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AT&T/Verizon Roaming Agreement Ends in Montana; Rural Customers Left Without Service

no serviceVerizon Wireless customers and public safety personnel are upset that the cell phone company was caught unprepared after a rural roaming agreement with AT&T expired at the end of June, leaving police officers without communications and others with no way to reach 911.

AT&T no longer permits Verizon Wireless customers to roam on its acquired former Alltel network, which has dramatically reduced service in Geraldine, Absarokee, Ft. Benton, Browning, Harlem, Evaro, Cascade, Stanford, Lincoln, Ennis, Virginia City, and Great Falls.

Lincoln resident Gayle Steinch is living with the result of that business decision. She has a single bar of service on her Verizon Wireless cellphone at her house. It is her only phone — she dropped landline service in 2007.

“And I live a half a block off the main street,” she told the Great Falls Tribune.

Verizon's road to no bars in rural Montana.

Verizon’s road to no bars in rural Montana.

Capt. Gary Becker of the Montana Highway Patrol told The Montana Standard troopers in the area haven’t been able to communicate on their cell phones or their computers installed in their cruisers since the roaming agreement expired. Becker said police have to travel at least 30 miles to get any usable reception from Verizon.

Jessica Constantine, manager of the AT&T Elite Wireless store in Butte, said AT&T “had a roaming agreement with Verizon and we allowed them to use our towers for three years. The contract is over.”

And with it, Verizon Wireless network reception.

The agreement was part of a deal between AT&T and Verizon over Verizon’s 2010 purchase of Alltel. Federal regulators required Verizon to divest itself of certain Alltel territories for competitive reasons, transferring those customers to AT&T. As a result, territories that used to be well-served by Alltel’s CDMA network are now being converted by AT&T to GSM and data service, exposing Verizon’s sparse home cellular coverage in several parts of the state.

“They had years to prepare for AT&T switching off Alltel’s old CDMA service Verizon was dependent on, and Verizon did little to nothing,” said Jim Brown. “The Verizon person I spoke with told me it did not make sense to build a network out here because the only thing it would serve are crows. But they promised they would at least try to equal the coverage Alltel used to give us. That never happened and still isn’t.”

Verizon denied there was a major service loss in rural Montana. Bob Kelley, corporate spokesperson for Verizon, said that the change in service was planned and its impact would be limited to “less than optimal” service. He confirmed there were no unexpected outages.

lincolnAfter negative media coverage reported Verizon’s inability to provide quality cell service in rural Montana, the company agreed to temporarily deploy portable cell towers to improve coverage.

The “COWs”— cellphone towers on wheels — are stationed in Lincoln, Virginia City, Lima, Broadview, between Absarokee-Fishtail, as well as in Jackson, mostly meeting the needs of law enforcement monitoring the Rainbow Family Gathering last week. Verizon is also deploying repeaters that can re-broadcast signals and enhance range, as well as add coverage to existing permanent facilities. The company is planning on adding permanent towers this week in Marion and Tarkio. Additional permanent towers are also planned for Lincoln and Columbus by the end of August.

That cannot come soon enough for some customers.

Cell tower on wheels

Cell tower on wheels

“Verizon brought up this 40-foot [temporary] antenna, but you really can only get service on it on Main Street,” said Steinch, the manager of The Bootlegger, a Lincoln bar and restaurant. “We had a guy in here this morning who has a towing company who missed out on an $1,800 job because his cellphone didn’t get the call.”

Service has deteriorated so badly in rural Montana, some AT&T stores had lines of soon-to-be-ex-Verizon customers snaking out the door, and at least one reported it was completely sold out of cell phones and wireless broadband devices.

“Dillon sold out of cell phones yesterday,” said Constantine, “because everybody in Lima who was using Verizon just flooded the Dillon store.”

Verizon subscriber John Ulias found his cellphone useless at his cabin in the Little Belt, as did many of his neighbors in that area.

Although Verizon told Ulias and the Tribune subscribers should still be getting service in the Little Belts area from a Verizon antenna in Stanford, Ulias said that isn’t the case.

“I gave the Verizon representative the cell numbers of two of my Little Belt neighbors after he told me we should be getting service up there,” Ulias told the newspaper. “The guy called me back and said his calls went straight to their voicemail.”

Montana residents affected by the disruption of Verizon Wireless service seeking to file a complaint should contact the Office of Consumer Protection at the Montana Department of Justice by emailing: [email protected], faxing 406-444-9680 or calling 800-481-6896 or 406-444-4500.

