Verizon’s Rural Withdrawal Leaves More Questions Than Answers

By Sarah Craighead 

Dedmon

 

Two years after Verizon Wireless announced its expansion into eastern Hancock and Washington Counties, Downeast customers received letters stating that their Verizon contracts would be cancelled effective Oct. 17. 

Downeast customers are not the only ones receiving these notices. According to Verizon spokesperson David Weissman, 213 customers and 455 lines have been cut here in Washington County this month, but a total of 8,500 consumers in 13 states will also lose their Verizon service—19,000 lines in the rural counties of Alaska, Idaho, Iowa, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Utah and Wisconsin. 

Verizon attracted new Downeast customers starting in 2015 when it made a big splash about its expansion into eastern Hancock and Washington County, made possible by a partnership with cellular carrier Wireless Partners, which built the physical network for Verizon’s use. At that time, media outlets reported a 4G buildout that would create seamless Verizon Wireless service between Bangor and Calais.

Since termination letters began arriving last week, Verizon’s communication with the media and cancelled subscribers has been minimal and consistent—Verizon says the cuts only affect customers who consume a large amount of data while roaming off of the Verizon network.

“People with consumer lines who rack up roaming charges greater than what they pay us each month are the ones who have been notified,” wrote Weissmann. “Customers who have roaming charges less than what they pay us each month, as well as government, public safety and business customers, keep their existing service.” 

Local users say Verizon’s explanation is wrong. 

Jeff Wilder is a firefighter serving with the East Machias and Dennysville Fire Departments. Not only is he a public safety worker, Wilder said has never exceeded his minimal 2GB data plan, or used roaming data. 

“That’s what’s baffling,” said Wilder. “I told the woman that my phone has never been roaming. She apologized and apologized, and said it’s a corporate decision. It’s final.”

Michael Reece is a customs and border protection officer with the Department of Homeland Security in Lubec. Reece’s phone has never roamed off of the Verizon Wireless network, and he has never exceeded his data usage. 

He is very concerned that losing Verizon will impact his work with Homeland Security. “As someone who works in law enforcement, it is very important that I have usable phone coverage,” said Reece. “Verizon offers full coverage all the way between Machias and Lubec.” Reece said he left US Cellular for Verizon because he did not feel US Cellular invested in improving its Downeast infrastructure.

 

Many local Verizon users have called the company and received assurances that their service will continue. But for how long? Verizon has stopped allowing new customers with Washington County addresses to purchase contracts. Verizon representatives did not respond when asked to explain why.

Bob Parsloe is the CEO of Wireless Partners, the veteran-owned cell carrier which constructed the network used by Verizon Downeast and in the northernmost county of New Hampshire, Coos County. Parsloe said he was just as surprised as Verizon’s customers to learn of the cuts.

"We feel awful this is has been thrust upon these customers without warning and we are doing all we can to advocate on behalf of them, particularly first responders and key government agencies that have come to rely on our network services as Verizon subscribers,” he said. “Unfortunately, our hands are tied thus far as Verizon is calling the shots.”

Expanding the digital divide

Parsloe said he wrote a white paper that discussed how communities which are digitally disadvantaged —on the wrong side of the ‘digital divide’—can become economically and educationally disadvantaged as well.  

“The ‘cellular and digital divide’ is real, and businesses, schools and families living and working in rural Downeast Maine can’t afford to be on the wrong side of it,” said Parsloe in 2015.

Maine Public Advocate Barry Hobbins agrees. “If you live in a rural area that doesn’t have the 21st century infrastructure systems, you’re at a significant disadvantage,” he said.

Hobbins is concerned that Verizon’s departure could leave some Washington County residents without a Provider of Last Resort, or POLR, because Verizon’s entry into the local marketplace induced residents to get rid of their traditional phone lines. Which could mean that, In the short term, Verizon’s departure could leave rural residents without a way to call for help in an emergency. 

But with the exception of the POLR program, Maine does not regulate telecommunications, which may mean that the government can do little to induce Verizon to stay. “We thought that the competitive nature of the free enterprise system would work,” said Hobbins. “But if it’s based on the bottom line, carriers are not going to go to the rural areas.” 

Next steps

Hobbins said he is scheduled to meet with Maine Attorney General Janet Mills and Consumer Protection Chief Linda Conti on Thursday, Sept. 21. The three will discuss what, if anything, can be done to persuade Verizon to stay invested in rural Maine. 

“That’s the issue that we’re trying to figure out, because as we continue this process of going from wireline, which is regulated, to wireless, which is deregulated, we could find that there are  FCC (Federal Communications Commission) issues involved,” said Hobbins.

“[Wireless Partners] was induced to provide a network...to make the play that wireless should be in rural areas, and there was an overriding need,” said Hobbins. “But the major [wireless] companies themselves were not building out or deploying in the rural areas.” 

Now, Wireless Partners owns the infrastructure, but will be losing a large portion of its Verizon Wireless subscriber base.

Mike Smith of Machiasport received his cancellation notice last week, though his family never left the Verizon Wireless network provided through Wireless Partners, or exceeded their data plan. He said he’s frustrated with the explanation Verizon has offered.

“Don’t be dishonest and tell us it's because we’re making bad choices and we’re roaming. Don’t blame it on us—take the blame if you’re the real reason,” he said. 

Smith said he was troubled by Verizon’s departure, because it signifies their lack of commitment to rural cellular service. “In terms of Downeast Maine, Verizon lacks vision,” he said.