Verizon customers on Southeast Alaska’s largest island have been without cell service for weeks

a boat harbor near grass on an overcast day
A view of Thorne Bay from near Pearl Nelson Community Park in October 2022. (Raegan Miller/KRBD)

Prince of Wales Island residents have been left confused after their Verizon cell phones stopped working.

Cell service has long been spotty on Southeast Alaska’s largest island. But Verizon service has been out for more than three weeks. And that’s unusual.

So what happened? Public radio station KRBD in Ketchikan looked into it.

One day in mid-January, Kathryn Milton’s husband tried to call her while he was in Craig, about 40 miles away from their home in Thorne Bay. She never got the call.

“And that’s how we found out that we had lost voice service,” she said.

It’s all because Verizon’s 3G network shut down as part of a nationwide transition. In places that have existing 4G service, it’s not a huge deal — most modern cell phones support 4G.

But on Prince of Wales Island, where there are no Verizon 4G towers, service disappeared. Now, customers like Milton can’t make or receive phone calls or send text messages without being connected to a Wi-Fi network.

It’s not clear when service will return to the island.  Kacie Holder, a Verizon spokesperson, told KRBD that customers’ phones won’t work until the company installs new towers. But Verizon refused to provide a timeline..

“This area will not have coverage until we expand 4G service to this area,” Holder wrote to KRBD. “We don’t have any definitive timeline we’re able to share at this time.”

It’s not just an issue in Thorne Bay. Residents report Verizon outages across the island, especially in Craig and Klawock, two of the largest communities. Staff at the Prince of Wales Chamber of Commerce told KRBD Verizon simply doesn’t work in either town.

But the stop came suddenly for residents like Milton, who says she was told to make sure her phone was 4G capable but not that she’d lose coverage. She said she wanted more information from Verizon before it happened.

“Because everything I had heard before just seemed to indicate that I needed to update my device,” she said. “Not that I was going to be losing coverage.”

Milton said that throughout several long conversations with customer service, she was never told that the change had happened.

Now, residents like Milton have to decide if they’re going to wait the change out with Verizon, or find a different provider. She pays nearly $120 a month for her two-line plan with unlimited data.

“Not knowing if or when we’re going to get coverage again, it puts us in a situation of either looking at very expensive satellite coverage or switching providers,” she said.

Milton said she loved her Verizon service while it worked.

“I mean, the actual voice quality wasn’t always great,” Milton explained. “But I mean, I could call from anywhere in town, and other people — I guess on AT&T — have talked about how they couldn’t make calls from everywhere in town.”

Verizon says customers on 3G networks across the state may face similar outages. A spokesperson noted that includes customers in Kodiak, Juneau, Fairbanks and communities on the North Slope.

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