MISSOULA — Montana's U.S. senators have chastised Verizon after the company sent out letters in the past few weeks to hundreds of eastern Montana customers essentially telling them they were getting kicked off Verizon’s cellphone service.
After Oct. 17, Verizon told the rural customers, they would no longer be able to use their phone number on a Verizon network. The list of towns affected by the contract termination is in the dozens, from Alzada to Homestead to Zortman.
Irvin Weide, who lives outside the tiny town of Ashland east of Billings, said he got his letter on Monday or Tuesday of this week.
“It’s kind of a shot in the foot,” he said. “Verizon is the only service that actually works at my house. I can get AT&T, but that only works in town. I will no longer have calling abilities on my cellphone at my house. It’s going to be a big inconvenience.”
Weide said he’s on his parents’ family plan, which they’ve had for more than 15 years. They have Verizon’s unlimited data plan, and Weide says he has averaged about 3-3.5 gigabytes of data per month.
The letter sent out to customers states: “During a recent review of customer accounts, we discovered you are using a significant amount of data while roaming off the Verizon network. While we appreciate you choosing Verizon, after October 17, 2017, we will no longer offer service for the numbers listed above since your primary place of use is outside the Verizon service area.”
Kyle Wasson, who raises wheat, barley and cattle with his family on their ranch near Loring, said they use cellphone data to check the water in their cows' tanks during the drought.
They also use cellphone data to order parts when things break down or to communicate with hired hands on the combine. He was among those surprised that they were getting disconnected, and it was his post on Twitter about the letter two days ago that got attention from the media and the Montana Public Service Commission.
Is anybody else getting a letter from Verizon that's saying we live in an area unsupported by their towers and they're dropping service 2 us— Kyle Wasson (@kyle2lazyK) September 12, 2017
“We had to sign a two-year contract with Verizon, and so I asked them, ‘How do you guys just drop us?’ ” Wasson said. “We had to sign with you and would have had to pay a fee to get out early. It’s not fair.”
PSC member Travis Kavulla said he has researched why Verizon pulled the plug on certain customers in rural areas.
He said that essentially, Verizon has determined that certain customers who use a lot of data on other networks are costing Verizon money, rather than returning profit, and therefore aren’t worth keeping as customers.
"Turns out their much-hyped unlimited data plan wasn't so unlimited," he said.
Verizon has a wholesale agreement with small telecommunications providers in eastern Montana. Those companies are Nemont, Mid-Rivers Communications and Triangle Communications based out of Scobey, Circle and Havre, respectively, and they allow Verizon customers to use their towers.
“Basically what’s happening is these customers have a retail relationship with Verizon, but (Verizon’s) network isn’t the one serving them,” he said. “Verizon engages in a wholesale transaction with these telecommunications companies where Verizon agrees to pay if customers roam in their territory and use their wireless towers for mobile telephonic service or data.
"Here it seems that Verizon realized, ‘Hey, it’s not even our network providing the service’ and they are paying a greater amount for the wholesale service.”
Mid-Rivers Communications has told people who are being dropped by Verizon that they’re not accepting any new customers at the moment, because they don’t have the equipment to handle it. Kavulla said the company didn’t know Verizon was going to take this action, and they don’t have enough cellphones in stock. That leaves people like Weide with no options other than a landline at his house for emergency calls.
“I’m angry about it. My whole family’s angry about it,” he said.
A spokesperson for Verizon, Meagan Dorsch, said the company sent out notifications to 919 customers in Montana earlier this month. Those customers have 2,035 consumer lines that Verizon will no longer service.
“These customers live outside of areas where Verizon operates our own network and many of these lines use a substantial amount of data while roaming on other providers’ networks,” she said. “The roaming costs generated by these lines exceed what these consumers pay us each month. People who live within the area where Verizon operates our own network are not impacted.”
It doesn't appear that any customers in western Montana were affected.
Dorsch said the company sent the notices in advance so customers “have plenty of time to choose another wireless provider.”
On Thursday, U.S. Senator Jon Tester, a Democrat from Montana, sent a letter to Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam pushing him to reverse the company’s decision to remove rural customers from its network.
“I am very troubled by Verizon’s recent decision to terminate contracts for customers living in rural areas of Montana,” Tester wrote. “Given the importance of wireless communications for maintaining public safety, running a business, and staying connected during emergencies, I strongly urge Verizon to reverse its decision to involuntarily remove rural customers from its network.”
Tester also demanded to know exactly how many Montana customers were affected by the decision, when the company decided to take action and why Verizon didn’t provide more notice.
He also raised concerns about the impact Verizon’s actions will have on people’s ability to make emergency calls.
Thursday evening, U.S. Sen. Steve Daines called Verizon's action "unacceptable."
"This is yet another example of the rural-urban divide and choosing a bottom-line over a commitment to Montanans," he said in a statement.
In the letters, Verizon did say they were going to pay off any debt associated with the purchase of the phone to make the transition “easier.”
The Great Falls Tribune reported that Steve Leitner of Hogeland, a small town a few miles south of Canada, said that 90 percent of the county’s ambulance service paging goes through Verizon texts. They also use texts in tactical situations where radios won’t work.
Wasson said he was able to switch to Triangle Communications, but he still would like answers as to why he was booted with very little warning. He said he was using about 40-50 gigs of data per month, and his family was using about 200 total. That's because they use wireless cameras to watch the water level in the cow tanks, and they often have to send pictures to tractor and combine part shops of the parts they need.
“It’s amazing how much we use cellphones and data out here,” said Wasson, the rancher in Loring. “It’s what we gotta do.”
Kavulla said the PSC will be monitoring the smaller telecommunications providers in Montana to make sure they provide adequate services.
"Unlike Verizon, which doesn't take government subsidies, these rural telecommunications companies do have an obligation to serve," he said. "Those rural networks only exist by virtue of generous federal government subsidies which the PSC approved. We will be watching closely to see if customers make reasonable requests that are not served. (If so,) those revenues will be in jeopardy. I don't think it will come to that, personally."