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December 18, 2008 3:58 am

Verizon-Alltel merger expected next month

Written by Tribune Staff

The pending merger between Powell's only cell phone carriers — Verizon and Alltel — will not leave residents with just one cellular option.

As part of a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice, Verizon Wireless has agreed to sell off either its or Alltel's business assets in much of Wyoming — including Powell and Park County. The assets to be sold include “everything needed to run a wireless operation,” said Verizon spokesman Robin Nicol — from cell towers, to operating licenses, to equipment.

The deal, which has now been approved by all government agencies involved, is expected to be closed in early to mid-January, Nicol said.

The closure date will not bring swift or sudden changes to customers, she said, adding that a transitory stage will take months.

Customers of either company do not need to do anything at this point, she said. When details are finalized, “we will be contacting customers directly and letting them know,” she said.

Nicol said Verizon is currently in the process of determining which company's assets will be put up for sale in 105 markets identified by the Department of Justice.

The justice department's anti-trust division had contended that in the Big Horn Basin — and 104 other cellular markets across the U.S. where Verizon and Alltel overlap — allowing the two companies to merge unconditionally would form a monopoly.

“As a result of the proposed acquisition, residents of these areas (would) likely face increased prices, diminished quality or quantity of services, and less investment in network improvements,” it wrote in a complaint.

The merger will make Verizon the largest wireless telecommunication provider in the United States.

Verizon, currently the second-largest, has more than 70 million subscribers and an annual revenue stream around $43 billion. By adding Alltel — the fifth-largest provider — and its 13 million subscribers to its ranks, Verizon will leap-frog AT&T as the nation's largest wireless provider.

When Verizon sells its or Alltel's assets, just about any company could stand to buy a foothold in Wyoming.

While every major cell carrier offers roaming access across the Equality State, only Verizon, Alltel and Union Wireless offer significant standard access and infrastructure.

AT&T claims nearly 73 million wireless customers, but according to their coverage maps, in Wyoming, the company only offers coverage around Jackson and in intermittent intervals along Wyoming's western border.

Sprint Nextel, the nation's third-largest carrier, has more than 50 million subscribers, but covers only Laramie and Cheyenne — where it has its lone Wyoming store. Sprint Nextel has zero stores in Montana.

The fourth largest, T-Mobile, with 31.5 million customers, covers only the southeastern corner of the state surrounding Cheyenne.

Mountain View-based Union Wireless provides coverage for the majority of the state's populated areas, but for Powell residents, the closest agent is located in Riverton.

Alltel is not a licensed cellular service provider in Uinta, Lincoln, Sweetwater, Carbon and Sublette counties.

Therefore, those areas, along with Teton County, will not require asset divestitures.