Vermont Says Cellphone Service Ain't That Great

State-Run Mapping Project Finds Limits in Carriers' Coverage Claims

The Vermont Department of Public Service (DPS) has challenged the coverage claims of several wireless internet providers in an effort to demonstrate that more areas of Vermont are under-served by mobile broadband than previously estimated.

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The challenge, which was submitted to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), was sent with the hope of garnering additional funds from the FCC’s Mobility Phase II program. That program aims to disburse more than $4.5 billion to service providers willing to commit to offering mobile wireless service in eligible areas across the U.S.

According to Clay Purvis, who serves as telecommunications director at the DPS, the challenge is rooted in coverage maps provided by telecom firms for the State of Vermont. Upon review, regulators felt these maps overstated the reach of wireless service to various corners of the state.

Prompted by personal experience, the DPS began a “drive test” of all of Vermont’s state highways and village centers using smartphones and other tools to determine which areas were and weren’t receiving download rates of at least 5 megabits per second.

All told, regulators determined that nearly 4,200 additional square-kilometer “blocks” along state highways received spotty or limited coverage from the six major providers than was initially calculated by the providers—mostly in the Northeast Kingdom and parts of the Green Mountain National Forest, Purvis said.

“There was one service provider in particular that laid claim to much of the state,” said Purvis. “When we looked at that map we thought ‘this is wildly unbelievable,’ based on our experience and, I think, the collective experience of Vermonters all over the state. We know that cell service isn’t that good—at least not as good as the maps portray.”

The interactive maps, which are available on the DPS website, show a lace-like pattern of green, yellow, orange, and red squares tracing the topographic contours of the state’s roads—each tiny square representing a kilometer-long stretch of road- way with cellular service ranging from “great” to “spotty” to nonexistent. “Most Vermonters are interested in … where they have cell coverage and where they can get service,” said Purvis. “I think the other important aspect of this project is that there is a large sum of money available to carriers to provide expanded cell coverage in rural areas that lack it today.”

In the White River Valley, the towns most in need of additional telecom infrastructure were Brookfield, Bethel, Rochester, Barnard, Tunbridge, Chelsea, Vershire, Hancock, and Granville.

“Anyone who drives Vermont’s roads experiences the industry’s coverage data is not accurate,” wrote Purvis in a press release. “Many of the areas in Vermont shown as served at 5 Mbps on their coverage maps actually lack sufficient coverage to even make a call.”

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