Gov. Peter Shumlin joined AT&T executives on Thursday to call attention to progress in Vermont's efforts to expand cellular coverage in the state, but cell service has become something of a liability to Shumlin.
On his first day as governor, he launched a program he said would help him deliver on a promise.
"Today I am proud to launch Connect Vermont, an initiative to deliver by 2013 my promise of high speed Internet access and cell service to every corner of our state," he said.
Almost four years later, as 2014 was winding to a close, a 71-year-old woman named Patricia Little died in a snowstorm in a field near her home trying to get help for her husband, who'd fallen in the driveway.
The Littles couldn't use their land line because of a power outage, and they still didn't have cell service at home.
That tragedy highlighted an issue across the state, where many rural areas still don't have cell service - in large part because it's not financially lucrative for cellular companies to put up towers that can only serve a small number of customers in Vermont's rural areas.
According to Public Service Commissioner Chris Recchia, the Littles' home is one of a slowly shrinking number without cell coverage.
"On the wireless piece, we've actually gone from 85 percent to 92 percent of the addresses covered with wireless," Recchia said Thursday. "Now that's addresses, so homes. And we still have lots of dead spots like this on the roads, but we're making progress."
That progress was what Shumlin was celebrating this week.
"This is a big deal. Anyone who does business, lives or gets near Chittenden County knows that when you get to Richmond, we always said 'We're hitting the Richmond hole. We're gonna lose you,'" Shumlin said.
That hole is no more, Shumlin said, thanks to the work of AT&T, which just put up cellular antennas on a silo at a local dairy farm.
Shumlin says he is proud of progress so far, but he wasn't willing to make any promises for Vermonters who still live in dead zones.
"We really have been focused, I have been focused, on universal broadband, high speed to every last mile. We're delivering on that promise," he said. "We're improving cell service as we go, but it's going to take years to get universal access to every single dirt road, every corner of Vermont."