Potential loss of cell service highlights lack of coverage, again
TOWNSHEND - Gov. Phil Scott announced this week that AT&T will mitigate cell service disruption at Grace Cottage Hospital with a “Cell Site on Wheels,” or COW. Grace Cottage was facing a loss of cell coverage due to a possible shutdown of CoverageCo, a company the state contracted with in 2012 to provide cell coverage to underserved areas. Though service at Grace Cottage has been saved, the possible impending downfall of CoverageCo remains an issue for many areas in and near the Deerfield Valley, including Twin Valley Middle High School in Whitingham and Readsboro.
Andrea Seaton, director of development and community relations for Grace Cottage, said this week that the coverage provided by the COW has been wonderful. “We are thrilled with our coverage,” said Seaton. “We now have five bars of AT&T throughout downtown Townshend, plus Verizon and U.S. Cellular. The governor really worked wonders for us on this project.”
A press release from Scott’s office sent Monday detailed the development. “Scott sought assistance with the Grace Cottage Hospital site when it appeared that the CoverageCo small cell network would shut down at the beginning of April,” said the release. “In the face of mounting management difficulties, CoverageCo’s small cell network in Vermont may shut down, jeopardizing cell coverage along rural roadways in some of Vermont’s most remote areas, as well as for some school facilities, public safety outlets, and Grace Cottage Hospital.”
The same night, Rep. Laura Sibilia sent an email to constituents in which she expressed gratitude for the action. “Thank you to Speaker Johnson, Governor Scott, and AT&T for their preliminary response to this impending public safety issue,” wrote Sibilia. “I will continue to do my part to push for solutions for Twin Valley High School, Readsboro, and a number of other rural Vermont areas currently served by CoverageCo.”
On March 22, Sibilia sponsored a resolution, HR 21, which was introduced and adopted in one day and said, in part, “This legislative body urges the Department of Public Service and the governor to ensure that those areas the CoverageCo micro-cell network was intended to serve have access to cellular services, including E-911.”
In an interview Tuesday evening, Sibilia said looking for solutions for the hole that may be left by CoverageCo beyond Grace Cottage had been the focus of most of her work that day, and that a number of options are being explored. Sibilia said ensuring Twin Valley Middle High School in Whitingham has cellular service is a priority, as is continuing the work CoverageCo was doing to establish so-called “resiliency sites,” which provide backup power, cellular service, and satellite-calling capability.
“Resiliency sites are directly tied to Tropical Storm Irene,” said Sibilia. “They were to be installed in communities that were isolated, and they’re supposed to connect those communities in the event of a power outage or a windstorm.” Sibilia pauses after “windstorm” to acknowledge its relevancy. Much of the region was without power only last week due to a midweek windstorm.
“I can tell you that I’m focusing right now on those resiliency sites,” said Sibilia.
The resiliency sites, which were funded in part by federal grants, made up one side of CoverageCo’s project here, said Sibilia. The other side was rural road coverage. “The roadways project was really expensive for CoverageCo.”
CoverageCo was founded by Vanu Bose, who died unexpectedly in November. Sibilia said Bose’s death complicated matters, but even before that, CoverageCo was struggling to find profitability in the rural roadways project.
At a public meeting hosted by Sibilia and Rep. John Gannon in Whitingham in February 2017, Bose described the cell sites that CoverageCo was installing along roadways as “hotspots,” which cell users could connect to. At that meeting, Bose warned that sites that had been installed in Whitingham up to that point were proving to be unprofitable, and that the company would need to find a way to be profitable if it were to finish out the project.
CoverageCo doesn’t service the end user, but instead creates agreements with cellular service carriers so that their customers may use CoverageCo’s hotspots when in their range. When, for example, a person with a Verizon cell phone makes a phone call that goes through CoverageCo’s cellular site, Verizon pays CoverageCo a few cents per minute of usage. Not enough users were using the hotspots, said Bose, and in turn, CoverageCo was not being paid.
This week, Sibilia said that although CoverageCo’s model was not profitable, profitable models for rural coverage do exist. “There are profitable rural cell models in northern New England,” said Sibilia. “I’m definitely interested and researching what that’s like and what opportunities there can be to model that.”
Additionally, Sibilia said she is looking into whether there is any flexibility with whether federal funding from the original CoverageCo project could be redeployed into the system, and whether an upcoming project that prioritizes cell service for first responders could include the resiliency sites that were part of the CoverageCo project.
“We’re asking a lot of questions right now,” said Sibilia.