State's wireless future hangs in the balance (Burlington Free Press, Editorial)

It's unusual to find the Vermont Public Interest Research Group and the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce on the same side of an issue. The fact the public advocacy group and the business organization came together to raise concerns about a bid by Verizon Wireless to buy rival Unicel underscores how important the quality of cell phone service is to Vermont.

Verizon announced in July the company is seeking to buy Rural Cellular Corp., which operates the Unicel cell phone service, for $2.7 billion. The deal would give Verizon, a joint venture of Verizon Communications and Vodafone, more than 700,000 additional wireless customers in Vermont and 14 other states.

The concern is that merger of the two cell phone companies with the most subscribers and the most extensive networks in Vermont would give Verizon a near monopoly in the state. State Public Service Commissioner David O'Brien expressed similar concerns when the deal was announced. A small market with little competition could face higher prices and end up last in line for new services and technology.

Because the deal needs the approval of federal regulators, this is the right time to raise concerns and protect the state's future. That's what VPIRG and the chamber did by joining Sen. Bernie Sanders on Monday to call for conditions on the sale that would protect consumers and ensure Vermont remains a competitive and affordable cell phone market. The conditions call for:

Providing Vermont with 100 percent cell phone coverage within two years.

Keeping up Unicel's network -- which employs a standard used by many cell phone carriers but not by Verizon -- or selling the system to a company that will.

Offering Unicel customers equivalent phones that will work on Verizon's network.

Providing roaming services at reasonable rates to customers of other cell phone carriers.

Cell phones today are an integral part of everyday life. We flip open the cell phone and expect the call to go through. But concerns about the impact of the Verizon-Unicel merger on cell service go beyond convenience. It is an economic necessity that Vermont has whenever, wherever cell service. Vermonters and visitors to the state -- tourists and business people alike -- expect their phones to work regardless of what wireless company they subscribe to.

Should the sale go through, Vermont will become an even smaller slice of an even bigger pie. That means what leverage Vermont might have to prevent the state from becoming a telecommunications backwater is best exercised now before the deal is sealed. A statewide consumer advocacy group, a business organization and an independent senator are taking the lead.

To file a comment with the FCC, click here.