Consumer advocates concerned about wireless swap

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(Host) State consumer advocates say they have concerns about a plan by AT&T to acquire a large piece of Unicel’s wireless phone service in Vermont.

The AT&T acquisition is part of a major re-shuffling of cell phone providers in the state.

VPR’s John Dillon has more.

(Dillon) You may need a decoder ring to decipher all the pieces of these wireless phone deals.

First, Verizon Wireless announced it would buy up the parent company of Unicel.

Since Verizon and Unicel are the dominant cell phone carriers in Vermont, the prospect of just one company serving the entire state raised concerns about a monopoly.

Now Verizon says it will swap some of its Unicel properties with AT&T. Those assets include current Unicel customers in Burlington, Rutland and Montpelier.

That means, in theory, there would be more competition, because two big companies would be vying for business.

But that’s not the whole story, says Steve Wark of the Department of Public Service. The Department represents utility customers in the state.

(Wark) "It doesn’t answer the answer question of what we do in the southern part of the state. Under this proposed swap there would still be that service gap the absence of GSM in the southern part of the state. And that’s still not going to be acceptable to us. It’s not far enough.”

(Dillon) So, what’s GSM? It’s the technology platform used by both Unicel and AT&T. Verizon uses a different technology called CDMA.

Wark says that because the technologies are incompatible, someone with a Unicel or AT&T phone may not be able to get service in southern Vermont.

(Wark) "For example, if someone were to travel to Vermont to the southern part of the state, and needed to call for help, their phone might not work. If they wanted to conduct business while they were on vacation, or perhaps they did a significant part of their business in Vermont, in the southern part of the state, it would really be a barrier to using that wireless communication.”

(Dillon) Paul Burns, the director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, has another concern.

Burns points out that there are still parts of the state where no cell service is available – from any carrier.

He says a condition of the swap should be a commitment to provide 100% coverage.

(Burns) "I think the basic bottom line here is that with AT&T and Verizon wireless we have two companies with vast resources. And Vermonters have a right to expect that that those two corporate giants will be required to guarantee cell phone service throughout the state at a reasonable cost. That’s not too much to expect out of a deal like this.”

(Dillon) An AT&T spokeswoman said it’s too early in the transaction to talk about specific conditions. Spokeswoman Alexa Kaufman said Vermonters can expect new products and services once A T & T enters the market.

(Kaufman) "Once the deal closes and we transition over and are able to launch AT&T service out there, that means the IPhone among other really exciting products.”

(Dillon) Vermont is one of the few states where Apple’s IPhone does not work. wAT&T says the swap is with Verizon needs approval from federal regulators, and is expected to close by the middle of next year.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon.

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