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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.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WSJ In South Dakota Dropped Calls and Dead Spots 11-27-11.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

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.

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

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

Former Alltel-Verizon Wireless Customers: AT&T Is Coming By Year’s End – Free Phones, Wireless Modems

Phillip Dampier September 5, 2010 Alltel, AT&T, Competition, Consumer News, Video, Wireless Broadband Comments Off

When Alltel announced the sale of its wireless business to Verizon in 2008, few Alltel customers could have foreseen they’d technically end up changing cell phone providers not once, but twice.  That’s because the federal government ordered Verizon to sell off Alltel’s assets in communities where Verizon already had a substantial market share.  For the sake of competition, the majority of Alltel customers in 18 states affected by the federal government divestiture order will become AT&T customers shortly.

That poses a problem because Alltel’s network and phones use CDMA network technology.  AT&T uses a different standard called GSM.  The two standards are not compatible.  Since AT&T has no intention of operating a CDMA network for Alltel customers, once AT&T converts Alltel’s cell sites to operate on its own network, every Alltel customer will be left with phones and equipment that will no longer work.

To make the deal work, AT&T has agreed to provide, at no charge, comparable brand new phones and other equipment to Alltel customers being moved to AT&T’s network.  No new contract is required, and customers will not be forced to extend one to receive the new AT&T equipment.

But that deal doesn’t extend to handing out free iPhones to Alltel customers.  If you want one of those, you will have to pony up the same money every other AT&T customer pays, and sign a new two-year contract.

This week, AT&T announced it was speeding up the transition, and many customers will be choosing new free phones around the end of this year or in early 2011.  Originally, AT&T expected it would take until mid-2011 to complete network conversions.  Complete details can be found on the AT&T-Alltel Transition Website.

For residents in the north-central United States, the iPhone craze has been something other Americans have experienced.  For much of the Dakotas and Montana, the transition will bring the first opportunity to get the popular smartphone at the subsidized price AT&T offers all of its customers on contract.

The implications of AT&T’s imminent arrival in the area doesn’t seem to bother the other dominant provider – Verizon Wireless.  In South Dakota, AT&T’s entry into the market may cause some to switch to AT&T, if only for the iPhone.  But Karen Smith, spokeswoman for Verizon Wireless in the Great Plains region, says Verizon is confident with the lineup of phones it already offers and remains the nation’s largest wireless carrier even without the iPhone.

Current Verizon customers like Jill Garrigan of Rapid City told the Rapid City Journal she’d consider switching to AT&T to grab the iPhone, but she’d much prefer buying one from Verizon Wireless.

“If Verizon carried the iPhone, I’d probably consider getting it from Verizon,” Garrigan said.

Many other South Dakotans share concerns about the higher monthly wireless bills the iPhone brings, and they’re not interested in paying a lot more just to own one.

Garrigan’s friend, Jessica Simon, said she’ll keep her current Samsung phone, thank you very much.  The reason?  “It’s all the additional money and all the surcharges,” she told the newspaper.

But local cell phone dealers believe the arrival of Apple’s iPhone will cause a sensation across the region, and they’ve already fielded calls from customers anxious to acquire one.

Stop the Cap! has created a map showing the areas due for early conversion for your convenience.

Areas shaded in red are scheduled for early conversion to AT&T's GSM Network (click to enlarge)

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Alltel ATT Transition Ahead of Schedule 9-4-10.flv

Stop the Cap! has compiled news reports from across the region regarding the AT&T-Alltel transition and its impact on states including the Dakotas, Montana and Wyoming.  Clips courtesy of WDAY-TV Fargo, N.D., KGWN-TV Cheyenne, Wyo., KECI-TV Missoula, Mont., and KFYR-TV Bismarck, N.D. (4 minutes)

Upgrade Specifics

The following counties are on AT&T’s early upgrade list (RSA=Rural Service Area):

Alabama: Greater Dothan area and RSA 7 including Butler, Coffee, Covington, Crenshaw, Geneva and Pike Counties.

Arizona: RSA 5 including Gila and Pinal Counties.

Colorado:  RSA 4 includes Chaffee, Custer, Fremont, Lake and Park Counties. RSA 5 includes Cheyenne, Elbert, Kit Carson and Lincoln Counties. RSA 6 includes Dolores, Hinsdale, La Plata, Montezuma, Ouray, San Juan and San Miguel Counties. RSA 7 includes Alamosa, Archuleta, Conejos, Mineral, Rio Grande and Saguache Counties. RSA 8 includes Bent, Crowley, Kiowa, Otero and Prowers Counties. RSA 9 includes Baca, Costilla, Huerfano and Las Animas Counties.

