Grace Cottage Hospital cell coverage saved

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TOWNSHEND — Grace Cottage Hospital will not lose cell phone reception under an agreement reached by Gov. Phil Scott's office and AT&T and thanks to temporary equipment provided by the telecom company, the administration announced Monday.

Grace Cottage was facing a gap in cellular coverage due to financial difficulties at CoverageCo, the company contracted with the state to provide cell service in rural communities including Townshend. The state Department of Public Service warned lawmakers last month that CoverageCo may shut down, jeopardizing cell phone service in 26 communities. As of March 27, CoverageCo told DPS that 70 of its microcell sites across the state appeared to be down.

On Monday, Scott's office said it had worked with AT&T to deploy a Cell Site on Wheels — better known, in a Vermont-friendly coincidence, as a COW — to Grace Cottage to assure that the hospital would not lose cell coverage.

AT&T also has plans for a permanent cell site in Townshend as part of the company's FirstNet nationwide first responder network, the release said.

Grace Cottage President and CEO Doug DiVello told the Reformer the COW was driven east from Missouri and arrived at the hospital over the weekend. He said hospital Facilities Director Scott Hitchcock and Informational Technology Manager Travis Macie worked closely with AT&T to have it installed on the property.

DiVello said the hospital is "very pleased and surprised" at how quickly a solution came about.

"You can't imagine how great it is to have the knowledge that people who need to make a phone call, particularly in an emergency situation, will have the ability to do that," he said. "As a health care organization we pride ourselves on our mission to take care of people in this region."

The hospital will not pay out of pocket for use of the equipment, and will provide electricity to the tower until a permanent tower can be built in Townshend.

"We're pleased with the generosity of AT&T for putting this important piece of equipment in our community," DiVello said.

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In a news release, the Scott administration said the AT&T COW arrived in the Grace Cottage parking lot within five days of the governor's initial request. The equipment will provide more cellular coverage than was previously available, the release said.

"Ensuring Grace Cottage Hospital does not see a lapse in wireless network coverage was a priority as we work to support the entire area impacted," Scott said, according to the release. "I appreciate AT&T's partnership in identifying and providing this solution for the hospital and surrounding area, and the continued work of our Department of Public Service, Agency of Commerce, the Legislature and local officials on this issue. This kind of civic-minded cooperation is commendable and essential to addressing challenges like these."

The state contracted with CoverageCo in 2012 to build a wireless network of small cell sites in rural areas, completing 160 of a planned 500 nodes over the past four years. The state has invested $4 million into the CoverageCo venture and owns the microcell equipment, VTDigger.org reported.

DiBello also thanked Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Windham-Bennington, for her work in making sure the community's need for emergency cell service was heard in Montpelier.

Sibilia, in turn, thanked House Speaker Mitzi Johnson and her legislative colleagues for pushing through a resolution in a single day calling on the administration and DPS to respond to the crisis. She thanked Johnson for listening to her and to colleagues Chip Conquest, D-Orange-Caledonia, and Charles Kimbell, D-Windsor-5, when they brought her their concerns about what CoverageCo's pending demise would mean to their communities.

Sibilia said she is still working on securing continued cell phone access for Twin Valley Middle High School in Whitingham.

"I would also thank AT&T and other providers that immediately got to work and are continuing to work and see what can be done," Sibilia said. "They're to be strongly commended."

"We were happy to work with Governor Scott and be able to quickly respond to this need for coverage in a critical area," Patricia Jacobs, president of AT&T New England, said in the news release issued by Scott's office. "In addition to the immediate coverage provided by the COW, AT&T is committed to further reinforcing and enhancing coverage for this area through FirstNet and supporting public safety efforts in whatever way we can."

Reach Greg Sukiennik at gsukiennik@reformer.com.


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