On January 23, 2019

State tests cell phone coverage, challenges maps

By Katy Savage

Locals know that there is no cell phone coverage in South Woodstock. They know cell phone coverage drops in and out on Route 100 and Route 4.

Now, the state has data proving that Vermont’s cell phone coverage is spotty.

The Vermont Public Service Department conducted a road test over two months last fall to dispute coverage maps from major carriers.

“Anyone who drives Vermont’s roads experiences the industry’s coverage data is not accurate,” said  thePublic Service Department’s Director for Telecommunications  Clay Purvis in a statement. “Many of the areas in Vermont shown as served at 5 Mbps on their coverage maps actually lack sufficient coverage to even make a call.”

The Public Service Department’s drive test was completed along all state highways in anticipation of up to $4.53 billion in Federal Communication Commission grants becoming available next year to expand mobile wireless service.

The grants are available through the FCC’s Mobility Phase II program, which will award grants in reverse auctions to bidders that commit to offer mobile wireless.

To be eligible for the grants, cell phone coverage has to be less than 5 Mbps. At the time, that requirement made only a small portion of Vermont eligible for the grants until the FCC allowed states to “challenge” coverage maps at their own expense.

“We looked into it and saw there was a way to contest areas that were allegedly served by providers,” said Corey Chase, a telecommunications analyst for the Vermont Public Service Department.

Chase purchased six Samsung Galaxy 8 phones from six carriers (AT&T, Verizon, U.S. Cellular, Sprint, T-Mobile, and VTel) spending about $3,000 out of his own pocket, to be reimbursed later by the state.

He and several colleagues spent two months traveling all state highways with the phones, testing download speeds with an Android smartphone application called G-NetTrack. They drove an average speed of 40 miles per hour and conducted the download test every 20 seconds for a total of 187,506 download speed tests. They tested a total of 25,000 square kilometers.

The coverage maps from the providers show 1,310 one square kilometers area of Vermont would be eligible for the grants. The drive test proved there were actually 4,186 one kilometer square blocks eligible for the grants.

Chase said the two giants  – AT&T and Verizon – offered the most by far. Verizon appeared to edge out AT&T, with the best download speeds in the most areas. But he was surprised by T-Mobile’s speedy coverage in remote areas.

“I was surprised a third of the locations I drove through had a 5Mbps download per second,” he said. “That’s quite good for a mobile device.”

A 5 Mbps connection is considered fast enough to check email and stream music and high definition video, he said.

Chase noticed cell phone coverage was best in urban areas and near ski resorts. The FCC has not laid out how companies can apply to the grants.

“Access to wireless communications services is very important in our rural state,” said Public Service Commissioner June Tierney.  “I am hopeful that our challenge will be fully sustained by the FCC. And I hope that companies will seek grants to serve the expanded territory made eligible through our efforts in the forthcoming FCC grant program.”

Until then, Chase said other states, including New Hampshire have expressed interest in using Vermont’s phones.

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