Michigan: Greater Muskegon area and RSA 5 includes Benzie, Lake, Leelanau, Manistee, Mason, Missaukee, Osceola and Wexford Counties. RSA 7 includes Gratiot, Isabella, Mecosta, Montcalm and Newaygo Counties.

Montana: Greater Billings and Great Falls areas and RSA 1 includes Flathead, Glacier, Lake, Lincoln, Pondera, Sanders and Teton Counties. RSA 2 includes Blaine, Chouteau, Hill, Liberty and Toole Counties. RSA 4 includes Daniels, Dawson, McCone, Richland, Roosevelt, Sheridan and Wibaux Counties. RSA 5 includes Granite, Lewis and Clark, Mineral, Missoula, Powell and Ravalli Counties. RSA 6 includes Broadwater, Deer Lodge, Jefferson, Judith Basin, Meagher, Silver Bow and Wheatland Counties. RSA 7 includes Fergus, Golden Valley, Musselshell, Petroleum, Stillwater and Sweet Grass Counties. RSA 8 includes Beaverhead, Gallatin, Madison and Park Counties. RSA 9 includes Big Horn, Carbon, Rosebud and Treasure Counties. RSA 10 includes Carter, Custer, Fallon, Powder River and Prairie Counties.

New Mexico: Greater Las Cruces area and RSA 1 includes Cibola, McKinley, Rio Arriba, San Juan and Taos Counties. RSA 5 includes Grant, Hidalgo and Luna Counties. RSA 6 includes Chaves, Eddy, Lee, Lincoln and Otero Counties.

North Dakota: Greater Fargo, Grand Forks, and Bismarck areas and RSA 1 includes Burke, Divide, McLean, Mountrail, Renville, Ward and Williams Counties. RSA 2 includes Benson, Bottineau, Cavalier, McHenry, Pierce, Ramsey, Rolette and Towner Counties. RSA 3 includes Barnes, Dickey, Griggs, LaMoure, Nelson, Pembina, Ransom, Richland, Sargent, Steele, Traill and Walsh Counties. RSA 4 includes Adams, Billings, Bowman, Dunn, Golden Valley, Grant, Hettinger, McKenzie, Mercer, Oliver, Sioux, Slope and Stark Counties. RSA 5 includes Eddy, Emmons, Foster, Kidder, Logan, McIntosh, Sheridan, Stutsman and Wells Counties.

South Dakota: Greater Sioux Falls and Rapid City areas and RSA 1 includes Butte, Harding, Lawrence and Perkins Counties. RSA 2 includes Campbell, Corson, Dewey, Potter, Walworth and Ziebach Counties. RSA 3 includes Brown, Edmunds, Faulk, McPherson and Spink Counties. RSA 4 includes Clark, Codington, Day, Deuel, Grant, Hamlin, Marshall and Roberts Counties. RSA 5 includes Custer, Fall River and Shannon Counties. RSA 6 includes Bennett, Gregory, Haakon, Jackson, Jones, Lyman, Mellette, Stanley, Todd and Tripp Counties. RSA 7 includes Aurora, Brule, Buffalo, Charles Mix, Davison, Douglas, Hand, Hughes, Hyde, Jerauld and Sully Counties. RSA 8 includes Beadle, Brookings, Kingsbury, Lake, Miner, Moody and Sanborn Counties.RSA 9 includes Bon Homme, Clay, Hanson, Hutchinson, Lincoln, McCook, Turner, Union and Yankton Counties.

Virginia: Greater Danville, Norton and South Hill areas and RSA 1 includes Buchanan, Dickenson, Lee, Russell, and Wise Counties and Norton City. RSA 8 includes Amelia, Brunswick, Lunenburg, Mecklenburg and Nottoway Counties.

Wyoming: Greater Casper area and RSA 1 includes Big Horn, Hot Springs, Park and Washakie Counties. RSA 2 includes Campbell, Crook, Johnson, Sheridan and Weston Counties. RSA 4 includes Albany, Goshen, Laramie, Niobrara and Platte Counties. RSA 5 includes Converse County.

Rural Alltel Wireless Broadband Customers Told to Log Off Forever

Rural Alltel wireless broadband customers are getting the axe as the company’s new owners have started pulling the plug on customers caught roaming too much with their service.

