After inking a multimillion dollar upgrade with a Maine firm to expand and improve cellphone service in Washington County, Verizon Wireless is hanging it up in eastern Maine.
The company has sent letters to 2,000 customers in Washington County urging them to sign new contracts with competing cellphone service providers by Oct. 17, if they wish to retain their current cellphone numbers.
Three years ago, Wireless Partners, a Portland-based company operating in Maine and New Hampshire, was one of 20 firms around the country selected to work with Verizon Wireless to expand service in rural areas. Wireless Partners constructed 13 new towers in Washington County to provide better coverage along routes 1 and 9.
Verizon then started offering cellphone plans with no data limitations to entice new customers. But Maine Public Advocate Barry Hobbins says the company then found out the roaming price tag for the incentive was higher than anticipated.
Now, Hobbins says, Verizon Wireless is pulling out of rural service agreements in areas of several states — including Washington County.
“They’re doing this all over the country and we’re the first ones who have been reacting to it,” he says.
Customers are now getting notices in the mail that tell them they’ve been using a significant amount of data while roaming off the Verizon Wireless network. The letters then informed the customers that their service is being terminated.
Hobbins says Washington County customers were simply using a service plan that Verizon promoted.
“It appears that Verizon induced these companies to build out in the rural areas around the country and then significantly promoted it by saying that they’re covering the rural areas, when it fact now, after putting those ads out, they’re now not covering the rural areas — in fact, they’re cutting it back,” he says.
And without much advance notice.
“This move caught them completely by surprise and totally blindsided them as it did the customers in the region,” says Jason Sulham, speaking for Wireless Partners LLC.
Sulham says the company has made substantial infrastructure investments in Washington County and plans to hold Verizon Wireless accountable.
“And in respect to that and to network users and the potentially devastating public safety and economic development consequences, Wireless Partners plans to exhaust every effort to cause Verizon Wireless to rethink this decision and to honor the promise of its LRA program under which the network was constructed,” he says.
David Weismann, public relations manager for Verizon’s Northeast market, says in an email that the company notified a small group of customers who live outside the company’s service area and who use a significant amount of data that it was canceling service. He said the decision does not affect customers who live within the Verizon service area.
Meanwhile, Hobbins says he will be meeting with Maine Attorney General Janet Mills to determine how the state should respond.