Scott proposes $51 million to expand cell service to rural areas

by Timothy McQuiston, Vermont Business Magazine Governor Scott is proposing to spend $51 million of federal money to expand cell service into Vermont’s rural areas. The effort would require siting about 100 new towers. The Legislature would have to allocate the money.

The governor said at his press briefing Tuesday that so far lawmakers have not shown much interest in the proposal.

“I hope they’ll see the merits of doing so,” the governor said.

Public Service Department Commissioner June Tierney said, “A hundred cell towers will significantly improve the state of coverage in Vermont,” she said.

She added that the locations will be carefully chosen and would go through significant community scrutiny before being sited.

She added that the marketplace will not solve the problem of gaps in service because if there’s no business case to site new towers, the commercial carriers simply won’t, which is why the state needs to step in.

“The data in my department and my experience with the issue clearly shows folks want cell service to be ubiquitous and reliable,” Tierney said, and she urged the Legislature to “move off the mark” because “Vermonters really want this.”

Scott said the expansion of cell service would complement the $116 million already being deployed to built out the state’s broadband service through the Broadband Construction Grant Program.

The grant program provides money to the Communication Union Districts (CUDs). NEK Broadband, for one, powered up its first customers last week.

Broadband expansion does not solve, the governor said, the problem of poor cell service across the state, especially along rural roadways where the lack of sufficient wireless service is most acute.

Scott said that with a more mobile population and a more remote workforce – on top of the Vermont tourism industry’s needs (everything from calling for reservations to getting directions) – cell service is crucial to the economy.

He also emphasized the public safety benefits of adequate cell service, for both individuals and first responders.

Tierney outlined the administration’s plan at the governor’s press briefing on February 8.

Tierney Statement:

I am here today to talk about Vermont’s need for expanded cell service, and Governor Scott’s proposal to address that need by spending $51Million of Federal Capital Projects Dollars to deploy 100 new cell towers in Vermont.

The need to materially improve cell service in Vermont is obvious to many who live, work, and travel in our state. Expanded mobile wireless is critical for public safety, transportation, education and the economy. This is a truth that stings when we find ourselves in a place with no cell signal when we need it, and we meet the repercussions from missing or dropping an important or timely conversation.

And, fundamentally, the need to act on cell service in Vermont is about equity: too many of us, and particularly in rural parts, do not have reliable cell service to get help, to work, to learn, to check in with doctors, nurses, case workers, and to be in touch with loved ones. In short, too many of us cannot prosper -- as fellow Vermonters do in our population centers, where cell service is better because the customer base is bigger and more profitable.

Current state of mobile wireless coverage

In 2018, the Public Service Department did a drive test of all federal-aid highways in Vermont. Here is some of what we found:

  • 62% of roadways have marginal service
  • 10% of Vermont roadways lack a signal from any carrier at all
  • About 70% of tested road miles have a signal from either AT&T or Verizon
    • That’s why so many of us are carrying around two phones – if you can afford it – just to have reliable coverage wherever we go.

What Governor Scott is proposing:

Establishing and funding a Critical Communications Infrastructure Program, to be carried out by the agency I lead, the Department of Public Service, in partnership with the Agency of Transportation, the Department of Public Safety, the Agency of Commerce and Community Development, and our regional planning commissions -- and, most importantly, in a manner that respects the will of our communities.

Here are the two core objectives of the Critical Communications Infrastructure Program:

  • To ensure there is uniform voice coverage along target corridors in Vermont from one or more of the three nationwide carriers for public safety and commerce.
  • To improve mobile wireless data services -- “internet-on-the-go” -- for public safety, health, education, commerce, and to support the deployment of internet-of-things applications, such as connected vehicles.

Here’s what the Critical Communications Infrastructure Program will do:

  • The State of Vermont will facilitate building 100 new cell towers;
  • The towers will be deployed in rural areas to reach unserved roads and improve coverage in population centers presently underserved by cell service;
  • Priority coverage areas will be identified by experts under contract with the Department, using fresh cell coverage data collected through a new drive test that updates the extensive testing the Department did in 2018.