Not all of Alltel customers have become Verizon Wireless customers after Verizon bought Alltel in 2008.  In areas where Verizon Wireless already provided service, FCC rules required Alltel to sell its assets to other cell phone companies like AT&T or several regional providers.  One such company, Allied Wireless, bought the rights to use the Alltel name for its service.  But it’s not the same Alltel customers in southern Illinois remember.

Scott Sneddon, who lives near Benton, discovered that for himself when trying to log in using his Alltel Aircard.  When the service wouldn’t work, he called Alltel to learn they had unilaterally canceled his wireless broadband service because he was roaming off Alltel’s original network too often.  For the Sneddon family, that meant the Internet itself would no longer be available to them as they have no access to DSL or cable broadband service.  Sneddon received no warning and no second chance.

Sneddon is concerned because Alltel’s unlimited service plan did not carry the typical 5GB monthly usage allowance other providers enforce.  Despite having a two year contract, Alltel was able to pull the rug out from under his service because the company wanted to cut its roaming costs.  Although the Sneddon initially faced a $400 early cancellation penalty to switch providers, the media attention Alltel received made them relent — Alltel customers in similar positions who find themselves out in the wireless broadband cold will not have to pay a penalty to cancel all of their Alltel services.  Additionally, the company has promised to refund one month of service and refund all wireless broadband equipment charges incurred by dropped customers.

For rural America, incumbent wireless providers disconnecting service for customers they don’t want to serve is just another broken broadband promise.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WSIL Harrisburg Alltel Drops Illinois Customers 6-27-10.flv

WSIL-TV in Harrisburg, Ill., shares the stories of two Illinois families left without Internet service when Alltel suddenly canceled their service “for roaming too much.”  (4 minutes)

Special Report: The Rise and Fall (And Rise Again) of Alltel

Alltel's logo, in use before 2006

Alltel Wireless is back.  Two years after Alltel was bought by Verizon Wireless, some 900,000 customers in Georgia, Illinois, North and South Carolina, Ohio and Idaho not included in the transition to Verizon will remain Alltel customers under new management.

For many customers, that suits them just fine.  In fact, with an increasing number of complaints from the 13.2 million former Alltel customers forced into a shotgun cellular wedding with Verizon or AT&T, many wish they could have the choice to return to Alltel themselves.

The demise of Alltel is another classic example of a telecommunications deal that made sense (and dollars) for Wall Street and a handful of Alltel executives, but left thousands of employees out in the cold in the unemployment line and customers coping with broken promises and higher bills.

It’s a story familiar to most of our readers, because the game plan for most telecom mergers and acquisitions delivers all of the benefits to a select few and ends up costing consumers plenty.  That these deals get almost routine approval from the Federal Communications Commission is ironic, considering that same agency commissioned studies that unsurprisingly found increased consolidation and lack of competition in the wireless marketplace.

The end of Alltel is a great example of what happens when an industry achieves near-total deregulation. Lobbyists sell deregulation as directly benefiting consumers with increased competition, more innovation, and lower prices.  In reality, from broadcasting to broadband, deregulation sparks escalating rounds of mergers, acquisitions, and buyouts.  Wall Street doesn’t want increased competition — it wants fewer options, less costly innovation, and higher prices to sustain profits.  When Wall Street speaks, most of these companies listen.

Since 1996, when the Telecommunications Act was passed, more than two dozen telecommunications companies have been swallowed up in mergers and buyouts.  Consumers find themselves with new providers and higher bills.  But not everyone is hurting from laissez-faire tele-economics.  For a handful of top executives, the result has been riches beyond their wildest dreams.  Even when they are forced out through merger deals, the golden parachutes that follow brings tears of joy.  Just ask Alltel’s last CEO — Scott T. Ford — he said goodbye to Alltel in 2007 with a parting bonus of nearly $150 million dollars.

Alltel’s History — Keeping It In the Family

Alltel’s history in the telephone business traces all the way back to 1943, with the formation of the Allied Telephone Company of Little Rock, Arkansas.  Back then, telephone service in the U.S. was mostly a monopoly of AT&T and several smaller independent phone companies. Allied’s business began as a pole and wiring provider for those phone companies.  In 1983, Alltel – the traditional phone company – was created from a merger between Allied Telephone and Mid-Continent Telephone.  In 1985, Alltel Wireless service began from its first cellular system in Charlotte, N.C.  In less than a decade, the wireless division would expand service in smaller cities and towns across mid-America and the south, often where larger carriers didn’t want to provide service.

