Tracking cell coverage

Adriana Noyes, an intern with the Lamoille County Planning Commission, uses a six-phone setup and a special app to track cell phone coverage along the county’s back roads.

The Federal Communications Commission says the six mobile phone companies offering service in Vermont provide coverage to nearly the whole state.

Yes, we can hear you now. Scoffing.

“Most people will tell you that’s not true,” said Lea Kilvádyová of the Lamoille County Planning Commission.

Kilvádyová is overseeing an intern, Adriana Noyes, who has spent much of the past few weeks — eight hours a day on some days — driving the county’s back roads at a steady clip of 15 to 20 mph.

Noyes is measuring cellular service, using a six-pack of Android mobile phones, one from each of the six service providers purporting to serve Vermont.

The FCC is preparing to issue $4.53 billion in grants to help expand mobile broadband service to rural areas all over the country, but only if they can prove it’s necessary.

Some of that money could come Vermont’s way, as long as the state can verifiably challenge the FCC’s coverage map data, which was submitted by the six carriers that assert some level of coverage in the state: AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, US Cellular, Verizon Wireless and VTel Wireless.

“I’ve got Elmore and Wolcott all done. It took less than eight hours each,” Noyes said. “On average, it takes two full days to do a larger town.”

Noyes’s kit involves the six Android phones nestled in a shallow cardboard box, all hooked up to a power charger that plugs into the car’s 12-volt accessory socket. The charger has a built-in fan; six cellphones simultaneously running a tracking application can pull a lot of juice.

The program is G-NetTrack, developed by Bulgarian software engineer Julian Gyokov Binev. It tracks download speeds using raw images from the Hubble Space Telescope — the files are so large that it would be impossible to accidentally download them all while testing download speeds.

The Department of Public Service — which loaned the county planning commission the setup — configured the G-NetTrack application to conduct a test sequence lasting 20 seconds, consisting of a 10-second download test, 5-second ping test, and a 5-second pause. That application is running constantly, synced among all six phones.

Driving along a stretch of road on Centerville Road in Hyde Park known anecdotally for suddenly dropping calls, Noyes watched as, one by one, the cellphones all lost signal.

“No T-Mobile. AT&T is good, Verizon is good. Oh, there goes AT&T. There goes Verizon. Oh, there they all go.”

Road tripping

It’s not the first time this kit has traveled Vermont’s roads, searching for signals.

Last fall, the Vermont Department of Public Service’s cellphone expert, Corey Chase, took a massive road trip around the state. His goal was to challenge the FCC’s assertion that more than 90 percent of the state has suitable cellphone coverage — providing download speeds of at least 5 megabits per second of download speed, which is suitable for streaming Netflix or making a video call on your smartphone.

Spoiler alert: Chase found plenty of these pockets.

“Anyone who drives Vermont’s roads experiences that the industry’s coverage data is not accurate,” said Clay Purvis, director for telecommunications at the Department of Public Service. The agency’s test showed that many of those areas “actually lack sufficient coverage to even make a call,” he said.

To start filling out its own coverage map to challenge the FCC’s map, the Department of Public Service divided the state into 25,000 blocks, each measuring 1 square kilometer. The FCC defines adequate service as at least 75 percent of each block in the grid receiving a minimum of 5 Mbps of download speed.

Chase’s data collection covered about 20 percent of Vermont’s 25,000 blocks, but those were the areas with most of Vermont’s structures and roads.

All told, Chase drove 7,000 miles on Vermont’s main roads — that’s the equivalent of driving from Morrisville to Los Angeles and back, and then heading to, say, Chicago.

He averaged about 40 mph on his journey, which produced data with about 360 meters between result locations, slightly less than a quarter-mile.

Chase did not respond to a phone call seeking comment on his adventure — perhaps he was on a dirt road.

Back road coverage

If the normal map of Vermont were a model of the human body, Chase’s coverage map overlay makes it look like veins running north and south, east and west, crisscrossing. But since he stuck to main highways and state roads, there are dozens of large swaths not covered.

The FCC would like to think that there is some coverage in all those swaths of unmeasured topography, but even Chase’s state-road trip shows that more than half of the areas along state-maintained roads — think Routes 100 and 15 in Lamoille County, or Mountain Road in Stowe, or Vermont’s two interstate highways — show download speeds below 5 Mbps.

Those untracked territories include well-populated portions of towns — just in Lamoille County, there’s Sterling Valley and Stowe Hollow, Mud City, Cote Hill and Elmore Mountain, Garfield and Centerville, Ober Hill and French Hill, Pleasant Valley and Pumpkin Harbor.

Those are the types of places Noyes has been, driving around in a van between 15 and 20 mph, watching in empathetic frustration as lines of traffic build up behind her, hoping she doesn’t have to stop and compromise the data collection.

“I spend a lot of time with my arm out the window, trying to get people to pass,” she said.

State Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, R-Stowe, has spent some of her summer looking into broadband capacity in the state, and has been urging telecom companies to improve their infrastructure in the state. They aren’t likely to do so if they believe Vermont already has suitable coverage.

“I can tell you that, just at my house, I have to go out on my deck to make a call. And I’m pretty low on Weeks Hill Road,” Scheuermann said. “I cut out around Percy’s. I have to wait until I get through Waterbury Center, because I cut out driving toward the interstate.”

Noyes is poised to wrap up her Lamoille County data collection any day now, but Kilvádyová said it will take a long time to crunch the data and make it available for analysis.

Any road that doesn’t indicate that it’s private is fair game, and Noyes will go as far as she’s comfortable. She’s in a van, not on an ATV or in a pickup truck with a lift kit.

“But any Class 4 I can get the van down, I’ll take it,” she said.

VTDigger contributed to this report.

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