Verizon reverses course and won't drop rural Montana users, Tester says

by Missoulian, Peter Friesen

Verizon reversed course Friday and will not cancel the contracts of hundreds of rural users in Eastern Montana.

In a bi-partisan effort, Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester and Republican Congressman Greg Gianforte contacted Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam.

Tester “pushed the telecommunications company to reverse its decision to eliminate contracts and remove rural customers from its network,” according to a news release. “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.”

Gianforte called Verizon’s reversal a win for hundreds of rural Montanans.

“Folks shouldn’t be left without this critical service they rely on, particularly in our rural areas. It’s a fundamental issue of safety,” he said.

Verizon spokesperson Meagan Dorsch confirmed that the company will not be dropping rural customers.

The company notified around 8,500 customers nationwide, including more than 900 in Montana, that they would no longer be eligible for a Verizon plan because the costs of data roaming exceeded the amount those customers pay for their monthly plans, according to a Friday email from Dorsch.

“After listening to these folks, we are committed to resolving these issues in the best interest of the customers and their communities,” Dorsch wrote.

The company will give affected customers until Dec. 1 to either switch providers or, if that’s not possible, pick a new data plan from Verizon’s tiered offerings of S (2 GB per month), M (4 GB), or L (8 GB).

Verizon will continue to “regularly review” accounts of customers who live outside their network, Dorsch wrote, adding they are looking for ways to support existing roaming customers with expanded LTE service.

“We have a long history of serving rural markets and care about you, your friends and families in these communities,” she wrote. “We’re making these changes so that customer options with Verizon are clear.”

Bethanie Anderson, who owns the Little Jaded restaurant in Alzada, has been closely watching what happens with Verizon in her tiny corner of Montana.

“For us, it’s huge,” she said. Had Verizon terminated its contracts there, “I couldn’t connect with my employees. It’s the only service people have when they come through here.”

Anderson lives eight miles out of town; she has employees who live an hour away. Alzada’s remote location means there’s cell service right in town, but that’s it. Once someone is back on the highway, they lose service.

And that makes Verizon an important part of Alzada life.

Anderson provides free Wi-Fi at her restaurant; it’s the only internet some of her customers have. But more than that, she uses it to help motorists and truckers who often are on networks other than Verizon. She said these drivers sometimes take a wrong turn in South Dakota and end up in Alzada lost and without any kind of cell service. They come into her restaurant hoping she has a phone or Wi-Fi signal they can use to connect with the outside world.

“It’s the only thing that saves them,” she said.

Without Verizon, “it would be catastrophic,” she said. “We’re in the middle of nowhere.”

Tester’s letter to Verizon CEO McDowell listed reasons rural cell service is critical in large portions of the state, especially during wildfire season and asked clarifying questions about the contracts.

“If any Verizon customers have continued concerns, please contact my office,” Tester wrote in his release. “I will continue to defend Montanans from harmful actions that undermine our quality of life.”

Crystal Higgins and her husband Courtney have been Verizon customers in Hammond for 16 years. It has helped them build their nationwide custom horse trailer business, Rodeo Rigs.

All last week, when news was swirling that Verizon might be dropping contracts, the Higgins had a hard time getting a straight answer from anyone on what would happen.

“It was just really strange how things were coming down from them,” Crystal Higgins said.

The Higgins use a dozen devices with Verizon lines and initially they’d heard from the company that only four would be affected. The reason offered by Verizon was excessive data usage, which made no sense to the Higgins. Two of the four devices used barely any data at all.

More of a concern was that one of the lines affected was their main business phone number, which is plastered on trailers, rigs and advertisement materials all across the country.

“It would have had a huge impact on our business,” she said.