Here’s the funding for the Critical Communications Infrastructure Program:

Governor Scott proposes using $51Million in federal monies from the Corona Virus Capital Projects Fund. This is a discrete pot of money the U.S. Treasury set aside specifically to address the severe infrastructure challenges laid bare by the Pandemic, especially in rural America, Tribal communities, and low- and moderate-income communities. The Capital Projects Fund aims to help ensure that all communities have access to critical services via high-quality modern infrastructure, such as broadband and other forms of digital connectivity. As you may know, the American Rescue Plan provides $10 billion nationally to carry out critical capital projects that strengthen and improve the infrastructure we need to participate in work, education, and health monitoring -- infrastructure that will last and pay dividends beyond the pandemic. Vermont’s share of the Capital Projects Fund is approximately $100M.

Here are the five steps of the Critical Communications Infrastructure Program:

1. Identify priority road corridors via drive testing and traffic/population analysis.

2. Identify suitable tower site locations to serve these priority areas.

3. Conduct an RFP (request for proposal process) to confirm carrier interest in using the towers to expand their service and identify colocation rent rates.

4. Grant funds to cell service providers to hang their gear on these towers.

5. Conduct an RFP process to deploy towers at the identified locations.

Emphasize how we are involving community in this

I want to underscore that this program will have a robust public engagement process for identifying tower sites. We will partner with communities, their leadership, their regional planning commissions, and public safety organizations. We will seek public input where folks have opportunity to voice concerns and provide real-world information about what they need and want: “There is a gap on Route 12 where I always lose service” or “don’t put the tower there – it will totally change the feel of that picnic area.” This will be part of corridor targeting and search ring analysis, and will happen well before tower sites are selected, well before any process for permitting, so there will be ample advance public notice and input. This approach makes respect for the will of the community the North Star of our project planning process.

Touchpoints of the Critical Communications Infrastructure Program:

This program touches many aspects of life in our state. To name just a few, public safety, health and human services, education, the economy, workforce development, tourism and transportation.

Public Safety

  • Most E-911 calls are from mobile wireless
  • Too many people lack access to wireless coverage, so can’t call from home
  • A significant portion of road miles lack access, so cannot call from rural roadsides
  • 75% of calls to 911 in 2021 in Vermont were from mobile wireless – up from 71% in 2020
  • 14% of calls to 911 are abandoned (many are likely dropped wireless calls)

Health and Human Services

  • People need reliable and ready access to their doctors, nurses, and other health care providers. Cell service is the tool they need to be in touch.
  • Social workers need to reach their clients as they travel the state to check on their health and welfare. When time is short for someone vulnerable, crucial help can be delayed or come too late when there is no reliable cell service.

Education

  • Vermont students are more technology aware than ever before.
  • Software and website developers are producing applications specifically for the classroom.
  • Wireless networks are used for real-time data collection and assessment.
  • Wireless networks allow for vast learning opportunities in remote areas.
  • Wireless enables remote learning which can reduced dependency on transportation systems.

The Economy

  • Attracting work force and business development
    • Nearly every industry from the self-employed to corporate executives rely on a cell phone to connect with clients and customers.
    • Need to attract workers and business development
    • Need to keep our youth – tomorrow’s workers and business development
  • Tourism
    • Cell phones are critical to make reservations, find accommodations, check transportation options and locate attractions.
    • Visitors expect connectivity
    • Tourists enjoy sharing their Vermont experience in real time with family and friends; think texts, think pictures
    • 100% of people polled between 18-29 have a cell phone, for most they can only be reached by cell phone.
    • 98% of US College graduates rely on their cell phone.

Transportation

Wireless communications are critical for current and future transportation needs:

  • Convergence
    • Fiber, Wireless, Electric Grid – these are becoming a seamless unified network
  • Intelligent Highway Management
    • Snowplow and Emergency vehicle tracking
    • Realtime highway conditions
    • Crowdsource and smart navigation
  • Automation & Modernization
    • Fleet management
    • Distribution tracking