Cell Coverage Threatened In 26 Towns, As Provider Faces Financial Trouble

Mar 22, 2018

Vermont has been trying to get cell service into every corner of the state, and a few years ago, a new technology offered promise by mounting mini cell towers along utility poles.

But just last week the state learned that CoverageCo — the company that’s operating the cell system — is about to shut down after losing money on the experiment.

Grace Cottage Hospital, in Townshend, is the smallest hospital in the state, and still it prides itself on offering its patients all of the modern and most up-to-date technologies.

Travis Macie, Grace Cottage's IT manager, says when he heard there was a company that was willing to try out a new way to bring cell coverage to the area, he thought he’d have one less project to worry about.

“I knew the technology was there and it worked,” he says. “You know, I was pretty hopeful that they would stay around.”

Grace Cottage is tucked into the narrow West River Valley, and it was a cell service desert before CoverageCo rolled out its service.

Since June, Grace Cottage has had cell service.

Grace Cottage Hospital in Townshend is the smallest hospital in the state. Before CoverageCo set up its network, there was no cell service there.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR

Doug DiVello, the president and CEO of Grace Cottage, says since the service has been live, patients have been able to pick up calls from concerned family members.

The doctors could call from the road when they were paged, and if someone traveling up Route 30 went off the road on their way to one of the nearby ski mountains, DiVello says they could rely on the service.

But all of that is about to go away.

“We’re talking about people all up and down Route 30 here in the West River Valley, who all of a sudden will no longer have access to cell phone service. ... That’s a major issue that I think needs attention,” DiVello says. 

The state is paying attention, but right now, there are very few options on the table.

"We're talking about people all up and down Route 30 here in the West River Valley, who all of a sudden will no longer have access to cell phone service. ... That's a major issue that I think needs attention." — Doug DiVello, Grace Cottage Hospital president and CEO

Vermont invested almost $4 million in the project. The deal was that the state would buy the equipment and the company would run the network.

Under the business plan, CoverageCo would collect a few dollars every time someone used the system.

But it just didn’t work out that way, explains Clay Purvis, the director of the Vermont Department of Public Service's telecommunication and connectivity division.

“So we took a chance, the state of Vermont,” Purvis said. “And we tried to make the best of it, but you got to face the economic realities that it’s a tough market to serve.”

CoverageCo set up about 160 of these mini cell towers, in 26 towns, in some of the toughest corridors around the state. Since then, 911 service has improved, and there are schools along the service areas that rely on the system.

Purvis says the state is trying to find another vendor to run the network — but time is running out. He says the service could be turned off within a week or two.

"We're working on it. We've reached out to many providers to see if there's something that they could do to step in and help." — Clay Purvis, Vermont Department of Public Service

“We’re working on it. We’ve reached out to many providers to see if there’s something that they could do to step in and help,” Purvis says. “You know, the issue here is that they owe money to everyone. So it’s not a matter of paying one or two different vendors to keep the service on. They essentially stopped paying everyone.”

Independent Rep. Laura Sibilia said a lot of the communities she represents in the Deerfield River Valley had temporary cell service set up after Tropical Storm Irene.

Sibilia said she wanted to see that kind of urgency to make sure communities don’t lose their 911 service as CoverageCo goes under.