For customers planning to switch carriers because of reception issues in Montana, Verizon is waiving early termination fees. For those customers the company can convince to stay, discounted service will be available along with discounts on a Verizon Network Extender, a portable in-home mini-cell tower that interfaces with a home broadband connection. To pursue either option, prepaid consumers should call Verizon Customer Service at 1-888-294-6804; all others should call 1-800-922-0204.

In New York and New Jersey, Verizon is attempting to convince some rural residents to abandon their landline service in favor of Voice Link, which relies entirely on Verizon Wireless reception.

“I have one word for my friends back east: don’t,” said Brown.

AT&T Buys Last Remaining Pieces of Alltel That Verizon Wireless Left Behind

Phillip Dampier January 31, 2013 Alltel, AT&T, Competition, Consumer News, Wireless Broadband 1 Comment

alltelAT&T has announced its intention to acquire the last remaining pieces of Alltel that were left behind after Verizon Wireless acquired most of the company in 2008.

AT&T will pay $780 million in cash to Atlantic Tele-Network, Inc., and add 585,000 Alltel customers to the AT&T family in six states: Idaho, Ohio, Illinois, Georgia, and North and South Carolina.

Prior to the Verizon sale, Alltel used to operate in 34 states, targeting small and medium sized cities. The company was well-regarded for its innovative plans and features that distinguished it from its larger rivals. Among them: Alltel Family Finder helped parents keep track of children, My Circle allowed customers to make and receive unlimited free calls to and from any number in a calling circle, including landlines, and U Prepaid offered customers the chance to make unlimited calls to one number of their choice.

attAlltel’s cellular network is based on CDMA technology, incompatible with AT&T’s GSM network. Alltel subscribers are expected to receive credit towards the purchase of new GSM equipment as Alltel’s network is retired.

AT&T says its acquisition will allow Alltel customers to enjoy a better wireless experience and also benefit AT&T customers who roam in Alltel service areas. But customers will likely lose access to Alltel’s service plans and will eventually be asked to choose a different plan from AT&T, potentially at a higher price.

The acquisition further reduces competition in the American wireless marketplace.

AT&T Drops the Ball in the Dakotas and Montana: Customers Forced Off Alltel Regret It

Alltel Service Areas Sold by Verizon Wireless to AT&T

When Verizon Wireless won approval of its takeover deal with formerly-independent wireless carrier Alltel, the federal government required Verizon to divest itself of Alltel’s assets in areas where the combined company would have a mega-share of the local wireless market.  The majority of affected customers, particularly in Montana and the Dakotas, were eventually acquired by AT&T, which uses a completely different network standard.  Customers were handed new phones that work on AT&T’s GSM network, but have since discovered those phones have little use in wide areas where AT&T simply doesn’t deliver a signal.

Even worse, Verizon’s robust network across the region is off-limits for roaming purposes, forcing customers that were perfectly satisfied with Alltel ready to throw their AT&T phones off Mount Rushmore.

“We got stuck with AT&T, which doesn’t care about the rural areas,” Mark Freeman of Harlowtown, Montana told a visiting reporter with the Wall Street Journal.

In the Black Hills, where AT&T’s network is as spartan as the landscape, some customers waited months before they could actually make and receive phone calls in places where Alltel’s old network (and their roaming agreement with Verizon Wireless) suited local residents just fine.

“We’ve been getting dropped calls, missed calls, and [have trouble] servicing [ATM] machines,” said Bill Huffman, an armored car worker in Sioux Falls frustrated by AT&T.  Area ATM machines depend on AT&T’s wireless network to alert drivers when local cash machines run low.  But AT&T’s network isn’t dependable, according to Huffman.

Ironically, customers are flocking to the carrier that would have been their new provider to begin with if not for the federal government divestiture order: Verizon Wireless.

[flv width=”512″ height=”308″]http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WSJ In South Dakota Dropped Calls and Dead Spots 11-27-11.flv[/flv]

Verizon Wireless stores in the region have suffered periodic equipment shortages ever since AT&T switched on their own, less satisfactory network.  That’s because AT&T customers are dropping their contracts at a rate rivaling the number of calls AT&T itself drops across the region.  The Wall Street Journal visits with perturbed local residents in Montana and South Dakota.  (4 minutes)

Sprint Copes With the Growing Reality of a Wireless Duopoly in the United States

Phillip Dampier July 4, 2011 Alltel, AT&T, Competition, Public Policy & Gov't, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon, Video, Wireless Broadband Comments Off on Sprint Copes With the Growing Reality of a Wireless Duopoly in the United States

While AT&T and Verizon trade customers back and forth and enjoy fighting it out for “number one” in wireless service, smaller providers like Sprint are finding it increasingly difficult to compete with its two larger competitors, who have access to the best phones, most coverage, and don’t need to discount prices to attract new customers.

