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Verizon to buy Bluegrass Cellular in continued push into rural service areas

As its 5G network rolls out, Verizon aims to expand its Kentucky territory.

Angela Lang/CNET

Verizon Communications, the largest wireless carrier in the US, said Monday that it's buying Kentucky rural wireless operator Bluegrass Cellular. The move is the latest in Verizon's strategy to expand its rural coverage areas. The deal comes just a month after Verizon announced plans to buy mobile carrier Tracfone in a deal worth up to nearly $7 billion in cash and stock, and less than a week after Verizon launched its nationwide low-band 5G network alongside the unveiling of the iPhone 12.

Bluegrass Cellular provides wireless service to about 210,000 customers in 34 counties in three rural service areas. 

"We are excited to acquire certain assets of Bluegrass Cellular and expand our footprint in Kentucky," Verizon Executive Vice President Ronan Dunne said in a release. "We look forward to welcoming Bluegrass customers and employees into the Verizon family and providing them with reliable wireless service." 

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Kentucky has previously struggled to maintain reliable wireless services in many of its rural service areas. Bluegrass Cellular, a nearly 30-year-old company, has long been many residents' go-to provider in the state's hard-to-service central and southern areas. The company's relationship to Verizon has grown closer over the past decade as Verizon has continued its push to expand its rural coverage via its Rural America program. In 2010, Bluegrass Cellular became the first rural operator to participate in the Rural America program when it agreed to a reciprocal roaming agreement with Verizon.

Earlier in October, Verizon announced the addition of partial 4G LTE coverage in 189 markets in rural areas across 48 states. In July, the company said that portions of Kentucky lacking reliable home broadband access would be among five rural areas selected by Verizon to gain access to its 4G LTE Home Internet network. 

On Monday, Bluegrass Cellular President Ron Smith said that wireless service in rural communities wasn't expected to flag under the new company. 

"I'm confident that Verizon will continue to be the same good neighbor that we've been and will provide crucial and reliable wireless connectivity to our rural communities," he said in a release.  

Rival carrier AT&T said in January that it added nearly 200 cell sites to its 4G LTE network in Kentucky over the course of 2019, including 89 macro cell towers and 110 small cells. While AT&T has said it spent $850 million in Kentucky from 2017 to 2019 to expand 5G-capable infrastructure, the company said recently it'd phase out its DSL service, leaving residents in often rural DSL-only areas without any option for wired broadband. 

Verizon said Bluegrass Cellular customers don't need to take any action at this time, and that they'll receive information about new services available through the company. Verizon's purchase of Bluegrass Cellular is still subject to FCC approval, but the deal is expected to close late this year or early in 2021.

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