Will Customers Shafted In Verizon/Alltel Deal Get Shafted Again By AT&T/T-Mobile Merger?

While most of the country wasn’t directly affected by Verizon’s purchase of Alltel, a handful of both companies’ former customers have now ended up — through no choice of their own — as AT&T subscribers. Many of these people are peeved about being stuck with a company they never signed up with. They also want to know if AT&T’s pending purchase of T-Mobile means in terms of their already slim pickings.

For those unfamiliar with the backstory, one of the antritrust conditions on the Verizon/Alltel deal was that Big Red had to divest itself of certain Alltel assets — and a few Verizon assets — around the country in areas where the companies’ overlap would have damaged the competitive landscape. Those customers’ accounts were then held in a trust which was ultimately purchased by AT&T.

Here is AT&T’s map of the areas it picked up in the wake of the Alltel sale.

In the months since AT&T began officially changing these customers over to its service, the Consumerist tipline has gotten more and more questions each week from former Alltel and Verizon subscribers, asking for clarification on what choices are available to them.

“I have been a Verizon customer for countless years and do not want to move to AT&T,” writes one reader. “I just spent $500 on my new Verizon new phone with all accessories… What can I do to stay with Verizon and tell AT&T no thanks? Neither company is very helpful when calling customer service.”

Unfortunately, there is nothing this reader can do to actually keep her old Verizon account. And if she is still under contract with Verizon, she will have to finish that contract or pay any associated early termination fees.

However, a Verizon rep confirms to Consumerist that there is nothing to stop affected out-of-contract customers from jumping to whichever provider they choose. “All wireless customers are free to choose their wireless service provider,” the rep tells Consumerist. “That is the primary goal of ensuring that competition continues in a market.”

Then there are those people who were already ticked off that Alltel was bought by Verizon, only to find out they have been shipped off to AT&T without consent.

“I feel like a cow being shuttled from pen to pen,” reads an e-mail from a former Alltel customer. “I’m fed up with both Verizon and AT&T… I’d move to T-mobile (at least I’d save some money) but everything I read says I’ll probably just end up back on AT&T’s books in a year or so. What about Sprint?”

The answer to that question depends mostly on where you live. Of the four major providers, Sprint has the weakest coverage in the areas most affected by the Alltel deal. So unless they seriously start filling in the blanks on their coverage map, you might be out of luck.

T-Mobile could be a viable option, once again depending on where you live. Its coverage in many of the affected areas is better than Sprint, but nowhere near that of AT&T or Verizon. But if you happen to live in an area with decent T-Mobile coverage, there are two reasons it couldn’t hurt to investigate whether or not T-Mobile has a lower-cost option for you.

First, AT&T has a history of grandfathering in existing plans, and the company’s CEO Randall Stephenson has hinted that there should be no difference with this merger. So if you switch over to something cheaper at T-Mobile before the merger is finalized, the odds are AT&T will honor it afterward (that is, until you make any sort of change).

Second, while it’s unlikely that the government will block the merger, the wheels in Washington turn slowly and it could take quite a while for the Justice Dept. and FCC to negotiate conditions with the companies that would make the marriage more palatable. While they are hashing things out in back rooms and boardrooms, why not start saving now?

Speaking of the drawn-out regulatory review process, the big question that can’t be answered here is whether or not regulators will call for an encore of the Verizon/Alltel divesting when they get around to ruling on the AT&T/T-Mobile deal. If so, it’s completely conceivable that some of these former Verizon customers could somehow end up back in Big Red’s lap in a few years.