State Official Went Roaming Around Vermont To Test Cell Coverage Claims

Jan 16, 2019

A Vermont Department of Public Service employee drove more than 6,000 miles around the state this fall to test the adequacy of wireless coverage. What he found is now part of a detailed challenge before the Federal Communications Commission that officials hope will bring federal dollars into the state to improve the wireless network.

The effort involved six cell phones, a state-owned Prius and an app from a software developer in Bulgaria.

Corey Chase, a telecommunications infrastructure specialist, drove the equivalent of Montpelier to Los Angeles and back in about six weeks this fall. But his windshield time was along state roads and through town and village centers, at a slow pace of 40 mph. And occasionally he found himself on no road at all:

“There’s apparently a road that goes from Stamford to Bennington. I tried to take said road,” Chase said. “And there’s a state-government printed sign on the road that says: ‘Your GPS is wrong, turn around now.’”

(Chase obeyed the sign. The Prius, he said, was not built for off-roading.)

Although Chase saw lots of beautiful sights and foliage driving around the state, his excursion was really a massive data collection project.

Equipped with six cell phones and an app customized by a coder in Bulgaria, Chase was ground-truthing what every Vermonter with a cell phone knows: there are many, many places in the state where you simply can’t get a signal, not to mention the 5 megabits per second data download speeds the carriers were claiming.

The six phones, each served by a different carrier, used in the state's road test this fall.
Credit John Dillon / VPR

“I think it’s fair to say that our data showed wide disparities between what certain carriers reported and what was our experience on the ground,” said Clay Purvis, the state’s telecommunications director.

Purvis said what led to this fall’s road trip were maps by cell phone providers in Vermont that showed that basically the entire state is well covered, with the exception of pockets of Essex County in the Northeast Kingdom and a chunk of the Green Mountain National Forest near Hancock and Rochester.

The FCC uses those maps to determine what areas of the country qualify for grants to boost service to underserved areas. And by the cell companies' claims, most of Vermont gets a decent signal from at least one of the six providers.

“The FCC has recognized this issue, and they’ve now opened an investigation into those maps that were submitted,” said Purvis.

The state challenged the carriers' maps following a rigorous procedure for data collection outlined by the FCC. That’s what had Chase driving around with the six cell phones, each capable of sophisticated download speed tests every 20 seconds.

The result was 187,506 download speed test results at locations about 360 meters apart along all of the major roads in the state.

Below is an interactive map of the "Mobile Wireless 2018 Drive Test" from the Department of Public Service (click here to explore their map in a separate window):

At stake in the state's project is potentially millions of dollars in federal money. The FCC has $4.53 billion available to use around the country.

“What we were looking at was being almost completely foreclosed from any of it because our state was considered nearly completely covered with 4G LTE service,” Purvis said. “And now we’ve opened up a significant amount of that space.”

Purvis and Chase hope their work will convince the FCC to open more territory in Vermont for the access funds. If so, the FCC will conduct a reverse auction process to find carriers to commit to providing mobile service in these underserved areas.