Another lost connection
A little more than a year ago we wrote about cell service expansion in underserved areas of the Deerfield Valley. That article reported about a meeting to discuss a plan developed by Massachusetts-based Vanu CoverageCo to bring micro-cell service to rural areas of Vermont. At that meeting, Vanu Bose, the founder of CoverageCo, told legislators and others at the meeting profitability was marginal and that coverage could only be expanded with more use of the system.
Here we are, a year later, and last week we wrote of the financial woes of CoverageCo, how many of their micro-cell sites were causing them to lose money due to lack of use, and were in danger of being shut down. The shutdown issue became a real problem for Grace Cottage Hospital in Townshend, where cell service was temporarily lost until another provider, AT&T, erected a portable cell tower.
In all, the CoverageCo problems affect at least 26 communities in Vermont, including parts of Wilmington, Whitingham, Halifax, Readsboro, Townshend, Newfane, and Jamaica.
It would seem that, once again, Vermont is going backward with cell coverage following the CoverageCo drop. While there are efforts to find other cell companies willing to step in, such as AT&T in Townshend, there just doesn’t seem to be much financial incentive for any commercial company to do so. The CoverageCo financial problems just emphasizes that point again.
Sound familiar? It should. Financial viability has long been the bugaboo for cell and broadband internet expansion throughout the state. CoverageCo offered a model that made sense technically, essentially setting up micro-cell service using small repeaters hung on existing telephone poles and buildings. But their model has proven to not be financially viable.
CoverageCo’s model might have been perfect for rural Kansas: wireless cell service spread broadly over flat, wide-open country. But in mountainous Vermont, the results have been less than ideal. Interestingly, the company said it had developed its micro-cell service in two areas, Vermont and the country of Rwanda, in Africa. They also said the challenges were greater in Vermont than they were in Rwanda.
In retrospect, it may be that part of the problem was that CoverageCo decided to line major roadways with micro-cell towers, betting that drivers would use the service and CoverageCo could generate revenue from that use. But, given that drivers are discouraged from using cell phones while operating a vehicle, that might not have been the best decision.
So where does rural Vermont go from here? There is no doubt reliable cell phone service is needed for emergency services. That point was driven home seven years ago when Tropical Storm Irene struck, and again with the Grace Cottage situation. Here we are, more than half a decade later, and it’s a continuing frustration for so many in rural, isolated areas that reliable cell and internet services just aren’t available.
We don’t claim to have the answers, but part of a solution has to be to stop giving out government grant money to relatively untested, less-than-viable technologies. How much money will the state and federal governments continue to throw at companies that are long on promise but short on delivery? From VTel’s Wireless Open World internet service to CoverageCo’s cell system, there have been tens of millions spent with only modest gain, if any at all.
We understand that government sometimes has to use public dollars to stimulate private investment. There are certainly plenty of examples where those partnerships are successful. Just look at the town of Dover, which partnered with FairPoint earlier this decade to bring high-speed internet service to homes in East Dover. That partnership worked, and in general that money was well spent.
But public-private partnerships don’t always work as projected. CoverageCo is just the latest example of that. We hope the next time around, state and federal dollars will be invested in a more stable company, one perhaps with a more proven technology or profit model.
Until that happens, rural Vermont will still lag behind many developing nations when it comes to broadband and cell service.