remain safe, connected and get what they need, even in the most challenging of environments. Of staying in the community, which it helped build, in shared commitment when it’s really needed.

And, that’s what Verizon’s doing on Fire Island.

Importantly, it reflects the new “social contract” – one that ably serves communities, being guided by the advance of technology, consumer education tools, industry best practices, reputation management and competition.  It allows the public to determine what the “public interest” is.  In doing so, it shifts the power away from easily hijackable, FDR-era regulatory thumbscrews, and places it back in the “hands” of the far-less corruptible, and far more flexible, marketplace.  Moreover, it provides the incentive for companies to grow and invest in new technologies, which creates not only company jobs, but opportunities for the economy as a whole.

Sure, where consumers are truly harmed, then those harms need addressing.  But, short of clear evidence of that harm, the new “social contract” should be the default.

I do not doubt island residents have suffered as a result of Sandy.  I do not belittle that.  But let’s be clear, the antagonists in this made-for-print drama see it as really just another opportunity to kneecap the company, advance union agendas, and push ancient telephone regulations for the Internet, among other extortions.

Fine.  Whatever.

What they choose not to see is that their “social contract” is based on fear, control and forced servitude.  And, in today’s technologically advanced marketplace, it’s ultimately a loser for communities.  Not just because it’s both morally repugnant and abhorrent to our economic freedoms, but because its willful incognizance to the marketplace makes it economically unsustainable, too.

It’s so 1934.

Verizon is doing the right thing.  It’s serving present needs, while striving to meet future ones, too – something copper could no longer be relied upon to accomplish.  In doing so, it’s creating the new, 21st Century “social contract” – one that sustainably, safely and in a community-friendly manner meets the ever-evolving needs and demands of today’s consumers.

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