New Technology Extends Cell Coverage To Rural Areas

Apr 13, 2013

Vermont officials say some hard-to-reach parts of the state will soon have cell phone coverage thanks to the successful test of a new system.

For Vermont cell phone users reception difficulties stem from two problems:

First, the terrain which often blocks the signals from cell phone towers. 

The second reason is economic. 

"Other than terrain, the biggest challenge is that there simply aren't a lot of people. The potential volume of traffic and the revenue for carriers make it somewhat of a difficult sell," says Chris Campbell, Executive Director of the Vermont Telecommunications Authority.

Campbell says the some parts of the state are both hard to reach with cell coverage because of terrain, and they aren't economically attractive enough for the big service providers to invest money in the necessary equipment to serve them.    

So last year, the VTA awarded a $500,000 grant to a Virginia based company called CoverageCo to build a network of micro-sites in parts of Orange and Lamoille Counties*. 

Instead of putting up cell towers, the company is mounting low power units on existing utility poles along the highway. 

Each one has a radius of about ½ mile, compared to a signal from a cell tower which might cover 30 miles or more. The system is owned by the state and leased to CoverageCo.

Campbell says a test of the system along a stretch of Route 110 between Chelsea and Washington shows it works well for both voice and data. 

"We think that holds a lot of promise to how to provide consistent cell coverage along a road that runs along a pretty windy, twisty valley floor,"he says.

The state grant will provide coverage along 90 miles of roads. Campbell says CoverageCo has indicated it plans to expand the service by another 125 miles using its own money. The system will be activated as it is being built.

While a substantial amount of state and federal grant money has been devoted to expanding broadband internet service, cell coverage is largely dependent on investments by companies that provide the service.

According to the state, cellular companies have invested $80 million dollars to improve service in recent years.

Last year the Vermont Telecommunications Authority gave VTel Wireless based in Springfield a $5 million grant to expand cell service in four southern Vermont counties.

*Areas included in the CoverageCo grant award are:

  • Route 110 in Washington, through Chelsea, into part of Tunbridge
  • From Route 110 in Chelsea along the East Randolph Road into a part of Randolph
  • Route 25 from Orange, through Topsham, through Corinth, into a part of Bradford
  • From Route 25 in East Corinth Road through Topsham to Route 302 in Groton
  • Route 302 east of Orange through Topsham through Groton to South Ryegate
  • Six miles along Route 15 in Wolcott
  • Route 108 in Bakersfield through East Fletcher into Jeffersonville and Cambridge
  • Route 113 from Chelsea to Thetford Center