‘I still can’t hear you’

No help in sight for cellphone deadzones

In 2018, telecommunications staffers with the Vermont Department of Public Service drove the state’s back roads with multiple cell phones in the front seat mapping cell service dead zones.

The map they created was designed to dispute claims Verizon had made to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) about its cellular coverage in Vermont.

The FCC had asked cell companies to provide the maps as a way to target federal funding to cover dead zones. As a result of the state’s challenge, the FCC “determined the maps were so bad that they couldn’t rely on them, so they dropped the program,” said Clay Purvis, director of telecommunications at the Vermont Department of Public Service. “So we outsmarted ourselves.”

Since then, the FCC has invested in the rollout of 5G (fifth generation) cell service, at the expense of trying to improve rural dead zones, Purvis said. Some areas of Vermont continue to have absolutely no cell service.

Purvis notes that the ability to make mobile phone calls is a public safety issue.

“Vermont badly needs expanded cell coverage,” he said. “It’s a very important issue and I hope it’s something we address.”

Purvis said the Vermont Legislature has instead targeted federal funds to expand high-speed internet service because “it’s a problem they see as much more readily solvable.”

Meanwhile, the 5G cell network is not yet available in Vermont, even if your phone says it’s on 5G, Purvis said. “We don’t have 5G anywhere yet,” he said.

It’s also unclear whether the 5G upgrade will improve the state’s cellular dead zones, which are a result of Vermont’s undulating topography.

Matt Dodds, a resident of South Road in Williston, said his cell service has deteriorated over the past year.

“The question will be what we need to do in rural areas,” Purvis said.

— Jason Starr