Limited Mobile Signal Leaves Rural Vermont Residents Isolated

How folks in southern Vermont handle the scarcity of cellphone signals.

In life-or-death situations, people across the U.S. rely on their cellphones now more than ever. But in parts of rural America, cellphone lines aren’t ringing: Limited phone signals and aging landlines far outside city limits represent a growing problem for households.

The National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) shows that more than half of the homes in the U.S had only wireless service during the first half of 2017. This is an increase of 3.2 percentage points since the first half of 2016, according to a report on the statistics in The Washington Post. Omar Smith, a volunteer firefighter who lives in Readsboro, Vermont, spoke to HuffPost about the service issues.

We’ve been here in rural towns, and we haven’t had cell coverage or broadband for the most part,” Smith said. “So, if there’s an emergency and you’re out somewhere in the woods or on a back road, you have to get somewhere where you can call for help.”

Smith has been working closely with state Rep. Laura Sibilia (I-Vt.) for several years on the signal problems. In 2007, the lawmaker fought to form the Vermont House Committee on Energy and Technology. The group now oversees projects to connect rural areas with large service providers.

“Energy, technology and IT are really the three areas that we oversee,” Sibilia said. “So, brand-new committee, got our feet wet on a lot of connectivity projects and a few energy projects the first two years.”

In 1934, the Federal Communications Act required phone companies to expand landlines into rural areas. Today, no obligation exists for cellphone providers to extend their service into rural areas. Still, failure to establish a wireless signal is not the only reason southern Vermont residents are having problems with cellular communication.

In 2011, Tropical Storm Irene caused infrastructure damage in 90% of the towns in Vermont. More than 500 miles of roadways were closed, and downed landlines left communities like Readsboro stranded. Smith told HuffPost that, during the storm, local phone lines were demolished.

The state of Vermont has attempted to develop programs to improve cell service, yet some of those attempts have already failed. In 2018, the state ended a multimillion-dollar project with CoverageCo, a small cell service company, because the business was not able to provide adequate reception in some rural areas.

Gov. Phil Scott’s office made an agreement with AT&T that lets areas like Townshend, Vermont, get service from temporary cell sites on wheels, according to the Brattleboro Reformer. One of the major beneficiaries was Grace Family Health & Hospital, according to Doug DiVello, CEO of the hospital, who spoke to HuffPost about the support the governor has provided.

Census estimates show that since 2010, Vermont’s population has been shrinking. As the population in smaller towns gets even smaller, residents worry that businesses will have no interest in spending millions of dollars on cellphone infrastructure.

Smith told HuffPost, “I think it needs to happen on the federal level, not just the state level, because of the internet connection. I think, somehow, we have to put money into that infrastructure.”

A Pew Research Survey shows that a growing number of Americans are relying on their cellphones to access the internet. With individuals across the country using their mobile devices now more than ever, Rep. Sibilia told HuffPost, in order to improve the economy in southern Vermont, there needs to be a stronger focus on connectivity.

“Who wants to buy a house where there’s no cell service or Internet? So, who’s left? It is elderly, it is people who stayed in their home, it is people in poverty, by and large. People with a means to move will move.”