Just about everything in the telecommunications industry changed with the passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton.  The law that promised to open the doors to better service and more competition actually deregulated most of the industry into an “anything-goes” circus of money-fueled mergers, buyouts, and consolidation.  Important consumer protections were discarded along the way.

The implications of the Act were well understood by corporate executives in the industry, and companies spent millions to lobby for its passage.  They considered it a down-payment for better days to come.  The biography of Alltel’s then-CEO Joe T. Ford noted the passage of the law changed everything, even leading to a violation of an agreement he made with his son when he was only 12 years old:

Scott T. Ford, the president and chief executive officer of the Alltel Corporation, made his first business deal at the age of 12 with his father, Joe T. Ford. The two agreed that Scott would never work at Alltel. Joe wanted to spare his son what he himself had endured since coming to work for his father-inlaw, Hugh Wilbourne Jr., in 1959. After the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, however, the Fords rethought their agreement, and, at age 35, Scott Ford became executive vice president of Alltel. Within two years he was appointed CEO, following in the footsteps of his grandfather Wilbourne, who formed Allied Telephone Company in 1943 in Little Rock, Arkansas.

All that hard work by earlier generations was about to pay some serious dividends in a laissez-faire telecommunications world.

Beebe literally drew his own road map depicting his idea of success - remaining on top after a flurry of mergers and ongoing industry consolidation

The Dot.com Boom… for Some

At the end of the 20th century, the telecommunications industry was in the middle of the dot.com boom.

The impact of the 1996 Telecom Act did fuel change among traditional telecom companies.  While some new players were wildly upgrading networks and building fiber optic networks to sustain the dot.com book, most of the traditional phone and cable companies were spending their time and attention on mergers and leveraged buyouts.  The Baby Bell-AT&T empire that was broken up in the mid-1980s was nearly restored to its former glory with super-sized Verizon and AT&T.  Independent phone companies which operated for a century were suddenly the targets of buyouts, now consolidated by regional players like CenturyTel, Embarq, Alltel and Citizens.

Alltel didn’t just buy up other independent phone companies.  It also bought wireless providers and soon merged its landline and wireless divisions into a single company.  This was the era when the “full service phone company” was trendy — capable of delivering local, long distance, and wireless service all from one company, usually on one bill.

Alltel’s executives, like then-Alltel group president Kevin Beebe, delivered presentations to Wall Street bankers like Credit Suisse/First Boston promoting Alltel and its made-for-consolidation balance sheet.  He literally drew his own road map showing his route to success, depicting himself on top after successive mergers with smaller players.

Unfortunately, the high-powered, cash rich days of the dot.com deal were about to end.  By the start of the new century, it was all over.  An oversupply of infrastructure was built to support web-based businesses that would never launch.  Many of those already in business shuttered their virtual doors.  Venture capital for telecommunications projects dried up.  But there was still plenty of money to be made in wireless, and Alltel did obtain financing to launch mergers and buyouts with as many small cell phone providers as possible.  By the early 2000s, the mentality in the telecommunications business was “small is bad.”  The only path to success was to buy your competition, or be bought by them.

The business of mergers and acquisitions earned countless millions for Wall Street banks, who charged fees to help structure the deals and usually helped finance them.  Executives always won, even if a merger brought an end to their career at the company.  Golden parachutes kept the top floor happy.  The only losers were the soon-to-be-ex-employees and middle management declared redundant and escorted from the building.  They were the “cost savings” promoted as a benefit of the merger months earlier.  Meanwhile, customers were stuck dealing with the transition changes, service interruptions, and the eventually higher bill that always result from reduced competition.

During the first half of this decade, it was Alltel doing the acquiring — spending fortunes to acquire other regional wireless phone companies:

  • 2002: Alltel acquires 700,000 wireless customers from CenturyTel Inc. in Arkansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Texas and Wisconsin for $1.5 billion.
  • 2003: Alltel purchases wireless properties in Mississippi from Cellular XL.
  • 2004: Alltel acquires wireless properties from MobileTel, U.S. Cellular and TDS Telecom.
  • 2005: Alltel merges with Western Wireless Corp., acquires wireless properties from Public Service Cellular, certain wireless assets from Cingular and exchanges properties with U.S. Cellular of Chicago to meet divestiture requirements related to Alltel’s merger with Western Wireless Corp. Alltel agrees to purchase Midwest Wireless for $1 billion in cash.

