Telecom official crisscrosses Vermont to check cell coverage
ROYALTON, Vt. (AP) — Can you hear him now?
Corey Chase is driving at a snail’s pace along the dirt roads around Royalton and Barnard in a state-owned Prius, backing his car into driveways, turning around, retracing his route.
Mounted inside the car to his left is a mobile phone showing a map on its screen with red dots that appear and disappear like Pac-Man characters. At his right is a shallow cardboard box containing six mobile phones — one “master” phone commanding five “slave” phones.
“I like to listen to books on tape,” Chase said from behind the wheel as the 2017 Prius crawled along Royalton Turnpike on Thursday morning. “But I can’t get engrossed in anything when doing this.”
That’s because, like a pilot at the controls, he has a lot to keep track of simultaneously.
Chase is a “telecommunications infrastructure specialist” with Vermont’s Department of Public Service — in plain talk, he’s the state’s cellphone expert. Since Oct. 1, Chase has been driving, eight to 10 hours a day, following all the highways and state routes in the state in a mile-by-mile project to map mobile broadband coverage throughout Vermont.
On Friday morning, after driving more than 7,000 miles along Vermont’s roads — the equivalent of nearly 2½ road trips between New York and Los Angeles — Chase has completed the data-gathering portion of the project. Over the next several days he will be organizing the data into a map that will show, for the first time, the first independent picture of cellphone coverage in the state.
Officially, Vermont is not supposed to have a problem with lack of cellphone and broadband coverage.
Data that each of the state’s six mobile phone companies have submitted to the Federal Communications Commission, which the FCC combines to present an overall coverage map, purports to show that most of the state’s census tracts are adequately blanketed with coverage.
But, as every Vermonter with a cellphone knows, that is hardly the case. In reality, mobile broadband coverage — the ability for a cellphone to use the internet by a standard deemed adequate today — in the state has more holes than a well-worn pair of Carhartts.
The FCC’s map “would look unbelievable to most people in Vermont who experience lack of cell coverage in their area,” said Clay Purvis, director of telecommunications at the Public Service Department.
Purvis recalled being at a meeting at the library on the green in Craftsbury earlier this year and no one in the room — despite being subscribed to different cellphone providers — could get a signal on their phone.
“Nothing,” he said.
In 2013, the former Vermont Telecommunications Authority, which later had its functions folded into DPS, commissioned a study from a consultant to research the availability of cellphone coverage in the state. The study reported that 92 percent of the state’s “residences and businesses” could receive a cellphone signal, but it measured only voice service — and even that was found to have overstated actual coverage.
“We took it down from our website there were so many people complaining,” Purvis said.
Vermont is hardly alone when it comes to inadequate mobile broadband coverage, a problem that plagues many rural states. Recognizing the inadequacy of the FCC’s maps, which rely upon industry-supplied data, U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., joined Republican colleagues from Mississippi and Kansas earlier this year to introduce the Mobile Accuracy and Precision Broadband Act to facilitate the process of challenging inaccurate mobile broadband mapping.
Accurate data is critical because it determines where federal dollars will be spent to improve coverage.
“Unfortunately, the FCC’s coverage maps, which are used to prioritize broadband expansion efforts, are inaccurate for New Hampshire and many rural areas,” Hassan said at the time she introduced the bill, which she said would “help identify errors in the FCC’s maps.”
The same goes for the other side of the Connecticut River, according to Purvis.
“When we looked at the FCC’s data, we believed it was inaccurate and it overstated the carriers’ coverage in Vermont,” he said.
At stake is how and where the FCC will disburse $4.53 billion under what’s known as the Mobility Fund Phase II, federal money that will be directed to phone companies to expand mobile broadband service in rural communities. The funding would pay for cellphone providers to build transmission sites to augment coverage, giving federal funding to the lowest-cost bid to build out the mobile broadband transmission equipment in unserved areas.
Springfield-based Vermont Telephone Co. won a $35 million government loan under the federal government’s stimulus spending program during the recession to build a network of 4G LTE wireless broadband transmission sites around the state in 2010 to reach 33,000 unserved homes. The project has been sharply criticized by lawmakers and others for not delivering on its promises.
But all of Vermont’s six cellphone providers — Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular, Sprint and VTel — have 4G LTE networks, or wireless broadband, in the state. Most of the coverage, however, is geared to areas of denser populations that provide a greater economic return for the companies.
In order to map the state, the FCC divided Vermont into a grid of 25,000 1-square-kilometer boxes. The regulatory agency is giving states an opportunity to “challenge” the claims of where cellphone companies assert they provide wireless broadband coverage.
The FCC requires at least 75 percent of each block in the grid receive a minimum of 5 megabits per second of download speed — enough to watch a Netflix movie or use Apple’s FaceTime — in order to be deemed as having adequate service.