Forbes’ financial blog shares its impressions of the anticipated financial performance of the three biggest players in the U.S. market:

AT&T: Still the financial darling of Wall Street, AT&T will see some pressure on earnings from its integration of acquired assets of Alltel Verizon sold to win approval of its merger with the smaller carrier a few years ago.  Since Alltel’s network used CDMA technology, AT&T had to supply free new phones to every customer it acquired, as the GSM network it operates is not compatible.  AT&T is also still dealing with a slow bleed of iPhone customers departing for Verizon as contracts expire.  It will be interesting to see if Verizon’s imminent end of “unlimited smartphone data” will create a last minute rush from AT&T to VZW before Verizon terminates its unlimited data plan Wednesday night.

Verizon: Verizon will achieve the top spot for the number of new customers it has added during this quarter, mostly from new iPhone users.  The end of “unlimited data” could mean increased “average revenue per user” if new customers have to pay for a pricier data plan, but some analysts are keeping a “neutral” rating on Verizon’s stock, concerned about the margin squeeze created when Apple releases iPhone 5 this fall.  Customers off-contract or nearing expiration could jump for the new phone.  With the subsidy Verizon provides to new iPhone owners, it could bring down margins.

Sprint: The biggest challenge remains with the number three carrier Sprint, which had been picking up disaffected customers from AT&T, Verizon, and even T-Mobile.  That growth has since slowed, and now the company is depending on increased revenue from price hikes, especially on smartphones which now carrier a $10-higher price tag.  But Sprint is aggressively trying to hold the line on customer defections, sometimes approaching “giving away the store” in order to keep customers from leaving for AT&T or Verizon.  In addition to accelerating free/discounted upgrades to new smartphones, the company has also increased the number of calling minutes for its Everything Data plan from 400 to 750.

Sprint’s distant-third position requires the company to price its service plans more aggressively than its larger competitors, especially to counter the image it runs a smaller network with less-reliable coverage.  If AT&T succeeds in acquiring T-Mobile, the dominance of AT&T and Verizon will become even more solidified, threatening Sprint’s position as a viable alternative to the larger two.  That could leave Sprint in the difficult position of trying to finance upgrades even as it has to heavily discount service to keep its current customers loyal.

[flv]http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/CNBC Sprint Going the Distance 4-28-11.flv[/flv]

On April 28, Sprint Nextel CEO Dan Hesse talked with Jim Cramer about his initial impressions of the announced AT&T/T-Mobile merger and how Sprint would cope with it.  (9 minutes)

[flv]http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/CNBC Sprint Nextel CEO Speaks Out 6-9-11.flv[/flv]

Back in June, Dan Hesse was back with CNBC’s Jim Cramer to expand on Sprint’s strategy to deal with a wireless duopoly and how it hopes to compete in a market where two companies would control nearly 80 percent of all American wireless revenue.  (11 minutes)

AT&T Takes Over Remaining Alltel Territories: Customers Share Their Phone Swapping Experience

Verizon Communications formally closed its acquisition of Alltel in January 2009, but some former customers are only now feeling the impact as they transition to… AT&T.

That’s right, AT&T.

Although Verizon acquired the bulk of Alltel’s national customer base, the federal government ordered Verizon to sell off its future Alltel customers in communities where the company would likely be the overwhelmingly dominant player.  Verizon sold off most of these orphaned customers, numbering over a million, especially in the Mountain Time Zone, to AT&T.

The transition from Alltel to AT&T would be a bumpy one because the two companies use different wireless technologies, meaning every customer would have to be provided with a new phone.  Alltel’s customers remaining with Verizon didn’t experience this, because both companies use CDMA technology.

AT&T agreed, as part of the deal, to supply every one of its new postpaid/contract Alltel customers with brand new GSM phones (although AT&T was unwilling to provide free advanced smartphones like Apple’s iPhone).  Prepaid customers were less lucky — they only received discounts off new phones.