Despite the shopping spree, Alltel’s executives like Beebe continued to let it be known Alltel itself was “well-positioned for wireless consolidation” — available for a buyout… for the right price.  By 2006, Alltel had become the fifth largest telecommunications company in the country, with operations in 34 states.  Thanks to lengthy roaming agreements with Sprint and Verizon Wireless, Alltel could deliver national service even from a regional network.

Alltel also enjoyed a satisfied customer base, thanks to innovative calling plans and services that were unheard of from other cell companies.  In 2006, it introduced the popular My Circle calling plan, which allowed customers to make unlimited wireless calls to up to ten numbers, regardless of whether they were landlines or other Alltel wireless customers.  That same year, U Prepaid was introduced, which included unlimited calling and text messaging to a pre-designated number — perfect for those needing to call home.  Alltel prepaid customers could also roam on many other carrier’s networks without paying enormous roaming fees.

Alltel Sells Out Its Landlines

Until the 1996 Telecom Act, most publicly-owned telephone companies were considered a safe utility stock.  In rural communities, many of the phone companies that established service where AT&T’s Bell System did not have been around since the 1890s.  Often owned by a family or cooperative, these independent phone companies popped up when Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone patents expired.  The companies were hardly growth hotbeds, traditionally serving communities that saw little growth and lots of expenses from the wide-open country they had to wire.

After deregulation, venture capital moved aggressively into the wireless and cable sectors.  For the first time, many rural phone companies faced competition from rural cellular providers and cable companies experimenting with “digital phone” service delivered over cable television lines.  But unlike the phone company, these providers were not required to deliver service to everyone.  Most of these services would only challenge the phone company in population centers within towns and villages, that also happened to be where most of their customers lived and worked.

The business model was changing.  As rural phone companies began losing customers to cable and wireless providers, some of them looked to mergers and acquisitions to reduce costs and improve revenues to keep revenue stable, even as customers disconnected.  To maintain interest and  investment from stockholders, many traditional publicly-held phone companies began paying shareholders increased dividends, which attracted attention from Wall Street.

On July 11, 2004, one independent phone company set a new bar for dividends and probably changed the long term business models of rural phone companies for years to come.  Citizens Communications Corporation, as part of a corporate re-shuffle, announced the resignation of its then-CEO Leonard Tow, changed its name to Frontier Communications, and announced an incredible one-time payout of a $2 dividend for every share of common stock, and an ongoing annual $1 dividend, payable every quarter.

With a payout like that, investors began demanding increasing dividends from other phone companies, Alltel included.  To pay that kind of dividend, you need revenue, and slow-growth rural phone companies cannot just generate millions in new revenue selling voicemail, long distance plans, and caller-ID.  That kind of money comes from new lines of business, such as broadband, or from cash-generating mergers and buyouts.

Broadband required millions of dollars in new investments, increasing short term costs and having to wait several years to see a return.  Mergers and acquisitions delivered fast cash and instant results — short term benefits Wall Street loves to see.

So while phone companies continued to lose landline customers at rates up to 7 percent per year, another round of frenzied consolidation through mergers and buyouts erupted.

Rural Phone Company Deals
From 2004 forward, an explosion in mergers and acquisitions tempered only by a shrinking number of available targets by 2009 led to more than two dozen consolidations among independent phone companies. (Source: Stifel, Nicolaus & Company)
Year
No. of deals
Deal value [in millions of dollars]
2004
2
527
2005
4
9,100
2006
6
2,196
2007
13
4,110
2008
7
11,880
2009
3
8,930

For Alltel, already established with a strong wireless division, seeing the long term prospects of trying to sustain its landline business as it lost customers seemed pointless.  In December 2005, Alltel announced it was dumping its 3,000,000 landline customers, combining them with another 500,000 customers of Irving, Texas-based Valor Communications in a $9.1 billion dollar tax-free deal to create a new independent landline company — Windstream Communications.

Alltel would henceforth be a wireless phone company-only, and a much richer one at that.  Unfortunately, despite its ranking as America’s fifth largest wireless provider, Alltel still remained a regional player, far behind its fourth largest rival T-Mobile.  With a dwindling number of wireless companies to acquire, speculation grew Alltel itself would soon become a takeover target.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/KLRT Little Rock Alltel Sold to Goldman Sachs 5-20-07.flv

KLRT-TV in Little Rock covered the announced acquisition of Alltel by Goldman Sachs on May 20, 2007 in these three reports.  (15 minutes)

Goldman Sachs Moves In

Within two years, Alltel’s independence would come to an end.  In 2007, Alltel formally opened an auction to sell the company’s wireless assets to the highest bidder.  But in a surprise move, company executives suddenly canceled the auction and accepted a $26 billion leveraged buyout takeover offer from TPG Capital and the buyout arm of Goldman Sachs.  Now, Wall Street investment bankers would own and control Alltel outright.

