Vermont Updates on FirstNet Coverage Verification, Tower Builds
Wednesday, February 12, 2020 | Comments

Vermont officials conducted First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) coverage validation testing that identified areas within each testing route that had no cellular service or service that was limited or spotty, posing a concern for the state’s public-safety community.

Validation work contracted by the Vermont Department of Public Safety (DPS) aims to assist FirstNet in ensuring Vermont has access to the coverage committed to first responders, a February DPS newsletter said.

In 2018, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) awarded grants to states to support planning activities that included identifying and documenting on-going coverage needs and gaps. Vermont DPS received a grant, and NTIA approved a proposal to test for specific coverage concerns in four geographic locations within the state.

Engineering and consulting firm Televate conducted the testing to validate FirstNet coverage predictions against actual measured coverage. Publicly available coverage maps from FirstNet represent that much of Vermont currently has Long Term Evolution (LTE) with priority coverage, but the testing found problem coverage areas.

The four locations chosen for testing were based on first responder coverage concerns, locations that were in areas not scheduled for new FirstNet tower builds during the initial five-year buildout period and were marked as having coverage by FirstNet, and the presence of previously identified public-safety priority areas within the testing area.

Cellular coverage was determined by measuring signals with calibrated smartphones that automatically collected more than 50 unique data elements including service availability, device location, signal strength, signal quality, cell information, network latency and data speeds. Prior to each drive test, the smartphone was calibrated with field measurement equipment commonly used by the commercial cellular community. Because foliage is capable of blocking cell signals, drive tests were performed before Vermont’s deciduous trees shed their leaves. DPS said it will discuss the results with FirstNet, and the agency anticipates doing additional testing within the grant period.

To boost coverage, AT&T FirstNet representatives forecast that seven new cell sites are coming on air in Vermont within the next three months. In Vermont, AT&T has committed to constructing 36 new sites with more than half of the new sites being built at locations where there is currently no cell service.

AT&T executives told DPS officials that one new FirstNet site in Townshend was brought on-air at the end of 2019. A site in Shaftsbury was delayed until spring. Five new FirstNet builds in Bennington, Moretown, Richford, Winhall and West Bridgewater are forecast to be on air by the end of the first quarter.

Six of the 36 new tower sites are located in Essex County and will be built via a partnership with Great North Woods Wireless. Site acquisition and construction of the Essex County sites began in 2019. AT&T forecasts that it will have these sites active by the end of 2020. Five new FirstNet sites were recently activated in New Hampshire, along the Vermont border in Colebrook, Columbia, North Stratford, Stewartstown and Stratford. Public-safety practitioners in Vermont will benefit from improved coverage along the Connecticut River region, the newsletter said.

There are now 34 Vermont towns with at least one band 14-enabled location. Adding band 14 to existing towers should increase capacity and coverage for first responders.

As part of the state’s opt-in agreement with FirstNet, Vermont will receive two deployable units that will be installed on DPS vehicles. The state will own the two units, and the units can be deployed as needed. A deployable unit may be as large as a satellite cell on light truck (SatCOLT) or a smaller unit that may be transported on a trailer or physically carried into a remote area to provide broadband connectivity.

“Looking forward into 2020, DPS will work with FirstNet/AT&T to determine the type of deployable that will best meet the communication needs of the public-safety community in Vermont,” the newsletter said.

The coverage report and testing procedures are here. The full newsletter is here.

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