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Universal cell service still elusive

Recent decision by cellular carrier to back out of planned tower in Townshend illustrates Vermont’s dilemma in providing coverage statewide

TOWNSHEND—In late 2014, it appeared that Townshend finally would get its first cell tower after the state granted approval for an AT&T project along Route 30.

But AT&T recently notified Townshend that it is dropping those plans, leading one frustrated Selectboard member to declare that “every time we take one step forward, somebody seems to slap us back down.”

Those two developments may be a microcosm of the cellular dilemma across Vermont. Just one new tower can make a world of difference in towns that have little or no service, but there’s no way to force service providers to invest in those areas.

And at this point, it appears there’s not much hope for truly “universal” cell coverage in the Green Mountain State.

“It is very difficult,” said Jim Porter, director of the state Public Service Department’s Division of Telecommunications and Connectivity. “In Vermont, the topography and areas of sparse population make expanding cellular service a difficult proposition.”

Despite its topography and population, Vermont has not missed out on the wireless boom. The state’s latest Telecommunications Plan update (http://publicservice.vermont.gov/publications/telecom_plan) says that, in 2004, an “overwhelming majority” of survey respondents “had not even considered the idea of giving up their traditional landline service.”

A decade later, about 30 percent of Vermont adults were living in wireless-only households.

The plan says four nationwide cellular carriers — AT&T, Verizon Wireless, T-Mobile and Sprint — “have made great inroads into rural Vermont, installing facilities in some of the hardest-to-reach places of the state.” The document also estimated that those carriers reach “an estimated 96 percent of the state’s geographic area.”

Taken by itself, that number can be a little misleading.

For one thing, expanded coverage by one carrier doesn’t necessarily mean expanded coverage by any of the others. For example, the Telecommunications Plan’s authors found that, between January 2012 and January 2014, AT&T’s cell-equipment applications with the Vermont Public Service Board far outpaced Verizon’s.

Also, it’s unclear what that 96 percent figure really means. While Porter said the data was “derived from actual drive tests,” he speculated that the number may refer to “areas where there are structures or people — not land mass coverage.”

There’s another variable: New roadside micro-cell installations by a company called CoverageCo were not figured into the telecommunications plan’s estimate, as that project is ongoing. The CoverageCo equipment provides service in a limited area via contracts with several major carriers, and it’s expected to eventually reach about 500 sites around the state.

The ultimate goal, as articulated in the Telecommunications Plan, is that “Vermont should have universal availability of mobile service along travel corridors and near universal availability statewide.” But Porter could not quantify how close the state has come to meeting that goal.

“The CoverageCo project is still being built, and there has been no drive-by data mapping conducted since 2013, so it is hard to say at this time,” he said.

In places like Townshend, though, the answers are easy to come by for those who find their phones useless. Selectboard Chairwoman Kathy Hege said CoverageCo installations along Route 30 can be used by subscribers to some cellular services, but not others.

At any rate, the CoverageCo facilities are not meant to provide widespread service. For that, officials had placed their hopes in AT&T. The company’s proposed tower along Route 30 also was to have been used to boost emergency radio signals in the area.

“This valley is horrible for any type of radio communication,” Hege said.

But in December, Townshend received an e-mail from an AT&T representative explaining that the company “regularly evaluates customer needs, network performance, market conditions, etc., and adjusts its network construction plans.”

“Unfortunately, this site is not in our current build plan at this time,” wrote Andrew Kingman, a Boston-based AT&T regional director for external affairs.

Kingman also advised Townshend officials that “the tower company that was planning to construct the site has offered the site to other carriers. While none have accepted at this point, the tower company will continue to solicit interest.”

Townshend has regional importance, in part because it hosts a hospital, an ambulance service, a junior-senior high school and an assisted-living facility. But Hege is not optimistic about the town’s prospects for cell coverage. “There are a lot of reasons why we should be looked at for this service,” she said. “But we seem to be way down on the priority list.”

Porter said that’s not necessarily the case, and he said officials in his department are willing to meet with towns that lack cell service in order to look for potential solutions. He’s also “hopeful we will see a public/private partnership or two over the next year that will help expand coverage” in Vermont.

But in the end, “we have no regulatory authority to require cellular buildout,” Porter said. “We work closely with the carriers and do all we can to have them expand coverage in Vermont.”

Cell service may not be as prominent a policy issue as it once was. In terms of connectivity initiatives, much of the state’s recent emphasis seems to have been on the effort to expand high-speed Internet service.

“There was such a huge amount of federal money in Vermont for broadband expansion over the past five years, (and) I think broadband took the lead in priority and certainly in discussion,” Porter said.

He added that “we have more broadband providers than cellular providers in Vermont, and in many ways it is easier to create incentives for broadband projects.”

Technology is still evolving, though, and Porter suggested that broadband and cellular discussions are not mutually exclusive. “These days ... where you have cellular you frequently also have broadband,” he said. “As cellular increasingly will be provided over broadband, the distinction between the two blurs in many ways.”

Those who live and work in towns like Townshend, though, may be more interested in results than in the specifics of the delivery method.

“I know there are a lot of people in town who would like to see cell service of any type,” Hege said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #339 (Wednesday, January 13, 2016). This story appeared on page A1.

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