State Supports Changes To Rural Cellular Network That Will Create Some Service Gaps

Sep 2, 2016

A cell phone network partially funded by $4 million in state grant money won’t be working as originally planned.

In 2013 and 2014, the state awarded grants to CoverageCo to build networks of small units attached to utility poles along stretches of Vermont highways in some of the most rural parts of the state.

The networks are supposed to serve motorists who drive those roads, where no cell phone service is otherwise available, allowing them to get a continuous cell phone signal and avoid dropped calls.

But the state says the 120 sites installed by CoverageCo are being used by fixed locations, such as homes and businesses – not by drivers.

As a result, it is allowing CoverageCo to move some sites away from uninhabited stretches of highway to locations where they’ll get more use and generate more revenue for the company. Moving the sites will create gaps in service along some corridors where the company is operating.

CoverageCo has agreements with major providers like Verizon and Sprint, who pay each time one of their customers’ phones uses one of its sites.  

“We know that some of the sites were not going to be profitable but at the end of the day you have to have enough sites that receive enough traffic to put the project in the black to continue operating,” says Jim Porter, director of the telecommunications and connectivity division of the Vermont Department of Public Service.

He says the state is supporting CoverageCo’s plan because its important the network becomes financially sustainable over the 15-year duration of CoverageCo’s contract with the state.

“I hope we will have better coverage as far as people using the service goes, but without making some changes we would end up with no coverage from this project,” says Porter.

He says the company has invested about $5 million in the system.

Porter says about 75 percent of the state money allocated to CoverageCo has been spent.

The result of the change is a loss of continuous service to mobile users in some corridors where CoverageCo operates, which could raise public safety concerns.

According to Barbara Neal, the executive director of Vermont’s Enhanced 9-1-1 Board, nearly 70 percent of 9-1-1 calls are from mobile phones. She says dropped emergency calls due to poor cell phone service are common.

Vermont’s terrain and low population density have long presented technical and financial challenges for cellular service providers. While state officials often talk about plans to make broadband coverage “universal,” they largely steer clear of applying the term to cell coverage.

“Cellular coverage gets better every year in Vermont,” says Porter. But the extent of the coverage is unclear.

The state produced cellular maps several years ago, which have been found to be inaccurate.

“We had enough instances where we were seeing discrepancies from what people were telling us that we weren’t comfortable using that data anymore,” Porter says.