Speculation in the financial press about why Alltel canceled the auction and didn’t even entertain other bidders for the company raised eyebrows at the time.  The windfall payouts to Alltel’s executives disclosed in later Securities & Exchange Commission filings may have had something to do with it.  Company executives won the equivalent of the Powerball Lotto:

  • CEO Scott T. Ford received nearly $150 million dollars.
  • Richard Massey, former chief strategy officer and general counsel walked away with almost $50 million.
  • Alltel Chief Operating Officer Jeff Fox cleared more than $70 million.
  • C.J. Duvall, who was EVP of human resources earned nearly $10 million.
  • Kevin Beebe, group president of operations went home with more than $60 million.

That’s quite a haul for the top floor executives at Alltel heading for the exits.

But Goldman Sachs had no intention of running its own phone company for long.  Analysts predicted the investment bank would hold onto Alltel for a year or two in hopes of selling it at a premium to one of the other wireless carriers, probably AT&T or Verizon.

That’s exactly what happened, except it only took seven months.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Bloomberg In-Depth Look Goldman and TPG to Buy Alltel 5-21-07.flv

Bloomberg News took an in-depth look at the 2007 Alltel acquisition by Goldman Sachs and ongoing wireless consolidation. (Corrected Video) (5 minutes)

Verizon Takes Over – The Dog & Pony Approval Circus

With the collapse of the banking sector in 2007 and 2008, Goldman Sachs needed to get rid of assets to raise money.  The subprime mortgage mess left banks with $386 billion in asset writedowns and credit losses.  By putting Alltel up for sale, Goldman would earn $28.1 billion, enough to pay off the loans financing Alltel’s buyout months earlier, and even come out ahead.

The buyer, Verizon Wireless, sought to combine Alltel’s rural cell tower network with its own to expand coverage and pick up a stronger presence in middle America.

In the high stakes, high cost consolidation of telecommunications in the United States, what few regulatory hurdles Verizon would face getting the deal approved meant bringing forth the dog and pony show from Verizon’s lobbyists.  The Federal Communications Commission could alter or even kill its deal.  To make sure that didn’t happen, Verizon counted on the usual assortment of “dollar a holler” advocacy groups, heavy lobbying in Congress, and other friendly allies to help get the deal approved.

Unsurprisingly, Verizon can always count on help from free market allies and alleged community service groups with whom it has a financial relationship or contributes executive talent to serve on their boards.  Most of these have no involvement in telecommunications matters, except when it interests or impacts Verizon.  Suddenly they spring to action, conveniently submitting similar comments supporting whatever Verizon had on the agenda before the FCC.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Little Rock Alltel-Verizon Merger Compilation 2008-2009.flv

KLRT and KTHV-TV in Little Rock, Ark., where Alltel was headquartered, ran a series of reports explaining the impact the Verizon-Alltel merger would have on Alltel’s service and jobs in Little Rock. (23 minutes)

Selected Members of the Verizon Friendship Crew Filing Comments Supporting the Verizon Purchase of Alltel (click the names to read their letters to the FCC):

Alltel's service areas were carved up between three major providers - Verizon, AT&T, and ATN

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Bloomberg Verizon Buying Alltel 6-5-08.flv

Bloomberg News considered the business/industry implications of the Verizon-Alltel merger in these reports. (9 minutes)

Consumers Get Broken Promises & More Expensive Service

The benefits list of what Verizon promised to bring Alltel customers was heavily redacted in FCC filings as “highly confidential.”  What was promised, in public, was that Verizon would deliver improved service to Alltel customers who could continue with their existing service plans..

What consumers really got were major headaches, bad service, and much higher bills.  Former Alltel customers continue to tear up Verizon Wireless’ support forums with page after page of complaints.  As one former Alltel customer puts it, “we are the abandoned children of the redheaded stepchild.”

Some readers of Stop the Cap! shared their own experiences with the Alltel sale. Penny writes:

I first had Midwest Wireless that was bought out by Alltel which was just bought out by Verizon. With each switch I had to change my phone because something on the new system would not work on my old “previous provider” cell phone. Verizon has yet again said that for the “data charges” I can not block anything as my cell phone is too old and that I need to get a “Verizon” phone. My phone is not even a year old.

