By EARL WATT
• Daily Leader
For the second time since June 2009, AT&T has made contact with local customers from other providers stating they were the new provider of cellular service when that was not the case.
The first occurred in June of 2009 when AT&T’s Kerry Hibbs announced that AT&T would be taking over the Alltel stores in Liberal near the end of 2009, pending approval.
“Assuming we get all the approvals in, the Alltel stores would become AT&T,” Hibbs said.
When Alltel customers started to ask questions, Hibbs recanted his statement.
“We are not,” he said, meaning AT&T would not take over Liberal Alltel stores. “I had them confused with RCC, which stands for Rural Cellular Corporation. It’s RCC that we are acquiring. This whole deal involved 18 states, and most of it was Alltel. As it turned out in Kansas, in Liberal, it’s not Alltel. It’s RCC. I apologize to you and your readers.”
Liberal’s Alltel store became Verizon Wireless instead.
Brenda Hill, a spokesman for Verizon’s Overland Park office, said AT&T had the story wrong, and Liberal was not one of the areas being divested in the deal.
“Liberal is going to be Verizon Wireless,” she said. “What we’re finding is that AT&T PR people have been getting this wrong and saying this all over the United States. They don’t look at the list before they make the statement, but I can assure you that Liberal is not one of the properties being sold to AT&T. It’s not even one of the properties that’s required to be divested.”
Recently, AT&T acquired Unicel and took over operations in Liberal.
But some customers of EPIC PCS reported that they had been contacted by AT&T.
“Our customers were given a phone number to call, and EPIC customers were told they could go down to the AT&T store and continue their current plan or receive a new phone,” EPIC marketing director Linda Ward said. EPIC representatives made follow-up calls and verified that AT&T was stating that EPIC had been purchased.
But EPIC has not been purchased, and AT&T representative Kathryn McClelland said that the company was researching the situation.
EPIC PCS president Bob Boaldin also confirmed that the local cellular provider was and will remain locally owned and operated.
“Epic Touch and Epic PCS are here in the Oklahoma Panhandle and Southwest Kansas, and we are here to stay,” he said. “Epic Touch has not been acquired, and it has not sold its customers’ accounts; Epic Touch can and will continue to provide service to its customers.”
EPIC has established a number for customers to call if they are approached by another company. Customers can contact EPIC at 800-554-4250.
“We have heard that a small number of EPIC Touch customers might have been inadvertently contacted about these special offers (available to former Unicel customers), and we are looking into this,” McClelland said.
Additional confusion may have occurred when AT&T discontinued the use of EPIC towers to provide service to AT&T customers.
Most cell phone companies have agreements to continue cellular service for other carriers on their towers. Each company charges a fee for this service, but the agreements allow for wider access.
Recently, AT&T no longer utilized the EPIC towers which has affected service for AT&T customers in the Oklahoma Panhandle region.
McClelland said that AT&T is “in negotiations with EPIC Touch to allow AT&T customers to roam on EPIC’s network to improve voice coverage for AT&T customers in Liberal and surrounding areas.”
Ward said that EPIC had a department that was dedicated to arranging contracts with multiple carriers across the nation so that EPIC phones will be able to make and receive calls wherever a customer may be.
“Epic Touch wants everyone that uses its wireless services to have the best possible experience as an Epic PCS customer or a customer of any other company roaming on our network,” Boaldin said. “In recent weeks, we have learned that AT&T mobile telephone customers who had previously been able to roam on Epic Touch’s network have been unable to do so although Epic Touch has not changed its roaming commitments.”
There is an existing agreement between AT&T and EPIC, but EPIC representatives said AT&T has opted not to use it.
“Typically, you break even on those agreements,” EPIC Network Services Manager Troy Barnett said. “Basically, those agreements are designed so that our customers can roam nationwide and AT&T’s customers can roam nationwide. Verizon, AT&T, all carriers do not have towers across the nation. They have agreements with other carriers with like technologies to allow their customers to use another carrier’s system and vice versa. For the most part, they are bilateral.”
AT&T and EPIC have an existing agreement, but AT&T opted to shut its customers off from access to the EPIC towers. AT&T is trying to get EPIC to divide its system so that only certain towers will pick up for AT&T where there is a gap and not in other locations.
“They are requiring EPIC Touch to do things that are not easy,” Barnett said. “They want to separate our system and only allow their people on certain parts of our system. We’re not set up to easily do that.”
EPIC has 34 towers in Southwest Kansas and the Oklahoma panhandle while it was estimated that AT&T has around 10. AT&T declined to share the exact number of towers stating that the information was proprietary. Because of the heavy saturation of the EPIC system, it is highly likely that AT&T customers would receive a stronger signal from an EPIC tower most of the time due to proximity to the tower. Forcing customers to try to receive a signal from a tower further away could degrade the quality of the call, according to Barnett.
“Basically, our stance is let the tower with the best signal serve the people,” he said.
Since AT&T stopped allowing its customers to use the EPIC towers, Barnett said that EPIC stores have been receiving a high number of complaints about the lack of service on AT&T phones, but EPIC has and still provides access. It is AT&T that has prevented its own customers from using the EPIC towers.
To keep the service working well, Barnett said that they were just as committed to providing quality signal strength to anyone using the EPIC towers.
“At EPIC Touch, if your carrier has an agreement with us, those customers are just as important to us as our own customers,” Barnett said. “If your customer can’t use our tower, we can’t either. We take customer service very seriously.”
Any EPIC cellular customer who has received a call from AT&T about switching their service can disregard it, according to representatives from both companies. For those who would like to restore the ability to make or receive calls in EPIC Touch’s service area with another carrier’s service, contact EPIC at 800-554-4250 for more information.