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A CoverageCo antenna in Newfane.

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Future uncertain for rural and e911 cell service

CoverageCo submits plan to state as service remains in limbo in Whitingham, Townshend, and other rural communities

—CoverageCo submitted a preliminary plan on June 30 for restoring and expanding its rural cell/e911 service, nearly all of which is currently shut down.It could remain shut down unless Consolidated Communications, the state’s largest telecom, either comes back on board or a different telecommunications solution presents itself.The Vermont Department of Public Service will consider the plan and either move forward with CoverageCo or issue a Request for Proposal to consider any bidder for the rural cell service.“We are reviewing the plan. I do not have a specific timeline, but we are reviewing it as quickly and thoroughly as possible,” Clay Purvis, director of telecommunications and connectivity at the Department of Public Service, told Vermont Business Magazine.CoverageCo, as first reported by VBM in March, fell into deep financial trouble after its founder Vanu Bose, of the Bose audio family, died unexpectedly last November.The company had recently boasted of new service in rural parts of Vermont, including at Twin Valley Middle/High School in Whitingham.But service rapidly started to fall off across the state. Twin Valley and the surrounding area soon went dark, as did the area around Grace Cottage Hospital in Townshend.While the hospital worked with the state and AT&T to set up a mobile site there, nearly all the rest of the CoverageCo sites, initially about 160, have gone dark.The state owns the hardware. The service was mainly employed in the far south and far north of the state.

One original investor

—The new CoverageCo plan includes one of its original investors. They have grand plans to extend the service to nearly 500 sites and upgrade it eventually to a 4G/LTE network from the current 2G service, with its inherent data limitations.A couple of the roadblocks to the service ever taking off was that CoverageCo had to pay the state 911 geolocation fees and, more importantly, AT&T declined to offer roaming on the system.AT&T is the largest cell provider in Vermont and therefore revenue was limited.AT&T subsequently joined the network in May 2018 and new funding for the 911 geolocation should be available in the new state budget. But then Consolidated dropped out.Consolidated was owed more than $100,000 by CoverageCo. Unlike Green Mountain Power and the state, who continued to provide service despite the arrears, Consolidated had had enough of not getting paid.CoverageCo had made a good-faith payment to Consolidated in May and promised they would keep up with their bills moving forward.That apparently wasn’t good enough, and Consolidated pulled its DSL service, without which calls and data will not get through.CoverageCo appealed to the state Public Utilities Commission for an emergency renewal of service, thus forcing Consolidated to keep operating.However, the PUC ruled in June that it didn’t have jurisdiction because the internet is regulated by the federal government, and DSL is considered internet.There is no obvious replacement for Consolidated. Telephone companies have monopoly service areas, while cable and fiber companies tend not to extend service into the low-density areas where CoverageCo intentionally was dedicated to operate.In filing its plan, CoverageCo took issue with Consolidated, not only because of CoverageCo’s recent payment and promise, but also because Consolidated (then FairPoint Communications) itself received concessions from state regulators in 2010 in order to remain viable.CoverageCo wrote in its plan: “It is ironic that in 2010 FairPoint Communications received many millions of dollars in concessions from the State of Vermont and ratepayers (who were due service-quality refunds) in order for the company to be able to maintain operations in the state, and yet the same organization under Consolidated now prevents Vermonters and visitors from having access to the 911 emergency calling that the state-owned network operated by CoverageCo provides.”

Coverage problems

—Low population densities, high mountains, and low valleys all discourage investment in rural cell phone service, whether it’s in Vermont or anywhere else. You don’t have to go very far into rural New York or New Hampshire before you lose cell coverage.State Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Dover, has been a champion of rural cell service. Her constituents include villages and back roads of Dover, Readsboro, Searsburg, Stamford, Wardsboro, and a bit of Whitingham.“The problem is solvable,” Sibilia told VBM in an email exchange. “There are other companies [other than CoverageCo] that actually can complete, fix, operate the project. It is my hope that an RFP soliciting for services goes out soon. It is disappointing and unacceptable that Vermonters have lost this service.”Vanu Bose’s idea was to use a low-power, low-tech, low-cost system. Instead of building giant and expensive towers that may or may not reach into the gullies, these radio-based systems, known as microcells, would be installed directly along the roads.However, one would need many microcells to make it work, and a public-private partnership to finance it. The big telecoms aren’t interested in building towers where there is little traffic because they make money only when people place a call, text, or access data.The idea interested the state because it could help solve the low-population, high-mountain dilemma.CoverageCo also would bring emergency 911 service to these remote areas along with the basic cell service. The data service, and therefore revenue opportunities, might be sketchy, but would be better than nothing.Vermont taxpayers sank $4 million into the project.Sibilia said the service is now dark in her region.“[DPS Commissioner June] Tierney is giving CoverageCo ample opportunity to reverse their five-year course of less than stellar project management — both implementation and financial,” Sibilia said. “She has stressed the need for our committee [Energy and Technology] and other concerned legislators to demonstrate patience and allow her time to negotiate a solution.”

A careful review

—“We are hopeful that CoverageCo will produce a plan that addresses the system’s revenue challenges and gets the state-owned radios back online,” Purvis said prior to the submission of the document.“The General Assembly has given the Department the authority to spend $100,000 on the e911 geolocation services, which we anticipate will be included in the final budget. In the last session, the General Assembly reauthorized the use of $900,000 in capital spending to complete the network buildout of the state-owned radios.”CoverageCo has been reorganized and the preliminary plan was prepared with the assistance of Trilogy Networks Inc of Plano, Texas.Tierney, Purvis’ boss, told Sibilia and other concerned legislators in a June 1 letter, in part, that: “The Department is awaiting both the end of the special session and the delivery of the plan before conclusively assessing the Company’s prospects in the near future for success or failure in meeting its contractual obligations to the State.“In light of all these circumstances, the Department has exercised restraint with respect to its contractual remedies vis-a-vis CoverageCo and in determining whether to issue an RFP seeking a successor vendor.“To this point in time, such restraint has appeared advisable to best protect the public interest in preserving the availability of cell service in CoverageCo’s area of operations, given that the State made a capital investment of several million dollars in its partnership with CoverageCo between 2013 and early 2017.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #469 (Wednesday, July 25, 2018). This story appeared on page A2.

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