Verizon outage sparks frustration

Town officials to discuss issue
Thu, 08/01/2019 - 7:15pm

“No Service.”

That’s what Verizon cellphone customers on Block Island experienced on their cellphones for the better part of a four-day period beginning Saturday, July 27. The outage not only created a public safety issue, according to the Chief of Police, but made it challenging for island businesses to operate during the busiest time of the year.

Verizon customers expressed their frustration in public with one another, and on social media, where the subject created a bit of a fervor. Verizon sent a crew out on Tuesday to address the issue, and service was restored late Tuesday night.

Service “was restored before midnight” on July 30, said David Weissmann, Public Relations Manager for the Verizon Consumer Group. “We worked with the fiber provider to get services back to normal.” Weissmann told The Times on Monday in an official statement that the outage was due to an “ongoing vendor fiber issue,” and they we were working to “restore service quickly.”

Verizon’s network went down starting on Saturday, July 27 and spotlighted issues with the company’s service on the island, with the network exhibiting declining coverage issues. The outage made it challenging for Verizon customers to access the internet, make and receive phone calls and texts, as well as conduct business.

Verizon’s statement did not satisfy its customers on the island, who said they were frustrated by the outage. That was evident in posts on The Block Island Times’ Facebook page, where people weighed in with their thoughts on the subject, which were mostly negative.

“Unbelievable and frustrating that in the 21st century reliable internet is a distant wish on Block Island!” commented Glenn N. Ross.

“While the front page article of The Block Island Times is about island-wide high speed network discussions, we have had no cellular service on Block for two days now because of a ‘fiber issue’. Maybe the island needs to make sure that whatever they do, it is reliable. It is amazing how distant Block Island is when you have no communication….just ask the taxi drivers or the hotel and restaurant employees what discussion they have heard during this time,” noted Cathy Marco.

“When you live here and your only phone is a cell it is disconcerting being cut off. Not to mention all the business people whose livelihoods depend upon summer tourism,” wrote Dorothy Lehsau-Findlay.

Meanwhile, Ricky Faby noted that: “The Block Island experience is so much better without cell phones. So is life. The days before cell service on the island included games, reading, singing and creativity. Loved those days. Life was better then.”

Paula Downer echoed Faby’s sentiments: “My favorite thing about Block Island is being able to “disconnect.”

On the business side of things, Terry Mooney, an island taxi driver, said that the Verizon outage was “causing serious problems” for the taxi business. “We’re not getting any phone calls” from Verizon customers. “And we’re potentially leaving people stranded.”

Mooney said that taxi drivers have been resourceful, with some drivers using two-way radios to coordinate pickup and drop-offs of passengers. “Service has been more difficult,” he said, “but it has been done. We make it all work as a team.”

Jim Rondinone, who owns and operates a cab, said he was able to operate because he has an AT&T cellphone. “It’s been an inconvenience to the cab drivers that have Verizon. But we’re doing our best. We’re making it work.” Rondinone received a phone call during his interview with The Times and gave a thumbs up.

First Warden Ken Lacoste said, “It’s been difficult business-wise” having no cellphone service. Lacoste operates Block Island Bike and Car Rental in New Harbor. “It behooves us to get going with the island-wide broadband initiative,” he said. The Town of New Shoreham is proposing to install an islandwide broadband network utilizing fiber optics embedded in National Grid’s sea2shore cable that connects Block Island to the mainland.

Jessica Wronowski, who owns and operates two restaurants on the island, Finn’s and Dead Eye Dick’s, said, “At Finn’s we’re lucky enough to have a T1 line through Verizon, but it hasn't been affected by the outage. At Dead Eye’s, we process credit cards mainly off a Verizon 4G router, which has been completely down since Saturday. We are running off our backup DSL router that is almost unusable. It’s so slow.”

“At both restaurants, we have been unable to hear customers when they call or reach them to confirm reservations,” said Wronowski, who noted that her restaurants operate off of a “waitlist system that texts customers when their table is ready. That’s been a nightmare with customers not being able to receive texts. And, my management team has Verizon cellphones, and we have not been able to contact one another with any kind of regularity, and instead are having to chase each other down in person. At least it’s a small island.”

Wronowski also said, “Over the fourth of July holiday, the increased traffic on the island brought our 4G service almost to a halt and we experienced similar effects. Service always slows on busy weekends.” She added: “It’s extremely difficult to operate businesses without a solid, reliable internet connection through the summer.” 

Jessica Willi, Executive Director of the Block Island Tourism Council, said, “Lots of people have been complaining. It’s tough to do business without cellphone service these days.”

“Everyone is talking about it,” said Cindy Lasser, Executive Director of the Block Island Chamber of Commerce. “We have even had quite a few people come in and use our phone. It is certainly the ‘talk of the town.’”

Kristin Baumann, Director of the Island Free Library, said, “Since the library now runs on the town’s broadband network, service was not interrupted, and on Tuesday close to 600 people logged onto the library’s network. The numbers from the other days are: Saturday (135), Sunday (295), and Monday (475). Baumann said, “Most days in July hover around 200 people per day.”

New Shoreham Town Manager Ed Roberge told The Times that he had been speaking with Verizon and monitoring the situation. Roberge expressed concern for people who could get into an emergency situation on the island. The town made a public phone available in the clerk’s office at Town Hall for Verizon customers.

Police Chief Vin Carlone said on Tuesday that since Verizon’s network was down people “would have to alert (his department) about an emergency in some other way.” He added: “I don’t have a great answer for this. My only answer is: I hope it gets fixed quickly. I know how important having access to emergency service is.”

“It’s a public safety issue,” said State Rep. Blake Filippi on Tuesday, who was in communication with Michele Cinquegrano, Regional Director for Verizon Government Affairs in Rhode Island, during the outage. “I stressed to her how important it was to restore service for that purpose, for the public safety of people on the island.”

Filippi said that once Verizon’s network is fixed, Town of New Shoreham officials need to have a meeting “to figure out how to prevent or be prepared for this kind of an outage” on the island. “I would be thrilled to be a part of that discussion.”

Chief Carlone said he welcomed that discussion, but stressed that something needs to be done to ensure coverage for the entire island. “Right now about half of the island operates without cellphone service.” Carlone said that is a serious public safety issue, which the outage shed a light on.

Roberge said, “Verizon service crews will continue to inspect and troubleshoot island installations over the next few days. I have requested a meeting on Block Island with the appropriate Verizon leadership and staff next week to discuss future disaster notification, response and critical communications. A full report will be provided to the Town Council following that review.” (The Town Council will discuss Verizon issues during its Aug. 7 meeting.)