CoverageCo rural cell service could go dark

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CoverageCo rural cell service could go dark

Fri, 03/16/2018 - 6:50pm -- tim

by Timothy McQuiston Vermont Business Magazine Vermont is likely to lose one component of its rural cell phone coverage. CoverageCo, which runs the micro cell radio service along the state’s remote highways, has been looking for a buyer to avoid going out of business. So far, it's been unsuccessful in finding one. The Department of Public Service Thursday night warned legislators that the service could terminate at any moment, and along with it the 911 service it provides, but it does not know when.

CoverageCo won a contract from the Vermont Telecommunications Authority in 2012 to set up 357 micro cell sites that use proprietary radio signals to allow for cell service in rural areas of the state. But only 160 sites were ever operational, according to Clay Purvis, the Telecommunications chief for the DPS.

The VTA was eventually folded into the Department of Public Service.

Purvis told VBM that that it’s still possible CoverageCo could find a buyer, but he said it was unlikely it would do so. The service has lost money for its owner.

“We expect over time individual sites or the whole network will go down. We just don’t know when,” he said.

CoverageCo was founded by Vanu Bose, son of Amar Bose, the audio pioneer. Vanu Bose died at 52 last November in Boston of a pulmonary embolism.

The Vermont operation was then left in a lurch.

The 2G cell network had several problems, technological and commercial. AT&T did not participate in the roaming network, while the other large carriers did (Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint). The 2G technology itself has rapidly become antiquated.

Purvis also said there was “contention” issues, in which cell providers hand-off signals to each other.

“The business model was part of the problem,” Purvis said.

He added that wireless service in Vermont, with its mountains and valleys, is also a tricky business, which everyone with a cell phone understands.

Former legislator and Vermont gubernatorial candidate Matt Dunne, lobbying on behalf of CoverageCo last spring, outlined the monetary problem the firm was facing. CoverageCo was the middleman and relied on usage fees paid by providers like Verizon.

Dunne wrote the House Committee on Energy & Technology in April 2017:

“The Problem:

“CoverageCo's revenue model and device placement strategy was originally based on national averages for cell phone use while driving. However, Vermonters use the phone on the road at much lower rate than national average. The result is that the current average revenue per installation is $56/month/site, and because current operational costs are $135/month/site, this has lead [sic] to a $79/month/site deficit.”

“The funding of 911 service is necessary not just for the CoverageCo project to succeed, but for any hope of getting 911 cell service from any provider to these more remote parts of the state in the near future. That's why the reimbursement policy should be available to any provider willing to take on this challenge.”

“Cost to the State:

  • “Current cost of 2G 911 service for 145 sites at $50/mo is $7,250/month
  • “Cost of 2G 911 service for all 357 planned sites at $28/mo is $9,996/month
  • “Annual cost of 2G 911 service, once all 357 sites are running, would be $119,952.”
  • “Note: In the event that CoverageCo adds LTE service, that would be an additional $50 a month for 911 coverage per unit. In that case, the total annual cost would be $334,152. ($119,952/year for 2G + $214,200/year for LTE).”

Purvis said the state already has invested $4.1 million in the service. He said the state would not be in a position to upgrade the CoverageCo service nor would it be likely for one of the providers to take it over.

AT&T will at some point implement its FirstNet service, which is expected to be a 3G and 4G cell network. But that service, while available commercially also, is primarily intended for first responders and may only have marginal overlapping service to remote areas of the state.

As for the 911 component, Dunne said in his statement to the House committee that, “There were 918 completed calls to E911 (non-test and non-hang-up calls) made through the CoverageCo network in the last 12 months.”

Purvis acknowledged the public safety concern of losing the service, but could not verify the number of 911 calls made on the CoverageCo system.

“Public safety was always a component of this project,” Purvis said.

“I think that although it will be a loss of coverage, whether it makes a significant impact on public safety in these areas. I don’t know,” he said.

As for now, the system is still on, but he does not know for how long, which is what prompted the DPS to contact legislators.

A unique feature of the system, Purvis said, is that 10 CoverageCo sites are “resiliency points.” These were grant funded in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene (August 2011) to provide service in the event of a disaster. These sites are connected to solar panels, which, he said, was a “significant component of the project.”

Just last September, CoverageCo initiated service in Whitingham in Windham County and in North Troy, hard by the Canadian border near Newport.

In a press release, Chris Young, principal at the Troy School in North Troy, said, "Student safety is paramount, and we are fortunate to have skilled and dedicated first responders in our immediate area. Having access to 911 through cell phones will enhance our ability (to) access these services and to provide a safe school environment for our students, staff, and community."

Vanu Bose said in the press release, “Deploying cell service in Vermont has been a real community effort, and working with schools, libraries, businesses and homeowners in the state to increase coverage has been a great experience. And when student safety is involved like in North Troy and Whitingham, successful cell service expansions are all the more rewarding.”

Calls to reach CoverageCo in Boston went to voice mail and an email was not returned as of press time.

Photos and map from coverageco.com website.

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