New technology brings cell service to Rt. 30
NEWFANE -- For many cell-phone users, Route 30 in the West River Valley is a notorious dead zone.
A new service changes that, with some caveats: A series of "micro-cell" units along the highway work only within a half-mile radius, and users will be connected via roaming agreements with several cellular carriers.
Those limitations aside, Wednesday's announcement -- which includes the Route 30 corridor in Jamaica, Townshend, Newfane and West Dummerston -- means there is some cell service available in areas where there had not been previously.
"New cellular service on the Route 30 corridor represents one step forward on our significant statewide project," said Christopher Campbell, Vermont Telecommunications Authority executive director. "This network will help more and more people in our rural communities connect."
VTA made the four-town announcement in conjunction with CoverageCo, which on its website bills itself as "an innovative new company focused on providing technology neutral cellular coverage to underserved markets throughout the United States."
In Vermont, the company is doing so through installation of small cellular antennas along roads, "primarily on existing utility poles," VTA administrators wrote.
"Each unit has a coverage radius of about one-half mile," officials said. "In many areas, homes and businesses along roadways served by the CoverageCo network will also have voice, text and data service where there was none before."
VTA's partnership with CoverageCo began in 2012, when the company completed a small project in Orange County. Based on success there, the state moved forward: In April of this year, VTA announced a formal partnership with CoverageCo to expand cell service along 450 miles of Vermont roads.
The statewide CoverageCo project, which is happening through a mix of state, federal and private funding, eventually will touch 60 towns; completion is scheduled for 2015. Officials said "target corridors" in Washington and Lamoille counties already are in service.
There also is the new Windham County Route 30 service, which "involves multiple cellular carriers through standard roaming agreements," officials said. The arrangement works this way: CoverageCo, though not itself a cellular provider, has contracts to provide service to customers of Sprint, Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile along with some Canadian cell companies.
Verizon is the latest carrier to partner with CoverageCo. To use the service, officials said Verizon customers may need to update their phones with the most current "preferred roaming list"; information about that process is available on the Verizon Wireless website under "support" using the search term "PRL update."
Depending on their carrier and the terms of their contracts, those using the new CoverageCo sites may incur roaming charges. Customers can check their cell contracts to determine whether there are any applicable charges.
But CoverageCo Chief Executive Officer Richard Biby said roaming charges, while still a possibility, are increasingly rare -- especially among U.S. carriers.
"I think in reality, most carriers these days don't charge for roaming," Biby said.
Expanding standard cellular service in Vermont is both complicated and costly. While there are many complaints about the lack of consistent coverage, cell towers also have provoked controversy in some Windham County towns due to concerns about aesthetics and property values.
Biby said he has been in the tower business and sees the continuing benefits of those large-scale installations.
"The way we look at things is, you always have a need for a macro system -- a system that covers the most area possible," he said.
At the same time, there are some areas where large carriers likely won't make major investments due to factors such as a lack of population and difficult terrain. In such cases, Biby believes CoverageCo has "the right technology for the right location."
"Our technology kind of fills the gap there. We see this as complementary to traditional towers," Biby said.
Mike Faher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.
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