Vermont’s DPS, in conjunction with the state’s Agency of Digital Services, launched the wireless broadband project to identify those 1-square-kilometer blocks that fall below the 75 percent, 5-Mbps threshold and which therefore could be eligible to receive funding for infrastructure expansion.
Because DPS is measuring the 1-square-kilometer blocks by traveling roads, it will be able to cover only about 20 percent of the state’s 25,000 blocks. But Chase said that, given how the vast majority of the state’s structures are located within a short distance of roads, he expects the maps will include most residences and businesses.
Chase said the FCC never provided a lot of guidance to the phone companies on how they should develop their propagation maps other than the maps simply depict where consumers should expect 5 Mbps download speed, but he noted their highly theoretical nature.
Propagation studies often are modeled by combining engineering data — transmitter location, power and directional specifications — with topographical information of the landscape and environment — foliage and weather — to estimate the contour and speed of the coverage area.
But the only accurate way to get a handle on wireless broadband coverage is to measure the strength of the signal on the ground with a sort of digital divining rod.
The ground tests are “an actual real-world test, what the consumer actually sees,” Chase explained. “not some flaky algorithm” used in theoretical modeling that is “based on a lot of assumptions.”
Purvis said no one can be certain why the phone companies’ exaggerate their coverage reach, but speculated — apart from failures in modeling — it could be because they don’t want to see competitors get public funding to compete with them, or even to ensure that the data they submit to the FCC “doesn’t conflict” with advertising claims.
Chase acknowledged there is a some risk in the mapping project because, even though the state is doing it to show it is eligible to tap the funding, cellphone providers may opt not to apply for the grants because maintaining the expanded sites may not be financially worthwhile.
“Even though there is no guarantee anybody will provide service, if we don’t go through this process no one is eligible at all. We are doing this to maximize the potential that Vermont receives better cell service. That doesn’t mean anybody is going to bid on those areas and that doesn’t mean if they bid they will win.”
Chase’s digital divining rod consists of six Android Samsung smartphones — purchased for a total of about $2,300 — that includes a special app that measures and records the strength and speed of the wireless broadband signal.
Working in concert with Hunter Thompson, director of shared services for the state’s Agency of Digital Services, Thompson created a huge 500-megabyte file that is stored on a server that each of the phones pulls off a tower signal. The file’s contents? Images from the Hubble space telescope.
The app on the phone downloads the file for 10 seconds to measure the megabits per second, or speed of the available wireless broadband coverage. The app restarts every 20 seconds — about the time it takes Chase to drive 300 meters at 40 miles per hour.
“People behind me can get quite irritated,” Chase said.
But Chase and Thompson initially found that the app they wanted to use to measure and record wireless broadband signals did not produce the results in the format required by the FCC.
So Chase tracked down the developer of the app, who lives in Bulgaria, and worked it out.
“Julian modified the app so it produced the right results in the format we required, and that changed everything,” Chase said of the developer, Julian Gyokov Binev.
Chase dispelled the notion that the past two months have been a leisurely tour of the Green Mountain State that might qualify him for The 251 Club, the honor roll of people who have visited all of Vermont’s 251 towns.
In fact, the task has required intense concentration.
Chase grew up in a remote Alaska town of 400 people in the middle of the state, the son of a superintendent of schools. His father flew his own plane to get to schools in the district, and Chase himself learned to fly when he was a teenager and holds a pilot license.
Driving around Vermont’s roads, multitasking with his own instrument panel of sorts — one eye cocked on the mounted mobile phone to his left with the red dots pointing to locations he has to drive to, the other eye monitoring the box on his right with six mobile phones tracking signal strength, while occasionally consulting a folded paper road map and, of course, keeping his eye on the road ahead.
“It reminds me of my flying days,” Chase said of his Prius cockpit.
Over the past two months Chase has hit nearly of the towns and villages in the Upper Valley, including Hartford, White River Junction, Quechee, Woodstock, South Woodstock, Hartland, Hartland Four Corners, Norwich, Sharon, Strafford, Thetford, Fairlee, Vershire, Chelsea, Bradford, Newbury and Wells River.
Although Chase originally came to Vermont in the early 1990s to attend Middlebury College, he returned to the state in 2007 when he joined DPS. In the time since, he said, driving the winding highways and byways has given him unparalleled exposure to the unique history and landscape of the Green Mountain State.
“Vermont is such a beautiful state,” Chase said, ticking off the sites that have stayed with him — the foliage in Franklin, the marble buildings in Proctor, the general store in Lincoln.
“Every little town is very different. Even though it’s been a grueling exercise, I’ve had the opportunity to meet a lot of great people,” he said.
Information from: Lebanon Valley News, http://www.vnews.com