Last fall, Corey Chase drove 6,000 miles around his state to ground-truth what every Vermonter with a cell phone knows: there are many, many places in the state where you simply can't get a signal, not to mention the 5 megabits per second data download speeds the carriers were claiming.
The six-week effort involved six cell phones, a state-owned Prius and an app from a software developer in Bulgaria.
What Chase, a Vermont Department of Public Service employee, found is now part of a detailed challenge before the Federal Communications Commission that officials hope will bring federal dollars into the state to improve the wireless network.
Chase, a telecommunications infrastructure specialist, drove the equivalent of Montpelier to Los Angeles and back. But his windshield time was along state roads and through town and village centers, at a slow pace of 40 mph. And occasionally he found himself on no road at all.
"There's apparently a road that goes from Stamford to Bennington. I tried to take said road," Chase said. "And there's a state-government printed sign on the road that says: 'Your GPS is wrong, turn around now.'"
(Chase obeyed the sign. The Prius, he said, was not built for off-roading.)
Although Chase saw lots of beautiful sights and foliage driving around the state, his excursion was really a massive data collection project.
"I think it's fair to say that our data showed wide disparities between what certain carriers reported and what was our experience on the ground," said Clay Purvis, the state's telecommunications director.
Cell phone providers' maps for Vermont showed that basically the entire state is well covered, said Purvis, with the exception of pockets of Essex County in the Northeast Kingdom and a chunk of the Green Mountain National Forest near Hancock and Rochester.
The FCC uses those maps to determine what areas of the country qualify for grants to boost service to underserved areas. And by the cell companies' claims, most of Vermont gets a decent signal from at least one of the six providers.
"The FCC has recognized this issue, and they've now opened an investigation into those maps that were submitted," said Purvis.
The state challenged the carriers' maps following a rigorous procedure for data collection outlined by the FCC. That's what had Chase driving around with the six cell phones, each capable of sophisticated download speed tests every 20 seconds.
The result was 187,506 download speed test results at locations about 360 meters apart along all of the major roads in the state.
At stake in the state's project is potentially millions of dollars in federal money. The FCC has $4.53 billion available to use around the country.
"What we were looking at was being almost completely foreclosed from any of it because our state was considered nearly completely covered with 4G LTE service," Purvis said. "And now we've opened up a significant amount of that space."
Purvis and Chase hope their work will convince the FCC to open more territory in Vermont for the access funds. If so, the FCC will conduct a reverse auction process to find carriers to commit to providing mobile service in these underserved areas.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Cellphone service in many rural areas of the country is not as good as advertised. That point was recently made in Vermont. A state employee drove 6,000 miles to test cell signals, and the results showed the claims of the cellphone carriers did not match the reality on the ground. As John Dillon from Vermont Public Radio reports, Vermont is now 1 of 37 states challenging the company's data.
JOHN DILLON, BYLINE: The truth is I have a stake in this story. Like many Vermonters, I live on a back road. It's not far from civilization, just seven miles from the state capital of Montpelier and only a few hundred yards off a state highway. But this very snowy back road could be the other side of the moon as far as cell service goes. But I'll let Corey Chase pick it up from here.
COREY CHASE: We're in the state of Vermont's Prius, and we're getting ready to take a short drive to demonstrate how the cellphone tracking project works.
DILLON: Chase is a communications specialist with the state. This fall, he drove all over Vermont on roads good and bad and sometimes no road at all.
CHASE: I can tell you that the Prius is not made for off road adventuring.
DILLON: Equipped with six cellphones and an app customized by a coder in Bulgaria, Chase ran detailed download tests every 300 meters. He ground truthed what every Vermonter with a cellphone knows - there are many, many places where you simply can't get a signal even though the phone companies' coverage maps show they're solid service.
CHASE: I think that their maps are not credible. Their maps show coverage essentially throughout the entirety of the state.
DILLON: The cell industry trade group did not respond to repeated requests for comment, yet here's why the issue is important. There's $4.5 billion in federal money available to help companies boost coverage in underserved areas, but the carriers serving Vermont did not apply for the funds perhaps because that would acknowledge their claims of coverage are wrong. They say that between them, they serve all of Vermont, except for its most isolated areas. Chase and his colleagues knew that wasn't true, so they set out to prove it with a road trip.
CHASE: And had we not done this test, there would have been no incentive for anybody to bid because those areas that were eligible are moose habitat.
DILLON: Thirty-six other states also contested the carrier's claims of good coverage, and the Federal Communications Commission has delayed the grant program while it investigates.
JUNE TIERNEY: Good policy is based on good data.
DILLON: June Tierney heads the state agency that represents consumers in telecom and utility issues. She says the Vermont challenge is not just aimed at landing money to improve service, it's also about economic development and public safety.
TIERNEY: All you have to do is look as far as California and to see the firefighting incidents that they had this past year and the crucial role that cell coverage played in making sure that those fires got fought well.
CHASE: And we're turning down a dirt road. We'll try not to lose a wheel in the pothole.
DILLON: We're back in the Prius testing coverage, and our route takes us right by my road. Chase turns in and what happens next was not planned.
Here are my neighbors.
CHASE: Say hello to the neighbors who happen to be walking down the street.
DILLON: My neighbor, Jim Bezak, is a retired state worker, and he's read about the drive test.
JIM BEZAK: It's a great thing. Take up a collection. This is just the data we're missing.
DILLON: Chase tests the coverage in my mailbox. Three of the six companies showed no service, the rest had very weak signals below what they claimed - but I could have told you that. For NPR News, I'm John Dillon in Montpelier, Vt. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.