AT&T has pulled the plug on franchise stories in Custer, Spearfish, Belle Fourche and Buffalo, a move that even caught one state public utilities commissioner by surprise.
Commissioner Chris Nelson said Monday the company did not notify the PUC that Express Wireless was planning to close the cell phone and service dealer stores although that part of the business is not regulated by the state.
"In this case, we've gotten exactly the same thing you've gotten," Nelson said of the closings.
He also said he understands why customers with AT&T contracts in those areas would be disappointed by the company's decision.
"You took that contract assuming there was going to be some local service with it," Nelson said.
The Belle Fourche store was closed Friday and its windows were papered over. The stores' website was also unavailable. As of Sunday night, however, the AT&T corporate website still listed the Belle Fourche and Spearfish Express Wireless stores as authorized dealers.
Alex Carey, AT&T spokesman for South Dakota, said he could only confirm that Express Wireless no longer provides AT&T products and services in the Black Hills and northwest South Dakota.
He said, however, that company policy prohibited him from saying why the franchise stores were closed.
He said other AT&T outlets in the Black Hills, including two in Rapid City, remain open. All are larger franchises or company stores. In addition, he said, customers can get their problems resolved by calling the company or going to its website.
Express Wireless is one of the two major cell phone franchises in Belle Fourche. The other is the Radio Shack franchise that carries Verizon. Spearfish still has a corporate AT&T office and a service center at Walmart.
Nelson said while he is disappointed the AT&T franchises were closed, it is important to remember that the company has invested millions of dollars in the state.
"In their defense, they have put lots of money in northwest South Dakota compared to the rest of the state. Given the population, they've put a tremendous amount of dollars there to provide coverage," he said.
He added that of 20 new towers erected in the state over the past 18 months, seven are in northwest South Dakota.
Carey said the company's statewide investment from 2010 to 2012 was about $80 million.