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Mapping Project Charts Cell Phone Coverage In Vermont

The state says there has been significant progress made to expand cellular phone coverage in Vermont over the past few years.  Yet it’s hard to tell how much progress has been made and what remains to be done. 

That’s why Mike Ray and Jo Wilson are spending their days driving the roads of Vermont this month in a vehicle with two Coleman coolers mounted on the roof. 

Often in their work they use fairly high tech gear when measuring radio frequencies for broadcast stations, emergency responders and wireless providers.  

But for measuring cell phone signals it turns out the best piece of equipment is a regular cell phone.  Ray and Wilson have five of them mounted in makeshift racks inside the two green coolers atop his rental car.

The two work for a Colorado based company called Pericle Communications which has been contracted by the state, using a federal grant to map cell phone coverage in Vermont.

They’re covering more than 5500 miles of Vermont roads, measuring cellular signal strength, connection speeds and determining where cell phone providers have service.

Like a group of busy teenagers, the phones on the roof are constantly receiving and sending data and making calls.  The coolers keep them from overheating. 

Ray says he could do this with computer modeling but a map created that way would only show theoretical coverage.

 “Really the only way to know is to go drive it. There’s a reason why you have the Verizon guy wandering out with a phone asking, ‘can you hear me now?’ It is the only way to tell,” he says.

Ray’s company mapped cell coverage in Vermont once before, in 2010.

The Vermont Telecommunications Authority says since then there’s been significant progress in expanding cell coverage. But without the maps, it’s difficult to quantify the gains and chart a course for improving coverage.

Chris Campbell, the telecommunications authority’s Executive Director, says as broadband service expands Vermonters are increasingly able to use available technology to access a cell phone network through their internet connection. 

“What that doesn’t necessarily help is for people who are either traveling from place to place or in places where people congregate outside of where they live and work. When we focus on the cellular specific mission that’s really what we focus on,” says Campbell.

The state’s goal for cell phone coverage is to ensure the major carriers are providing service to all of Vermont’s interstates and well-traveled state highways.

No one is hazarding a guess as to when that will be, but the Vermont is using grants and other incentives to convince cell companies to fill in the gaps in service.  The new map will show them just where those gaps are.

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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