Enough about phones, data charges, rude customer service. You want to talk about dishonesty and unfair practices…just say Verizon.

In May I called and asked what I should do about leaving for a trip in which I would go out of my phone zone. The customer assistant that I talked to informed me that to avoid roaming charges I should temporarily switch to a national plan. I asked several times if I would be able to go back to my previous plan and was promised that I could set the start and end date for the new national plan. Well can you guess what they did? Yep they did the old bait and switch and from what I know about law….or what I thought about law was that this practice is illegal. Verizon started the new plan almost after I got back from my trip and plus would not set me back to my old plan. So now I had over 2 times the old bill plus roaming charges and less minutes. All I can say is my last call to Verizon was asking when my contract was up and what the termination fee is. By the way the $200 might be well spent.

Penny was switched away from her grandfathered Alltel plan to a new Verizon service plan, and potentially also ended up with a brand new two year contract, without new phones to accompany it.  Any Verizon customer on a grandfathered service plan should never consider allowing a customer service representative to make substantial plan changes — you could lose your old plan.  Grandfathered customers can make certain changes from the Verizon website (adding text plans, changing calling features on phones, etc.) without terminating their existing plan, but be cautious.  Once you lose an old plan, you may never get it back.

Steve, another Stop the Cap! reader, writes:

I was with Alltel for 15 to 20 years and a very happy customer — never a problem. Then Verizon took over and it has been a problem ever since. First off let me tell you that we are truck drivers and travel all over the US. We were in Texas when our laptop died so we went and bought a new one.  Our Alltel air card would not work in the new computer. This was at the time when Verizon was taking over, so we had to go to Verizon and get a new air card. By the way we had unlimited with Alltel. The sales person in Verizon sold us a new card and got us on the road again. From that day forward we have had to visit a Verizon store about our bill every month. Last month was the final straw. We did not like the 5 gig limit to begin with and did not trust it so we were watching it closely so we thought. When the MB’s got up near 4100 we called Verizon and they said you are no where near your 5 gig. Well when the bill came in it said we used over 8 gig and instead of our bill being 200.00 it was over 400.00 for the month . Since this has happened we have already dropped their phone service and may have to drop the Internet and pay the penalties.

Verizon's wireless modem

Steve ran into the problem former Alltel customers frequently encounter when traveling or moving outside of their old Alltel service area.  Many Verizon representatives are not well trained about their new Alltel customers.  Until the transition is complete, many Alltel customers still use equipment that gives priority to Alltel’s network first.  If not correctly provisioned, equipment may not work properly outside of areas where Alltel had service.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WTVT Tampa Verizon Alltel to refund charges 6-24-09.flv

Alltel and Verizon were accused of bill cramming in the state of Florida — subjecting customers to monthly charges for “free” ringtones and other services.  The Florida Attorney General’s office ordered refunds for all affected Floridians.  Cell phone companies have an incentive to allow these services to get away with loading up customers’ bills with unauthorized charges — they receive a cut of the action.  WTVT-TV in Tampa reports.  (3 minutes)

Verizon’s 5GB usage cap also includes a steep overlimit penalty.  We’ve seen reports that customers who use service around the country do not immediately see correct numbers for data usage.  That can cause a sudden traffic spike as usage from other areas finally shows up on one’s account.  Verizon customers should have the ability to opt-out from overlimit penalties.  When their 5GB is used up, they should be presented with a screen that requires them to acknowledge they wish to continue using the service and face the consequences on their bill.

Verizon’s tricks and traps for Alltel customers always pay off for Verizon, almost never for customers:

  1. Verizon is doing everything possible to get Alltel customers to “upgrade” their service to Verizon plans so they can get them away from Alltel’s legacy plans offering more features for less money.  Once a customer renews a contract with a new Verizon phone or makes a significant change to their service plan, they are switched to a new Verizon plan… often including tricks and traps.  Unlimited texting costs extra on Verizon, as do many other features.  Customers who mistakenly buy what they thought was a comparable service plan learn the errors of their ways when the $1,100 Verizon bill arrives a month later.  Forgetting to add text and data plans can be an expensive mistake on Verizon’s network.
  2. Dangling a free or discounted phone upgrade for former Alltel customers often also requires an “upgraded” service plan… from Verizon.  If you want a new subsidized phone, you may lose your old Alltel plan.
  3. In many areas, Alltel phones gravitate towards Alltel’s legacy cell network.  That means the phone will choose a weaker cell tower formerly operated by Alltel instead of a closer Verizon cell site.  A roaming/software upgrade normally would correct this and help route calls to the best possible cell site, but customers overwhelmingly complain that doesn’t happen with Alltel-provided phones.  Customers are encouraged to choose a new Verizon phone instead… with a new Verizon service plan.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WTKR Hampton Roads Norfolk NC man overcharged 400 dollars when switching from Alltel to Verizon 1-19-10.flv

