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Mapping shows VTel mobile broadband coverage falls far short of claims

  • The sky blue areas of this map indicate those area where VTel contracted to provide broadband wireless service under its $35.2 million loan from the federal government. A drive test by Vermont regulators on major roads shows the range of coverage from VTel, with red indicating no service, yellow being OK service with web browsing possible, and green signaling good service, with video streaming likely. (Vermont Department of Public Service)

  • Corey Chase, a telecommunications analyst with Vermont's Department of Public Service, checks his power cord in Royalton, Vt., on Nov. 15, 2018. Chase drives throughout the state collecting data on the strength of mobile broadband signals on cellphones from six different wireless carriers. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, left, asks Vermont Telephone Co. President Michel Guite at a meeting in Randolph Center, Vt., on Sept. 25, 2010, if he intends to provide quality broadband service to 100 percent of Vermonters within three years. "Yes," Guite answered. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Business Writer
Saturday, February 09, 2019

SPRINGFIELD, Vt. — Vermont Telephone Co. received a $35.2 million loan from the federal government in 2010 to build a wireless broadband network that was supposed to blanket the state and reach 33,165 homes — representing 18 percent of the state’s population — that did not yet have access to the internet.

Yet after conducting extensive on-the-ground mapping of mobile phone coverage in Vermont, the state’s Department of Public Service, or DPS, has found what critics have said is the reality: VTel’s wireless network is either not available or performs poorly in many areas it purports to serve.

The findings are part of a “drive test” of wireless coverage that DPS undertook last fall to measure the availability of mobile phone broadband service provided by the six cellphone companies that operate in Vermont.

The mapping study, which involved a state employee driving a car equipped with monitoring equipment along more than 6,000 miles of Vermont’s highways, state roads and town centers, challenges longtime claims by the providers that cellphone broadband is ubiquitous in the Green Mountain State.

Vermonters have long scoffed at those claims.

“I don’t think there are any surprises here,” said Clay Purvis, director of telecommunications for DPS. “The drive test validates what most Vermonters already know, which is there are wide gaps in wireless coverage all over the state.”

The drive test found that fully 51 percent of the area tested in Vermont had average download speeds among the six cellphone providers, ranging from 256 kilobits per second up to 5 megabits per second — a level of service that DPS characterizes as “OK” and in which it is “likely” users could get voice and text, but not necessarily have a strong enough signal to search the internet, let alone stream video.

Only 25 percent of the areas tested had download speeds of between 5 Mbps to 10 Mbps, which DPS called “good service” strong enough for text, voice and email and, in some cases, streaming.

Only 3 percent of the areas tested had speeds that exceeded 10 Mbps, which could reliably allow streaming, while 11 percent of areas were measured to be so poor that even voice service might be unavailable.

Vermont, like other states around the country, conducted the drive test to demonstrate to the Federal Communications Commission that mobile phone companies typically overstate their coverage area in data they submit to the agency annually.

The FCC is making available $4.53 billion in funding to support mobile phone providers filling in the black spots where cellphone reception is poor or unavailable, providing the states can satisfactorily demonstrate the need.

In order to demonstrate a need for federal money, states are required to map those areas that receive data speeds of below 5 Mbps, which generally is considered the threshold for reliable browsing.

Low score for VTel

Among the six wireless providers in Vermont — Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint, U.S. Cellular and VTel Wireless — VTel had the second-worst measurement when it came to no signal detected: 42 percent of the area tested. T-Mobile was worst with 44 percent, and the average of all six carriers was 10 percent, according to the DPS analysis.

Another 8 percent of VTel’s coverage provides service at download speeds the department classifies as “spotty ... text may be possible, voice unlikely.”

But one-third of the coverage area measured for VTel was found to have “OK” service, with download speeds ranging from 256 Kbps to 5 Mbps, which is good enough to allow for voice, text and email service and possibly internet browsing, but not strong enough to watch video, according to DPS.

“Where it works, it works well,” Purvis said of VTel’s wireless broadband network. “There are places where we got data rates much higher than they were required to offer. Then there are places where there is no signal or it is very weak.”

VTel, while commending DPS for undertaking statewide analysis of cellphone coverage, criticized the conclusions of the test as they apply to VTel’s wireless broadband network.

“There is an important distinction between the VTel Wireless network and the wireless networks” of the other cellphone companies in the state,” Gordon Mathews, vice president of legal and regulatory affairs at VTel, said via email. “The VTel Wireless network (was built) for the primary purpose of delivering fixed-location high-volume internet data to rural Vermont unserved homes in the least densely populated parts of Vermont.”

On the other hand, the wireless networks of the state’s other five cellphone providers, Mathews said, were built to provide “mobile voice to portable mobile phones, serving cities, highways, and the most densely populated parts” in the state.

And, although VTel Wireless also offers its customers mobile phone service, “the strength of the VTel Wireless network is not on roadways, by design, and more gaps in VTel service along roadways would be expected,” he explained.