Stop the Cap! has talked with more than a dozen affected customers in Arizona, New Mexico, Michigan, Utah, Wyoming, Iowa and Colorado about their experiences as they transition to AT&T service.  With AT&T now proposing to merge with T-Mobile, which could also mean some new phones for T-Mobile customers, we wanted to learn what customers thought about being moved from one carrier to another, what their experience was before the transition and after, and whether they intend to stay with AT&T.

Our panel included a young man from Utah who used his phone at home and outside of the state as he performed mission work for the Mormon Church in rural Florida.  We also spoke with a retired couple living in Arizona who chose Alltel because of their unlimited calling circle option to stay in touch with friends and family in Minnesota.  Also participating: a travel agent in Michigan, a realtor in New Mexico, a self-employed contractor in Colorado, a farmer in Iowa, and several others who shared their stories with us in e-mail.  By mutual agreement, we’re keeping their last names private because some have pending disputes with AT&T.

Breaking the News: Alltel Sells Out Their Customers to Verizon

When Karen, a realtor from New Mexico first heard word that Alltel was selling out to Verizon, she wasn’t sure exactly what that meant.  There was considerable confusion in her part of southern New Mexico mostly because the local media does a poor job of covering telecommunications stories.

“In New Mexico, everything in the media is centered around what is going on in Albuquerque and everything else is given little attention, except in the local newspaper,” Karen says.  “But whether you are in Las Cruces or Roswell, the quality of the story depends on the quality of the poorly paid reporter.”

Karen was not worried about the sale at first, because she was aware Verizon had a good reputation for cell phone service.  She had originally selected Alltel because they had good rates and friendly customer service.

“If I ever had a problem with my phone, Alltel would always fix it, even if it was out of warranty,” Karen explains.  “That meant a lot to me because they didn’t have to do that, but it was why I always renewed my contract.”

Heath, who runs a home-based contracting business in southern Colorado, didn’t like what he was hearing from the start.  Neither did Marion and Will, a retired couple living outside of Phoenix.

“We had our dealings with Verizon back in Minnesota when we lived there and we never liked them because they cost too much,” Will says.  “Alltel was a great choice for us because they had a calling circle plan that let you make unlimited calls to certain numbers, and we talked with our daughter back in Minnesota daily using our cell phone.”

Confusion about the deal only got worse when Alltel (and in some cases Verizon) notified our panel members they would not be Verizon customers after all — they were being sold off to another cell phone company.

Alltel -> Verizon -> AT&T -> Frustration

Micah, our reader in Utah first contacted us more than a year ago to express his confusion about why he was not only losing his Alltel account, but now he was somehow ending up as a customer of AT&T, a carrier he definitely wants nothing to do with.

“I figured I could at least live with Verizon because they are everywhere, but as I started performing my mission work for the church in rural central Florida, I learned from my parents I was actually going to end up a customer of AT&T, something I definitely never wanted,” Micah says.  “AT&T is terrible in Utah and worse here — nobody wants AT&T unless you are in Orlando or Daytona Beach.”

Alltel Markets Sold to AT&T (click to enlarge)

“At first we thought, cool, new phones for everyone,” Shanie told Stop the Cap! from her home in Muskegon, Mich. “AT&T has been promising major expansion of service here in western Michigan since they notified us they were taking over for Alltel, but then we started learning the details.”

While Shanie’s family of four would be given four new phones, their choices of new phones were limited, although AT&T called them “comparable.”  Many of AT&T’s smartphones were not covered, even if families already owned smartphones purchased from Alltel.

“We also discovered if you wanted one of these advanced phones, it meant a new two-year contract with AT&T, effectively forcing us to stay with them longer,” Shanie says.

Jed, a farmer outside of Sioux City, Iowa says AT&T did a poor job keeping him informed.  Jed stopped receiving all communication from Alltel (other than a bill) and never heard a word from AT&T.  Instead, one of his neighbors warned him that his Alltel phone was going to quit working by the middle of May.  Jed was upset because the deadline for him to choose a new free phone had passed and he never had the opportunity to make a choice, never having been notified about any of the changes.

“The newspaper might have said something about it, but we don’t get the paper here and nobody has much time to spend watching television,” Jed shared.  “We would have thought AT&T would have notified us, but they apparently forgot we were here.”

Last week, a new phone arrived from AT&T in the mail, unsolicited.

“What a way of doing business — we thought at first it was some sort of fraudulent purchase and we almost didn’t accept it from the driver,” Jed said.

