Verizon wireless customers near Johnson Siding could be without cell service for the next month. A three-year contract that allows Verizon customers to roam on AT&T towers expired Monday, shutting off service to the area.
“If I didn’t have a house phone, I wouldn’t be able to call about a house fire, or call for an ambulance,” said Ralph Johnson, a Johnson Siding resident.
Verizon spokeswoman Karen Smith said she does not know how many customers are affected or the exact area of the outage.
But she said Verizon has put up a tower along Highway 44 to the east of Hisega and on Highway 385 to the west of Johnson Siding. She said the two towers have reduced the size of the disruption area, but she is unsure by how much.
Most people in the area didn’t know anything about the service disruption, Johnson said. The disruption goes from about a mile east of Hisega to Highway 385, west of the Johnson Siding development, he said.
“Everybody in the area woke up (Monday) morning to zero cell phone service,” he said. “There were hundreds or maybe even thousands of people that were cut off without notice.”
Smith said the roaming contract with AT&T gave Verizon time to place towers in areas where it had been required to sell towers.
The area’s AT&T tower was previously owned by Alltel Wireless, a cellular service provider. Verizon originally acquired the site, but was required by the U.S. Department of Justice and Federal Communication Commission to sell it because of a lack of competition. Verizon then reached an agreement with AT&T to use the tower.
Smith said that agreement expired before Verizon was able to put up its own tower in the Johnson Siding area. Many of the 105 nationwide service areas Verizon was forced to sell were in South Dakota, Smith said.
“We’ve had to replace coverage across the state of South Dakota,” Smith said. “We’ve been working diligently to replace those sites with our own sites, and in a few incidents, especially in this neighborhood, we have had a short gap without service.”
Besides the area along Highway 44, from Hisega to Johnson Siding, Smith said there is no Verizon coverage on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. She said Verizon is still in negotiations with the Oglala Sioux Tribe to allow Verizon to provide service on the reservation.
Alex Carey, a spokesman for AT&T, said in an email Tuesday that the technology Verizon uses to provide service was turned down on the AT&T towers across multiple states on Monday.
AT&T customers in the Johnson Siding area will not be impacted, Carney said. AT&T uses different technology on its tower to provide cell service to its customers, he said.
Smith said Verizon customers should contact their local Verizon store to learn about service options for the next month. She said customers can purchase a trial network extender — which is a miniature cell tower for their homes — for $249.99, according to Verizon’s website.
Verizon network technicians are out testing the area and working with customers, Smith said.
“The customers that we’ve heard from, we’re reaching out directly to them to work with them,” she said.