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Officials: Verizon's Decision To Cancel Down East Cellphone Plans Will Hurt Law Enforcement

Law enforcement agencies in eastern Maine are criticizing a decision by Verizon Wireless to terminate cell service due to excessive cost. Police say the company’s decision will have an adverse effect on their work, and on the ability of residents to call 911.

Verizon officials remained tight-lipped Wednesday regarding the actual number of dropped customers, which some sources say could be as high as 2,000.

Three years ago, residents of Washington and eastern Hancock counties threw their support behind an effort to expand cellphone service throughout the region, with more than a dozen new towers along routes 1 and 9. Winter Harbor Police Chief Danny Mitchell says residents came to rely on the service — until Verizon Wireless sent out notices informing many subscribers that they were terminating their contracts.

Mitchell says it’s hard for many locals to understand why they can’t make calls from Schoodic Point, while visiting Verizon customers can still connect to the network.

“They’re going to come out their door every day, look at a cellphone tower and say, ‘Hey, I can’t connect to that because Verizon won’t let me,’” he says.

And Mitchell says the loss of service could have a huge effect on law enforcement activities.

“A lot of our calls come in via 911 — with less of a signal, your geographic location, your positioning, becomes larger and larger,” he says.

In neighboring Washington County, Sheriff Barry Curtis says he and his operational staff are still attempting to gauge the full consequences of Verizon’s decision, which he says could adversely affect the department’s response time. He’s reaching out to his county commissioners for guidance in a situation that he says is setting the county back several years.

“It’s kind of difficult sitting in this seat as far as being the sheriff here,” he says. “I’m in contact with the commissioners. I’m hoping that they’re going to be stepping up to the plate here, assisting us in this too — filing their complaints. We’re going to need all the help we can get here.”

“There has to be some answers — I don’t understand how they could do that to these people,” says Sen. Joyce Maker, a Calais Republican who has fielded a lot of calls from constituents.

Maker hasn’t said whether she would support a legislative response to the Verizon decision, and like most members of the Washington County delegation, is still trying to find out from Verizon exactly what they’ve done, how many people are affected and why they terminated their advertised service plans.

Maine Public Advocate Barry Hobbins also has a number of questions for Verizon.

“Because it’s not cost effective for them, now they’re going to pull the plug — and basically pull the plug on 2,000 customers — then that becomes an issue,” he says.

Verizon officials have thus far declined to be interviewed, and have instead issued emails saying the actual number of dropped customers is “a fraction” of the 2,000 figure cited by Hobbins.

David Weissmann, public relations manager for Verizon’s Northeast market, says Verizon will continue to utilize the cell tower network Down East to provide additional coverage for its customers. He says that the coverage area is not changing, and that the company is simply disconnecting a small number of customers whose primary data usage is outside of the Verizon service area.

Verizon has given the dropped customers until Oct. 17 to find new cellphone service providers, after which they will not be able to retain their current telephone numbers.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.