Saturday May 11, 2013

PUTNEY -- As the Shumlin Administration continues working to bring cell phone service to all of Vermont, the governor’s own former hometown took a step backward recently.

A handful of Putney residents who have cell phone contracts with AT&T abruptly lost their connections on April 19, and the company is refusing to offer them any explanations.

In the affected range, which covers a large area from Aiken Road and Windmill Hill Road down to Signal Pine Road, the AT&T customers have not been able to use their phones.

The phone service has been working within other areas covered by AT&T.

Phone calls to AT&T were not returned Friday.

The customers have been angry enough after losing their service, but they also say the company’s failure to address the issue or to offer any explanation has them frustrated

"If you don’t know what is going on, at least don’t lie to me," said Libby McCawley, who was told by an AT&T representative that her home on Signal Pine Road never received service so the company could not relieve her of her contract. "I never had five bars at home, but I was always able to make a call."

Eventually McCawley was told that she could get out of her AT&T contract without paying a penalty, but there will be other charges and hassles to switch, and if the situation is going to be resolved in the next few weeks she says she would just as soon keep the AT&T service.


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McCawley spoke to four or five AT&T representatives, she said, before anyone would even acknowledge that something changed in Putney, but she was never given a full explanation about what had happened.

And she says she still can not find out if the service interruption is temporary or a long term problem.

According to Beckie Coffey, who also lives in the affected area, an AT&T representative told her that AT&T decided not to renew a contract with Verizon that gave its customers service in Putney.

Coffey got rid of her land line, and her husband, who is physician, has had to drive down to Putney to make a call when his beeper goes off.

She said her home has received good strong service from AT&T for about three years.

"It’s a public safety issue," she said. "This is not a step ahead like Pete (Shumlin) promised. It’s a step back."

Christopher Campbell, executive director of the Vermont Telecommunications Authority, said the state has no authority over how private companies work together, or don’t.

Campbell had not heard about the situation in Putney when he was reached, on his cell phone, Friday afternoon, but he said it was rare to hear about large areas in Vermont that had lost service.

"Generally things are moving forward, slowly sometimes, but mostly forward," he said. "This in my experience is not something we hear a lot about."

Ideally, with so many changes facing the state with all of its peaks and valleys to cover, Campbell said it makes sense for companies to work together.

But at the same time, he said, the companies do compete and he said it was not surprising for one company to reach an impasse with another, leading to a reduction in service for some customers.

"It is common for multiple carriers to be on a single tower and there are areas where they need to collaborate and cooperate," Campbell said. "But at the same time they compete and there are fierce negotiations around all of this. It’s a very delicate balance sometimes."

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 279, or hwtisman@reformer.com. Follow Howard on Twitter @HowardReformer.