BALTIMORE — Not since Alexander Graham Bell twisted pairs of wires together in the 1870s has the simple telephone technology that has served Americans for generations — the landline — faced such a threat to its existence.
It's not just that droves of customers are dropping their home phones for cellphones, or switching to newer, fiber-based services such as Verizon's FiOS network. Major telecom companies have made no secret of their desire to abandon the traditional, copper wire-based phone service.
AT&T wants to complete the switch within five years. Verizon, the dominant landline provider in Maryland, hasn't set a date.
But there are many in Maryland and across the country who are fighting the change. They want to maintain the traditional, copper-based landlines for the advantages they offer. In a power outage, for example, landlines allow a telephone to draw electricity from the network and keep working; Voice over Internet Protocol and fiber-based phones rely on batteries.
Some fiber-based and VoIP systems won't work with medical alert devices, fax machines or home alarms. And long-standing federal and state regulations aim to ensure copper telephone customers can access service at a reasonable price, but there are no similar protections for users of fiber or VoIP systems.
Tammy Bresnahan, the director of advocacy for AARP Maryland, recalled a complaint from a woman who cut her traditional landline before a major storm in 2012 knocked out power for more than a week.
"Her power was out for eight days during the derecho and she had to go eight miles up the road to get her cellphone charged," Bresnahan said. "Luckily, she was able to get out of her house. But what about those folks that can't?"
Bresnahan said AARP believes that "it's not time" to make a full transition away from copper until technological issues are addressed.
Many are cutting the cord voluntarily. Two in every five American households relied only on cell service in the second half of 2013, according to a survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Among those ages 25 to 29, nearly two-thirds had no landline of any kind. Some keep a landline but switch to a fiber system such as FiOS or a VoIP, which uses the Internet to relay calls.
Telecom companies say the copper-based system is less reliable and more costly to repair. The Federal Communications Commission has said there will come a "tipping point" at which it will no longer make sense to maintain two systems.
"It's not just the wires that are going bad, it's the switches," said Sherry Lichtenberg, the principal researcher for telecommunications at the Washington-based National Regulatory Research Institute. "It's really hard to find parts."
AT&T officials have said the company sometimes has to scrounge on eBay for parts.
Copper landline customers in Maryland and across the United States have filed complaints accusing telecom companies of trying to push them onto fiber or VoIP systems. Some complain that repairs take weeks, or that companies refuse to repair the copper at all.
"It appears that local companies have decided that they're not going to maintain the existing copper systems as they try to switch people over to other services, and it's not right," said Maryland People's Counsel Paula Carmody, the state's chief consumer advocate. "These companies are still, in Maryland, regulated, and they need to provide good quality service, and not maintaining their system does not meet that standard."
The consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge has filed requests in several states to pause the retirement of copper to investigate service complaints.
"The allegations are that the carriers would say if you want to repair your copper line, we'll come out in a couple weeks but if you want to switch, we'll come out today," said Jodie Griffin, a senior attorney at Public Knowledge. "For the customers, if you don't know that you have a right to that service that you've always had, it's not clear how much of the transition has been voluntary and how much has been customers pushed to the new technology without realizing they had a choice."
Fran Shammo, the executive vice president and chief financial officer for Verizon Communications, said in 2012 that the company was "really proactively going after these copper customers in the FiOS footprint and moving them to FiOS," and that the effort would improve profit margins.
At other times, Verizon officials have disputed that customers have been pressured to switch. Verizon spokeswoman Sandy Arnette said the company "is committed to serve its customers with the best network available, be it copper, fiber, a combination of copper and fiber, or wireless."
She also called Verizon's VoIP phone service "very reliable."
Jim Spath has a cellphone, a VoIP phone for business calls at his home and an old rotary phone he got as an heirloom from his grandfather, who worked out of AT&T's old Western Electric plant on Broening Highway.
The Middle River man said he regularly hangs up on cold call pitches from Verizon employees offering to upgrade him a FiOS bundle.
"Primarily I keep the landline as insurance and a better-quality communication," said Spath, 59. "Sprint and Verizon is spotty and if the power goes out, the Voice over IP service won't work. So it's definitely a backup and it's a convenience."
Joyce Smith, vice chairwoman of the Baltimore City Democratic State Central Committee, said she wants to keep her traditional landline in case of a power outage.
"It's very reliable," she said. "When we've had all of these bad storms the last couple of years or so, if there's a power outage you can pick that phone up and it'll still be operable."
Lichtenberg said 34 states have "either completely or to a significant extent" deregulated traditional telecommunications service. Maryland is not among them.
In Maryland, she said, a company would have to get approval from the Maryland Public Service Commission to retire a copper-based system.
It would also have to get approval from the FCC. Regulators proposed rules last fall to manage the transition, and are now accepting public comment. The FCC is considering ways to ensure a backup power source in an electrical outage and requiring companies to notify customers when copper is being retired from their area.
AT&T won FCC approval last year to test new wireless-based landline systems with willing customers in parts of Florida and Alabama.
Advocates who are concerned about the transition away from copper often mention Fire Island. Hurricane Sandy destroyed the copper network on the New York barrier island in 2012. Verizon replaced the system with Voice Link, a wireless-based system. Customers complained of call delays, echoes and other issues, and Verizon later reversed and began wiring the area with fiber.
Advocates and regulators believe fiber is more reliable and offers better voice quality than VoIP. But in Maryland, the fiber network isn't available in Baltimore or outside of the state's most populous counties. If copper were abandoned, landline customers in areas without fiber would use VoIP.
Arnette, the Verizon spokeswoman, said there are "no current plans to deploy an all-fiber network widely in Baltimore City."
"We're focusing on meeting current commitments we have made to deploy fiber and to increase penetration on the fiber networks in place," she said.
Del. Cheryl Glenn, who co-sponsored a bill last session to delay the retirement of copper, said the lack of a fiber system in Maryland's largest city influenced her opinions on the matter.
"It makes you even more leery about giving up your landlines," the Baltimore Democrat said.
The bill failed to make it out of committee last year. Glenn is interested in sponsoring it again this year.
"It's more of an issue of safety and security and just to make sure that you have that choice," she said. "You would be surprised at how many people still have the landlines."
Information from: The Baltimore Sun, http://www.baltimoresun.com