VTel’s wireless network depends on 165 transmitters the company placed around the state during the seven years it took to complete the project.

Last October, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service, which administered the stimulus funding given to VTel, officially signed off on the project as having been satisfactorily completed.

The $32.5 million loan VTel received from the federal government was in addition to $81.7 million grant that went toward building a fiber-to-the-home telecommunications system that replaced old copper wires to approximately 17,500 telephone customers in its core Springfield-area system, encompassing 14 towns and villages in parts of Windsor, Windham, Rutland and Bennington counties.

65 percent of buildings

DPS’s road test passed through some part of nearly all the territory VTel was obligated to serve with wireless broadband under its contract with the federal government, and extensive corridors had either a weak signal or no signal at all.

“I look at the map of what VTel says is covered and then look at the DPS map, and I see that 50 percent is either not covered or junk coverage,” said state Rep. Jim Masland, D-Thetford, who also is on the executive committee of South Royalton-based nonprofit fiber-to-the-home telecommunications provider ECFiber. “We’ve been aware for some time that VTel was not delivering as promised at all. All kinds of people were going to be covered who simply are not.”

To be sure, the DPS mapping project surveyed only corridors along the main roads and at town centers and does not purport to measure the strength of broadband signals deep in forested areas and in fields — the remote patches of the state where people live and where VTel says its wireless network is designed to reach.

But DPS maintains that the test area still covered 65 percent of buildings in the state.

Under the federal stimulus program award VTel received in 2010, the Springfield-based telephone company was required to provide wireless data service with a minimum download speed of 760 Kbps, or 0.76 Mbps. Unlike other cellphone carriers in the state whose primary function is to provide mobile voice service, VTel’s project was principally designed to provide “fixed” wireless data service to homes.

VTel customers get their wireless broadband coverage either through a directional antenna fixed to the eaves of their house or through a desktop hot spot-like receiver. The company also offers voice cellphone service over its wireless network, although functionality is limited.

How many subscribers VTel Wireless, which first began providing service to a handful of towns in 2014, has signed up in the nearly five years it has been operating remains something of a mystery. The most recent number of customers the company has disclosed was in testimony before Vermont lawmakers two years ago, when it said it had 3,100 wireless customers.

In order for states to “challenge” the coverage claims of cellphone providers, the FCC divided Vermont into 1-kilometer square blocks. Vermont’s DPS drive test transacted nearly 24 percent of the approximately 25,000 blocks.

Under the FCC’s rules for funding to augment wireless coverage, only those areas that receive speeds of less than 5 Mbps are eligible.

When the phone companies submitted confidential data to the agency that purported to show their coverage, only 1,310 square kilometers out of the 25,000 in the state — about 5 percent — came in under that low-speed bar, according to DPS.

But the DPS mapping survey identified no service or slow speeds in at least 16 percent of the blocks in the state.

In the Upper Valley, the drive test found that a signal from VTel’s wireless network has serviceable coverage from the Interstate 89 and 91 interchange to West Hartford but disappears when traveling along I-89 from West Hartford to Royalton, according to the map of the drive test results on DPS’ website.

The map also shows numerous coverage gaps in Sharon, South Royalton, West Fairlee, Post Mills, Tunbridge, North Hartland, South Woodstock and Vershire; along Route 4 from West Woodstock to Bridgewater; and in the border area between Windsor County and Orange County — all areas that VTel is supposed to cover under its government funding contract, as well as areas it claims it covers with at least minimal speeds in data submitted to the FCC.

Purvis said he doesn’t know why cellphone companies overstate their coverage in data submitted to the FCC, although he suspects it might be because they do not want rival providers to apply for federal funding and “overbuild” on top of their network, potentially siphoning off customers.

And companies might not even want the federal money to help pay for the wireless coverage infrastructure.

Even if the government is willing to foot the cost of building the transmitters, companies still would have to justify the ongoing maintenance and operating costs of transmitter sites in sparsely populated areas.

“There just may not be enough customers,” Purvis said.

But, even after VTel received $35 million in federal money to build its wireless network with a promise to reach “virtually” all the households in the state with internet access, the DPS mapping project shows plenty of locations in the state that received inadequate coverage and therefore could be eligible for public funding.

Asked if VTel would tap such money if it became available, Mathews said via email that “VTel continues (to) improve and evaluate all opportunities to enhance its network and the services it provides to customers, ranging from working with other carriers to potential funding opportunities” and would make that information public if it were to occur.

John Lippman can be reached at jlippman@vnews.com.

Correction

When the Vermont Department of Public Service analyzed confidential data submitted by wireless telecommunications companies to the agency, it found that only 1,310 square kilometers  — about 5 percent — came in with speeds of less than 5Mbps, according to DPS. An earlier version of this story about a subsequent "drive test" map by DPS that found greater gaps in coverage misattributed the source of that information.