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McQuiston: Coverage Co.

Gene Krebs
A partnership between the Federal Government and AT&T may hold the solution to better cell phone service in rural areas nationwide.

When I first reported that the rural cell phone service, CoverageCo, was about to go dark last year, most Vermonters probably weren’t that familiar with it. But folks in places like Whitingham, Readsboro and Townshend knew about it, because it was their only mobile service.The original concept seemed like a good idea at the time. But it didn't work out for several reasons. Developer Vanu Bose died unexpectedly in 2017. It failed financially last spring. And the Vermont Public Service Department terminated the CoverageCo contract last August.

Now, the PSD is looking to find a new approach, which could come with help from a nationwide contract between AT&T and the federal government – which is about to spend 25 million in Vermont in FirstNet money. It's a plan to get cell coverage to nearly every corner of America for the benefit of first responders – and the public will be able to piggyback on top of that network. That is, if AT&T can make it work.

Last year, the PSD developed a new cell coverage map – and there's a lot less service than previously believed.

Initially, the failed Vanu Bose effort sounded like genius. Instead of using massive cell towers, with the expense and permitting problems that go with them, he proposed a relatively low-tech, radio-based system that would use telephone poles, which are everywhere.

The problem was that AT&T declined to offer roaming service until CoverageCo was on its death bed. The 2G low-tech system was only so-so. The system, which had a modest scope to start with, never was fully built out. And the state sank 4 million dollars into what effectively was a private venture and now has nothing to show for it.

So, was it worth it? The easy answer would be a colossal NO.

But what Vanu Bose proved was that there is another way to conquer the hills and dales problem of cell service in Vermont.

Now, with a pile of federal dollars and a mandate from the U.S. government, the state might be well on the way to resolving this seemingly intractable problem once and for all.

Tim McQuiston is editor of Vermont Business Magazine.
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