Sanders objects to Verizon Wireless’ plan to buy Unicel

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(Host) Senator Bernie Sanders is raising concerns about the plan by Verizon Wireless to buy Unicel.

The two companies dominate Vermont’s cell phone market. And Sanders says Verizon would become a monopoly if it’s allowed to take over the smaller phone carrier. He’s asked federal regulators to place conditions on the sale to protect consumers.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Verizon announced in July that it wants to acquire Unicel, a smaller company that serves mainly rural areas in Vermont and 14 other states.

Sanders says the $2.7 billion deal will effectively create a monopoly for Verizon.

(Sanders) “And I’m not a great fan of monopolies. That means there would be no choice, and under a deregulated structure it means they could essentially do whatever they want. So Vermont gets the worst of both worlds.”

(Dillon) The Federal Communications Commission is reviewing the proposed sale. Sanders wants the commission to impose conditions on the deal to protect consumers.

He wants Verizon to provide 100 percent coverage throughout the state. He says Unicel customers should get a free exchange of their phones for an equivalent Verizon phone.

He says Verizon should maintain the existing Unicel network, using Unicel’s technology. And Sanders wants Verizon’s commitment to provide roaming services at reasonable rates to other phone customers.

Tom Torti is president of the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce. He says the state’s tourism industry could suffer if Verizon creates a cell service monopoly.

(Torti) “We cannot afford to have people coming up here paying outrageous roaming fees in order to be connected. We cannot afford in Vermont to have people not be able to use the technology that is now emerging, the Iphones which we don’t have, which everyone is waiting for. That is the emerging technology. That is the standard. If we don’t have that we will become a backwater.”

(Dillon) Sharing Torti’s concern is Paul Burns, the executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group.

(Burns) "It’s critical that we not allow large areas of this state to be left out when it comes to services that most people have come to expect and to rely on everyday."

(Dillon) Verizon and Unicel serve many of the same areas, but their coverage does not completely overlap. And some areas of the state remain without a signal.

Sanders found this out when he tried to make a call in Richford in northern Franklin County using his Verizon phone.

(Sanders) Picked up my cell phone, nothing happened, didn’t get any service at all. And it just reminded me that not only in Richford in the northern part of the state, but all over the state, there are towns that have no or virtually no cell phone service.

(Dillon) Al Perry represents Richford in the state House. He says cell coverage is key for economic growth in his community.

(Perry) Cell phone service, in my opinion is a public service. Right now it’s an unregulated public service, and if it becomes an unregulated monopoly public service, people in some parts of Vermont are going to doing without, when they ought to be having that service to move ahead.

(Dillon) Sanders says he met with Verizon representatives in Washington, but wasn’t satisfied by their response.

He’s asking the FCC to reject the deal unless Verizon agrees to the conditions.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon.

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