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Vt. Public Service Dept. Will Give CoverageCo More Time To Work Out Financial Challenges

A stretch of road with a mini cell tower on a utility pole that a car is driving by.
Howard Weiss-Tisman
Small cell stations, like the one in the upper right of this photo of Route 30 in Townshend, were installed on about 150 miles of road in Vermont. The Public Service Department wrote to lawmakers Friday who asked about CoverageCo, which runs the network.

The Vermont Department of Public Service says it’s not yet ready to give up on CoverageCo, the struggling cell service company.Last week a group of lawmakers sent Public Service Commissioner June Tierney a letter, asking how the state planned to make sure people didn't lose their cell service as CoverageCo tries to meet its financial obligations and keep its system running.

Tierney responded on Friday and said CoverageCo was receiving outside financial and technical assistance to keep its network running.

“Please know that I share your concern for Vermonters who stand to lose cell service — in particular cellular E-911 access — if CoverageCo cannot find a viable business path forward for continuing its operations,” Tierney wrote.

In the following paragraph, she wrote: “At this time, the plan of the Department of Public Service is to support, within reason, CoverageCo’s efforts to continue providing service.”

"At this time, the plan of the Department of Public Service is to support, within reason, CoverageCo's efforts to continue providing service." — June Tierney, Department of Public Service commissioner, in a letter to lawmakers

Tierney admits in the letter that it has been challenging to receive accurate and timely information on the company’s financial situation. But she says CoverageCo is working with a consultant that assists troubled communications companies and that it has "retained local legal counsel to advise on regulatory matters in Vermont."

“[T]hese measures suggest that CoverageCo is attempting to make good use of the reasonable opportunity it has been provided to stabilize its operations,” Tierney wrote.

In the original letter that lawmakers sent to Tierney on May 22, the legislators asked the Public Service Department if the state knew which CoverageCo sites were operational.

More from VPR — Lawmakers Press Vt. Public Service Department For Info On Spotty CoverageCo Cell Service [May 25]

In her response Friday, Tierney wrote that “the Department has no clear information on precisely how many sites remain active.”

Earlier this week, CoverageCo asked the Public Utility Commission to step in and not allow Consolidated Communications to suspend its backhaul service. CoverageCo owes Consolidated more than $100,000.

The PUC asked the two sides to try to reach a settlement and gave them until Tuesday to come to an agreement.

CoverageCo says it will provide a business plan to the state later this month, and Tierney says if it appears the company is unable to continue, the state will issue a request for proposal (RFP) for a new vendor to run the system.

Toward the end of her letter to the lawmakers, Tierney wrote:

“I offer you my firm assurances that the Department will spare no effort in finding a reasonable and sustainable path forward in bringing reliable cell service to these affected Vermonters ... Patience and sound policy vetting will be needed, though, to guard against repeating the setbacks and disappointing aspects of the CoverageCo that Vermonters are now experiencing.”

Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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