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Despite Bogus Claims From Carriers, Feds Won't Help Boost Cell Coverage In Vermont

Corey Chase, a state telecommunications infrastructure specialist, holding a cell phone and sitting at a desk.
John Dillon
/
VPR
Corey Chase, a telecommunications specialist with Vermont's Department of Public Service, went on a road trip to ground-truth cell carriers' claims about coverage.

The Federal Communications Commission has scrapped a grant program aimed at boosting cell coverage in underserved areas. The news is disappointing for Vermont officials, who spent months last year proving that the carriers' claims of coverage were false.

In 2018, a state employee logged over 6,000 miles driving around the state to conduct sophisticated tests to determine where he could get a cell signal from the major phone companies.

The tests showed that the companies’ coverage claims did not match reality. Many areas the carriers said were served by a good signal were in fact complete dead zones. The data was then filed with the FCC as part of a multi-state challenge aimed at freeing up federal grant money for underserved areas.

But the FCC ended the grant program and halted the challenge process, saying the carriers’ claims were unreliable.

Clay Purvis, the state’s telecommunications director, said the FCC decision is a bit of a good news, bad news story. The good news is the FCC essentially said Vermont was right in its challenge. The bad news is the feds decided not to help states improve coverage.

"It feels good to be right, and to show the world that what the carriers are asserting, and what the federal government is asserting as coverage, is not true. It is very disappointing, however, that their response to this proof was to cancel the program." — Clay Purvis, Vermont telecommunications director

“It feels good to be right, and to show the world that what the carriers are asserting, and what the federal government is asserting as coverage, is not true,” he said. “It is very disappointing, however, that their response to this proof was to cancel the program. That money would have gone a long way toward expanding voice coverage, mobile voice coverage, in places where we don’t have it.”

The FCC instead decided to boost funding for high-speed 5G networks. Purvis said the need in Vermont is for basic cell coverage that works statewide.

“I think the big concern for many people living in areas without cell coverage — and I can attest to this — is that we don’t have any functionality on our phone. And voice is really the most important, for public safety, for just living everyday life, you need to talk on the phone.”

A 5G network will be extremely expensive to build out, especially in rural areas, even with a $9 billion fund the FCC says it will make available, Purvis said.

“In the meantime, we can’t rely on the FCC to help us expand cell service,” he said.

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