Beleaguered company tries to keep rural cell service running
By LISA RATHKE
Apr. 12, 2018
ROXBURY, Vt. (AP) — When her rural mountainous town finally got cellphone service, 75-year-old Jean Lewis bought a cellphone and canceled her landline's long distance capability. Months later, she's unable to make mobile calls or send text messages and drives to a neighboring town where she has reception to call her three children who live out of state.
The town's short-lived service is down as the financially troubled company that provided the wireless technology to some rural stretches of Vermont struggles to keep it running — including the ability to call 911 from a mobile phone.
"The idea was that all these little towns that didn't have service, especially through (Tropical Storm) Irene, they realized that we needed the service," Lewis said. "We don't have service. Let's hope we don't have another Irene."
The 2011 storm inundated Vermont with flood waters, sweeping away roads and bridges and leaving isolated towns without power or phone service.
In Roxbury, it was a long process to get the service up and running in the town of about 690 residents, with a store, post office, church and elementary school.
Vanu CoverageCo provided microcells to improve reception across about 150 road miles in 26 towns in Vermont. The company has struggled with expenses exceeding revenues, and state officials said last month that it would likely cease operations in Vermont.
About half the CoverageCo microcells are down. That's mostly a result of CoverageCo not paying vendors, such as for electricity or broadband service, according to Clay Purvis, director of telecommunications and connectivity for the Department of Public Service.
Last week, newly named CoverageCo CEO Richard Biby asked state officials and lawmakers for three to six months to come up with a long-range plan to keep the system running. He also wants the state to cover the fees for providing 911 service and for help in persuading AT&T to join the network.
"We're certainly working with them as well to do what we can to ensure that service is up for the immediate future as well as, if there is a path forward, that we can be supportive of that," Purvis said.
The company is now contacting vendors to make arrangements to keep the service going.
"At the end of 30 days it's my goal to have every site that I can get up, up and running," Biby said.
To make sure coverage wouldn't lapse at Grace Cottage Hospital in southern Vermont, Gov. Phil Scott announced Monday that an AT&T cell site on wheels had arrived. It's a better outcome than what the hospital had before, Purvis said.
"We've got five bars and we're ecstatic," hospital spokeswoman Andrea Seaton said Thursday. "It's like striking gold in the old California gold rush days."
This story has been corrected to show the town's population is 690, not 960.