Some Vermont rural cell service, including 911, could end

Some rural areas of Vermont, including several schools and a hospital, are likely to lose cellphone coverage and the capacity to call 911 by mobile phone, in a matter of days due to the provider's financial troubles, state officials said Wednesday.

It will be challenge to find a replacement, state officials said, but they are working on it.

Vanu CoverageCo provides microcells, which is a station used to improve reception in a particular area, and service for cellphone coverage in about 150 road miles in 26 towns in Vermont. It's struggled with expenses exceeding revenues and is likely to cease operations in the state, possibly Friday, said Clay Purvis, director of telecommunications and connectivity for the Department of Public Service.

Vanu Bose, the company founder who brought equipment to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria to help restore cell service, died in November. CoverageCo did not return a phone message seeking comment.

The town of Readsboro, with a population of about 760, gets its only cellphone service through CoverageCo, said Independent Rep. Laura Sibilia. It takes 45 minutes for state police to get to the town.

"It's conceivable to think that landline service could go down. So just the notion that we could be going backward at all on this is unacceptable," she said.

Losing the service would cause "tremendous issues" for family members wanting to reach patients at the 19-bed Grace Cottage hospital in the mountainous area of Townshend. Hospital spokeswoman Andrea Seaton said people usually use cellphones instead of going through the hospital's main phone number. Patients and visitors who have newer phones are able to make calls through WiFi calling, she said.

Twin Valley Middle School in Whitingham got the service just a few months ago but it's been down recently. It needs repairing, which CoverageCo said would take a while, said Principal Tom Fitzgerald. Now, they may not get it back at all.

That means students who get back late after a game and can't get into the school have no way of contacting parents, Fitzgerald said.

"If we have to go outside for any kind of emergency, if we're evacuating, we really have no alternative," he added.

CoverageCo provides the antennas and has roaming agreements with major carriers for the service. AT&T is not one of them.

Purvis said cellphone users who can connect to larger carriers will still be able to call 911. The service would only be lost in areas that only have CoverageCo service.

Some members of a House committee pressed Purvis to ensure that the state is doing all that it can to prevent the loss of service.

The state is trying to see whether another vendor can take over the network in the long-term and is talking with providers about short-term solutions, he said.

"But it is a challenge. There's a reason why these areas did not have 911 coverage before. It is incredibly costly to serve these areas and the revenue is not there," Purvis said.