Some rural Montana residents are learning they’ll soon be without cell phone service after Verizon Wireless quietly informed them they’re dropping them.
At issues are accounts that use too much data outside the network.
Notification letters were sent to 919 customers, accounting for 2,035 lines, Verizon spokeswoman Meagan Dorsch said. They’ll be dropped Oct. 17, so there’s time to port wireless numbers to other companies before their Verizon service ends.
“This only affects a few people who primarily roam on other networks and does not affect customers who primarily use Verizon’s own network,” she explained. “We regularly review accounts with data use that primarily takes place outside of the Verizon network.”
Customers said they didn’t know Verizon had been using other providers’ towers and, now are faced with limited options.
Four wildfires have burned 390 square miles of farmland and public land in eastern Montana. The four fires have burned at least 16 homes since lightning ignited them last Wednesday. (July 26)
A primary concern is how this will impact emergency services. In rural Montana, neighbors are one another’s first responders come fire, flood or heart attack.
“Probably 90% of our paging goes through Verizon texts. We use texts in tactical situations where radios will not work also,” said Steve Leitner, service director of the ambulance service in Blaine County, Mont., on the Canadian border.
But cell phones are sometimes exactly how a first responder even knows to show up.
JJ French, a volunteer firefighter in Plentywood who has Verizon, said sometimes, the pager for he uses fire calls doesn’t connect with the nearest tower but his phone does — or vice versa. Before switching to Verizon Wireless, he had spotty coverage with a local provider, but now he’ll likely have no choice.
Some of Montana’s biggest politicians are ticked off, too.
U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., sent a letter to Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam, highlighting the critical role cell phones play in his state.
“I am very troubled by Verizon’s recent decision,” 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.”
U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., called it “unacceptable” and “yet another example of the rural-urban divide and choosing a bottom line over a commitment to Montanans.”
Montana Public Service Commissioner Travis Kavulla pointed out in a tweet that there’s little wireless competition in the affected area.
Kim Barlogio, who lives in the remote southeastern corner of Montana, received a cancellation notice from Verizon after 17 years as a customer. Verizon had previously offered her an unlimited data plan.
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She contacted Verizon and was told the company no longer had a contract with Mid-Rivers Communications, a local company, and would not offer service in her area. And Mid-Rivers isn’t taking on new customers.
“As a community, we have nowhere else to go. We depend on our phone for emergencies,” she said. “Out here, we are our own fire department, police department and emergency services. Not only do we help each other out, we are continually helping stranded travelers that do not have Verizon, as no other providers work out here.”
Mid-Rivers mailed letters to dropped customers to say the company would put people on an “interest list” and recommended using WiFi, not data, at home.
The scary moments could come when the weather gets bad in rural Montana and people with Verizon for only another month are, for example, out calving or feeding in winter’s extreme temperatures in the far-out corners of the ranches.
“In our remote area, every minute counts in an emergency. Hospitals are a long distance from our homes. I understand that Verizon is a business and they are not making money, having our rural number in service. At some point, ethics have to come into play,” Kaila Williams of Hammond, Mont., said.
Cell phones have saved her family, she explained, citing a vehicle breakdown on a lonely country road and someone getting bucked off a horse working cattle.
“Most of the people in the area affected are farmers and ranchers. There are obvious inherent risks involved with these professions and lifestyles,” she said. “Personally, as a mother of three, I don’t feel safe leaving the house without a way to contact help if the need arises.”
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For Heather Brownfield of Hammond, Mont., the reality hit home a couple of weeks ago. She runs a rural mail route with her husband, who called her to say a ranch fire was blazing. Brownfield called rural fire departments and posted on Facebook a plea for help from neighbors before joining the fire line herself. She continued to use the phone to coordinate with others.
She called the cell phone her “first defense in an emergency.” The fire would ultimately reached 500 acres.
“Had we not had the cell phones, it’s unimaginable how much worse this whole thing could have been,” she said.
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