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Verizon Disputes Number Of Down East Cellphone Contracts It Terminated

Verizon says its decision to pull wireless services Down East will affect only a few hundred customers, and not 2000, as had been reported earlier this week. But some critics say that number is still too high.

In an email, corporate spokesman David Weissmann says the company’s termination notice will take effect on Oct. 17, and affects only 213 customers.

Still, Jason Sulham says that’s unacceptable.

“One customer as far as we’re concerned is one customer too many,” he says.

Sulham is a spokesman for Wireless Partners LLC, the company that paid for the construction of 13 towers in the region over the last three years as part of Verizon’s national effort to expand access in rural areas. He says that with a countywide population of about 31,000 people, the sudden loss of service for 200 cellphone customers is likely to have a significant effect on public safety in Washington and eastern Hancock counties.

Sulham says he has heard that the disruption will also affect any new customers seeking service from Verizon in that region.

“Verizon is restricting any new customers in those areas, so when you talk about what that final number is, what they have indicated is a final number of current customers who have received a termination letter. However, that doesn’t take into account the number of people who are in that area that can’t even sign up as new customers for the service, which is certainly not what was part of the original intent of building this network,” he says.

A Verizon spokesman declined to comment on whether new customers would be able to sign contracts in the area.

According to technology and science news website Ars Technica, Maine is among 13 states where a total of 8,500 rural customers have been disconnected. As in other states, the Maine customers were supported by Verizon’s LTE in Rural America program, which relies on partnerships with small rural carriers who lease Verizon spectrum in order to build their own networks.

Barry Hobbins, Maine’s public advocate, says Verizon staged a campaign to recruit new customers Down East as part of the expanded tower network three years ago.

“They advertised unlimited rural area and all that, so everyone signed up,” he says.

But Verizon now says that those customers are incurring roaming charges that are just too expensive to maintain. And that’s the reason the company gives for dropping the coverage.

“People seem not to know what to do,” says Sarah Craighead Dedmon, the editor of the Machias Valley News Observer.

Dedmon says calls have been coming in from Verizon Wireless customers who are denying the company’s claim regarding excessive roaming fees. She is also one of those Verizon customers who got the boot.

“Verizon is definitely a 600-pound gorilla, and we’ve seen a lot of people who have lost their service sort of throwing their arms up and saying, ‘There’s nothing more I can do,’” she says.

But some help could be on the way. Hobbins says he will meet with Maine Attorney General Janet Mills and Wireless Partners attorneys next week to explore options the state might consider to address what many see as an unfair business practice by the second largest telecommunications company in the world.

Jason Sulham is spokesman for Wireless Partners LLC, not Maine Wireless LLC. After this story aired, Verizon Wireless issued a clarification. "We are not allowing the establishment of new consumer accounts in the areas outside of our service area where we are disconnecting high usage lines," a spokesperson said.

This story was originally published Sept. 15, 2017 at 4:43 p.m. ET.