A wireless phone monopoly is a bad deal for Vermont

Anyone who travels around Vermont knows the inadequacy of our cell phone coverage. Some towns have virtually no reception. Others have, at best, spotty coverage. At a time when strong cell phone service is essential if our state is to be economically competitive nationally and internationally, it is imperative that every region of Vermont have coverage. At a time when more and more people (especially young people) are using cell phones as their only source of phone service and are able to take advantage of such benefits as free weekend and night calls, it is only fair that all Vermont communities have access to that service. No one doubts that quality broadband and cell phone service are as much a part of Vermonts future as electricity and land-line phones were in the years past. Two companies, Verizon Wireless and Unicel, now dominate the Vermont cell phone market. Verizons proposal to buy Unicel would create a virtual Vermont monopoly. Without safeguards, that would be bad news for consumers and the business community. Without competition or state regulation Vermont gets the worst of both worlds. We would end up with an unregulated monopoly company that could do just about anything it wants or doesnt want to do. In order for this transaction to go through, Verizon must win approval from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). In my view, unless strong conditions are spelled out in advance to protect Vermont consumers and businesses, this agreement should not be approved. Otherwise, Vermonters would continue to experience unreliable cell phone service. Tens of thousands of cell phone users could be forced to switch phones because Verizon uses a different technology than Unicel. Places where some phones work today might not have reception in the future. Vacationers and business travelers coming to Vermont couldnt be sure their cells phones would work. Owners of the latest new gadget the Apple iPhone could find themselves totally without service. Before handing over monopoly rights to public air waves, the FCC must demand that Verizon provide universal and affordable cell phone service in every community in the state. Further, Verizon must pledge to provide automatic roaming services at reasonable rates to other carriers to preserve some token competition. It also should maintain and expand a network that handles non-Verizon calls or sell it to someone who will. The FCC recently agreed to allow more time for the public to study the pending deal and to file comments. Thats good. Clearly a closer review is needed because people in Vermont are only now beginning to understand the significance of this transaction. Concerns about a cell phone monopoly have brought business and consumer interests together. The Vermont Public Interest Research Group (VPIRG) and the Lake Champlain Chamber of Commerce joined me in questioning the impact of a Verizon monopoly on cell phone service. The Vermont Department of Public Service registered strong reservations about this proposal. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department have also asked the FCC to hold off on deciding anything about this transaction until they complete their own reviews. The Vermont League of Cities and Towns has also expressed concerns. In the face of growing criticism of the deal, Verizon just announced that it would spin off part of Unicels network to another provider. The company suggested that its willingness to sell a portion of the network should address my concerns about the transaction. It does not. The token gesture by Verizon does nothing to guarantee that all Vermonters will have cell phone service. It does nothing to guarantee that a competing cell system will be maintained and upgraded so that Vermonters and business and vacation travelers have access to cell service. It does nothing to guarantee that current Unicel customers will get a comparable phone replacement. And it does nothing to guarantee that Vermonters get reasonable rates whether they are customers of Verizon or are roaming on that system. Until Verizon makes some enforceable commitments to address these concerns, I will continue to oppose the takeover. Cell phone companies are not regulated by the states Public Service Board. Maybe they should be. For now, however, the Verizon and Unicel transaction is being scrutinized in Washington, D.C., by the FCC and by the anti-trust division of the U.S. Department of Justice. Those federal agencies should heed the concerns of Vermonters before giving all-but-total control of Vermonts cell phone service to any single company. A grass-roots effort can make a difference. Let your voice be heard. Information about how to file a comment with the FCC is available on my Senate Web site at http://sanders.senate.gov . This is an issue of great importance for the future of the State of Vermont. I hope the folks at Verizon can hear us now.

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