Verizon Wireless is giving a reprieve to some rural customers who are scheduled to be booted off their service plans, but only in cases when customers have no other options for cellular service.
Verizon recently notified 8,500 customers in 13 states that they will be disconnected on October 17 because they used roaming data on another network. But these customers weren’t doing anything wrong—they are being served by rural networks that were set up for the purpose of extending Verizon’s reach into rural areas.
As Verizon explained in 2015, the company set up its LTE in Rural America (LRA) program to provide technical support and resources to 21 rural wireless carriers. That support would help the carriers build 4G networks. Verizon benefited by being able to reach more customers in sparsely populated areas. Customers with these plans don’t even see roaming indicators on their phones, as it appears that they’re on the Verizon network.
But now Verizon is kicking customers off the network in cases when Verizon’s roaming costs exceed what customers pay Verizon. Customers are being disconnected for using just a few gigabytes a month, as we reported yesterday.
Today, Verizon said it is extending the deadline to switch providers to December 1. The company is also letting some customers stay on the network—although they must switch to a new service plan.
“If there is no alternative provider in your area, you can switch to the S (2GB), M (4GB), 5GB single-line, or L (8GB) Verizon plan, but you must do so by December 1,” Verizon said in a statement released today. These plans range from $35 to $70 a month, plus $20 “line fees” for each line. The 8,500 customers who received disconnection letters have a total of 19,000 lines.
Verizon sells unlimited plans in most of the country but said only those limited options would be available to these customers.
Verizon also reiterated its promise that first responders will be able to keep their Verizon service even though some public safety officials received disconnection notices.
“We have become aware of a very small number of affected customers who may be using their personal phones in their roles as first responders and another small group who may not have another option for wireless service,” Verizon said. “After listening to these folks, we are committed to resolving these issues in the best interest of the customers and their communities. We’re committed to ensuring first responders in these areas keep their Verizon service.”
What counts as an alternative provider?
For customers who have no “alternative provider,” there are still unanswered questions. For example, what counts as an alternative provider, and how can customers prove that Verizon is their only option?
When asked these questions, Verizon told Ars:
We are updating our systems to allow customers without other options to stay with Verizon. Once that’s complete, which we expect to happen next week, we will contact each customer via SMS with more information about the process. Following that notification, they will need to contact us to ensure service continues after December 1, 2017.
But there may be customers who technically have another option but not one that meets their needs. Coverage in rural areas is often sparse, and the Verizon partnership with rural carriers offered a good deal. The combination of Verizon’s mostly nationwide network and the roaming agreements with small carriers in Verizon’s LRA program allowed rural customers to be covered both at home and when they travel across the country.
We asked Verizon what would happen if a customer’s only other option is a local carrier with a limited network, which could force customers to pay huge roaming fees when they travel. We haven’t gotten an answer.
Customers might be able to buy service from the same networks that they were roaming on. But in at least one case that we described yesterday, a network called Wireless Partners in Maine, the local carrier that provides roaming for Verizon does not sell cellular service to consumers directly. “Verizon is their only customer on this network,” said Sarah Craighead Dedmon, editor of the Machias Valley News Observer in Machias, Maine.
Wireless Partners said that Verizon’s changes are not good enough.
“Verizon’s announcement that it will be delaying terminations until December 1st is a step in the right direction, but leaves important questions unanswered,” a Wireless Partners spokesperson said in a statement provided to Ars. “Will Verizon lift the prohibition on new customers? This is critical to the residents in our territory. Will current customers that receive a future termination letter also have the right to purchase an alternative plan with Verizon? What defines an ‘alternative provider?’ Are there ways current customers can prevent a future termination? How do public safety professionals retain their service? Why does Verizon continue to represent that these networks are part of the Verizon network on their coverage maps and when they market plans to prospective customers, but then claim they are roaming when they kick them off?”
More customers could lose service in the future
In other potentially bad news, Verizon said that the 8,500 customers who received disconnection letters may not be the last to face that hardship:
We will continue to regularly review the viability of accounts of customers who live outside of the Verizon network. Supporting these roaming customers can often be economically challenging, especially supporting those on plans with unlimited data or other high data plans. However, we are continuing to look for ways to support existing roaming customers with LTE service.
Verizon said the changes announced today will ensure that “we’re there for those who need us.”
“We have a long history of serving rural markets and care about you, your friends, and families in these communities,” Verizon said.
UPDATE: US Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) announced (apparently incorrectly) that Verizon will not terminate the service of any customers in his state. “Verizon responded to Tester’s demands today and announced that the company will continue to serve Montanans and will not terminate the service of rural customers,” Tester’s announcement said. “Tester received his assurances from Verizon earlier today that no Montanans will be involuntarily removed from their contract.”
But when contacted by Ars, a Verizon spokesperson said that is “not accurate.”