AT&T has been sending out new phones all month to customers across several states, encouraging them to call and activate them on AT&T’s network.  Once customers do that, their old Alltel phones will quit working.  That was a problem for Shanie’s daughter at college in Grand Rapids.  When mom activated her phone, the primary one on the account, her daughter’s Alltel phone stopped working.

“AT&T has you call a toll-free number to activate the phone, but first they require y0u to accept the terms and conditions for doing business with AT&T, which can include contract extensions for some people,” Shanie said.  “I had no idea activating my phone would end service on all of the other Alltel phones on the account.”

Alltel customers in these states had new AT&T phones shipped to them on this schedule.  The second date refers to the service transition cutoff date:

Arizona January 27, 2011
February 10, 2011
Southern New Mexico February 7-8, 2011
March 2-3, 2011
Michigan and Montana February 16-21, 2011
April 6-12, 2011
Colorado, Northern New Mexico February 23-28, 2011
April 13-18, 2011
Iowa and South Dakota March 4-14, 2011
April 19-28, 2011
North Dakota March 15-21, 2011
April 29-May 5, 2011
Utah and Wyoming April 1-6, 2011
May 9-12, 2011

Bailing Out for Alternatives

Jody, a soon-to-be-ex AT&T customer in New Mexico, says there was plenty of fine print to wade through when he prepared for the switch from Alltel, and he didn’t like what he saw.

“AT&T is very tricky about how they handle customers who want to depart Alltel and avoid becoming an AT&T customer,” Jody says.  “You cannot cancel your Alltel contract and avoid an early termination fee, but you can cancel AT&T within 30 days of switching and escape a hefty exit fee.”

Indeed, AT&T’s transition website says Alltel customers who want to switch providers will face an early exit penalty as long as their Alltel phones remain active.  Those who switch and activate their new AT&T phones get a 30 day window to drop AT&T and avoid an ETF:

If, after moving to AT&T service, you choose to discontinue your AT&T service, you will have a 30-day period to opt out of your AT&T contract without an ETF. After that 30-day period, standard AT&T terms apply including any applicable ETF.

Old name, New Company

Jody got his new phone and promptly canceled his AT&T service.  He switched to CellularOne, a company with a legacy name but a very local network.  It has its own cell towers only in northern Arizona and parts of New Mexico.  For everywhere else, it depends on a roaming agreement with… AT&T.

Jody’s CellularOne plan still offers completely unlimited calling, texting, and data for around $80 a month, and that includes AT&T’s nationwide network.

“CellularOne offers a much better deal than AT&T, but you can only choose from three lower end smartphones — no iPhone to be had here,” Jody says.

Heath in Colorado wants out of AT&T as well.

“They drop calls all the time and their network strength is awful in my neighborhood, and I depend on my cell phone and don’t have a landline,” Heath says.  “I don’t know why we had to be stuck with AT&T who apparently de-commissioned Alltel’s towers, which used to deliver a rock solid signal here.”

But not everyone is heading for other carriers.  Sam in Farmington, New Mexico says AT&T is bringing 3G to his community and mobile broadband speeds have been much faster than what Alltel used to deliver.

“AT&T’s data plans are overpriced, but if you can hang onto your existing Alltel plan but use it on AT&T’s network, it’s not so bad,” Sam says.  “Unfortunately, you cannot upgrade to an iPhone and keep Alltel’s plans — you have to pick one of AT&T’s.”

The Future for T-Mobile Customers

Although T-Mobile shares the same GSM network technology AT&T uses, the two companies have different frequency allocations for their respective networks.  T-Mobile customers seeking access to AT&T’s network will probably need new phones to access it. While AT&T claims T-Mobile’s own largely urban network will supplement AT&T’s own coverage, customers may need new equipment for that to be true as well, unless AT&T co-locates their own cell antennas on T-Mobile towers.

Former Alltel customers tell Stop the Cap! AT&T didn’t offer the latest and most popular phones for their swap, and some customers too far away from an AT&T store had to get a new phone without being able to try it.  AT&T allowed customers to exchange phones within 30 days, which helped some of our readers, but most felt the entire idea of being forced to switch to AT&T an inconvenience.  Most were also disturbed that one of the competitors in their area was disappearing, and considering Alltel served largely small cities and rural areas, there was already a lack of choice for most.  In total, three of our readers are staying with AT&T, two left for CellularOne, one chose to switch to a prepaid plan, and the rest went with Verizon after all.  If Alltel were still around, every customer we talked with for this piece would have stayed with them.

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