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Cell Providers Still Face Challenges In Rural Areas

Vermont Telecommunications Authority

Vermont officials continue to promise that the state will have 100% broadband coverage by year’s end, but they’ve always stressed that they can’t make a similar pledge for cell coverage. 

Improving cell service involves financial and technological challenges different from broadband. 

Consider the basic differences between broadband and cell service.

Broadband only has to be available in those places where people live and work. Cell service has to cover the miles of highway between work and home.  A small gap along the way is all it takes to drop a call.

Many of Vermont’s broadband service providers are based right here.

But there are far fewer cell providers and the biggest ones are national companies whose priorities aren’t necessarily bringing service to unserved rural roads.

They’re more focused on meeting the skyrocketing demand for greater service in urban areas.  Chris Campbell is Executive Director of the Vermont Telecommunications Authority.

“The cellular industry as a whole is mobilized to deal with the large increases in all of those people going out and buying smartphones and using them in tablets and all of that data is creating a tremendous demand in the network and that has left in these companies a somewhat diminished capacity to commit to new projects that would expand their footprint,”Campbell explains.

Broadband has expanded into Vermont’s most rural areas with a lot of help from state and federal grants awarded to private companies.

Campbell says that won’t work as well for cell service.

“The question of grants is one of the reasons why cellular’s been a little more difficult,” says Campbell.” The national cellular operators, especially the larger ones generally don’t take grants.  So we have to find outer ways to fit into a category that they can say yes to.”

Campbell says the telecommunications authority is exploring a variety of ways to attract providers to fill in the gaps in cell service along important highways.   A graphic showing the corridors targeted for better coverage looks like a spider web imposed over a map of Vermont.

Part of the effort involves minimizing the costs involved in acquiring a cell tower location and connecting that site to the system.  

Campbell says one approach is to identify unserved areas where there’s local interest in hosting a site at little or no cost to the cell company.

“So maybe it’s a town.  Maybe it’s a local business that’s very dependent on tourism. As long as it doesn’t cost them very much, there’s a benefit to them,”  says Campbell.

He says another approach to improving service involves installations that cover small areas but can be strung together.  One company is using a $500 thousand state grant to build a small cell network that will cover altogether more than 200 miles of state highway.  

AT&T recently announced plans for 40,000 small cell installations across the country.  Campbell says the state is trying to interest the company in locating some of them here.

Campbell says while there’s been a significant expansion of cell service in Vermont the past few years, it’s difficult to quantify.  The last time a complete map of cell coverage was produced was in 2010. 

A new mapping effort is scheduled to begin in September.

Steve has been with VPR since 1994, first serving as host of VPR’s public affairs program and then as a reporter, based in Central Vermont. Many VPR listeners recognize Steve for his special reports from Iran, providing a glimpse of this country that is usually hidden from the rest of the world. Prior to working with VPR, Steve served as program director for WNCS for 17 years, and also worked as news director for WCVR in Randolph. A graduate of Northern Arizona University, Steve also worked for stations in Phoenix and Tucson before moving to Vermont in 1972. Steve has been honored multiple times with national and regional Edward R. Murrow Awards for his VPR reporting, including a 2011 win for best documentary for his report, Afghanistan's Other War.
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