This former Alltel customer in North Carolina was charged $400 for an unjustified early termination fee when his service switched to Verizon Wireless as part of the merger.  Despite repeated calls, Verizon-owned Alltel turned his account over to a collection agency. Verizon told him to pay off the Alltel collection agency account and they’d credit him $400.  He paid and then Verizon refused to credit his account and turned him over to their collection agency who started calling him at work.  They also ruined his credit.  It took WTKR-TV in Hampton Roads, Virginia airing this story on the 6 o’clock news to get Verizon’s attention after seven months.  (2 minutes)

Things are even more complicated in areas where the FCC has forced Alltel to divest its wireless assets and not transfer them to Verizon.  In most areas, those customers will shortly discover they are becoming part of AT&T’s wireless family, as AT&T bought the majority of those divested markets.  AT&T, however, does not operate with the same wireless standard Alltel and Verizon do.  AT&T phones work on the GSM standard while Alltel and Verizon work on CDMA.  For the time being, AT&T will simply operate the existing CDMA network Alltel used to own, but eventually every affected customer will get a free upgrade to a new GSM phone.  That upgrade better come quick for frequent travelers who are former Alltel customers switched to AT&T.  They’ll find getting service from AT&T outside of their home areas difficult on a network that uses an entirely different standard.  AT&T will likely have to maintain roaming agreements with Verizon for former Alltel customers until conversion is complete.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/South Dakota Alltel ATT 6-24-10.flv

KELO and KSFY-TV, both in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, informed South Dakota’s former Alltel customers they’d soon have AT&T as their cell phone company, making Apple’s iPod available in stores in the state for the first time. (3 minutes)

A handful of customers won’t end up with either Verizon or AT&T.  In parts of Wisconsin, Element Mobile will take control of their Alltel account. But nearly a million customers will find their former Alltel service is now provided by… Alltel?

The Return of Alltel Wireless

McGill

Allied Wireless Communications Corp., which is staffed by former Alltel employees, has acquired the remaining leftover pieces of Alltel’s network, including its name, for $223 million dollars.  The all-new Alltel will have the same logo and calling plan features the old Alltel offered, and for 900,000 customers, it will be as if they never left.

“We feel like it’s putting the bank back together here in Little Rock,” Wade McGill, chief administrative officer for Alltel Wireless and AWCC told RCR Wireless. The original Alltel Corp. was headquartered in Little Rock, Ark., before being acquired by Verizon Wireless for $28 billion in early 2009. As part of the acquisition, Verizon Wireless was forced to divest some markets, a majority of which were acquired by AT&T Mobility for $3 billion, with most of the rest picked up by what will remain Alltel.

The company will have extensive roaming agreements for nationwide coverage and will focus on maintaining high quality customer care.

“The ability to retain the brand was key in these markets and you can’t underestimate the value of that,” McGill noted, adding that more than 50% of its current customer base have been Alltel customers for more than six years.

“We need to have a laser focus on the customer experience and being local,” McGill explained, citing a common mantra of rural carriers forced to compete against large, nationwide operators. “That’s how we want to think about our plans moving forward. … I think our plan is to grow organically at first and just focus on providing excellent customer service and support.”

But that doesn’t preclude Alltel from starting to expand operations to other parts of the country, perhaps even in areas now taken over by Verizon.

The new Alltel will remain a CDMA provider with plans to move to the LTE standard, which will deliver a 4G-like experience.

Going Back to the Future

In the end, many of the 13 million former Alltel customers probably wish they could have their old Alltel back, too.

Instead, they got wheeled and dealed away, first by an investment bank/casino that later used taxpayer dollars to bail itself out of its own greed, then by Verizon and AT&T who promise a future of higher bills and poorer service for many trapped in two year contracts. Too often, what’s in the best interests of consumers are an afterthought in these kinds of transactions, even today. Despite the FCC’s own findings that wireless competition is shrinking in a consolidating wireless world, they still found a way to green light deals like this that reduce competition even further.

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