Governor Blames Traveler’s Death on Poor Cell Coverage

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Earlier this year, northern Maine resident Arthur Brissette died on the side of the road after his car became stuck in a snowbank. Now, Maine Gov. Paul LePage is speaking out against the Maine Public Utilities Commission (PUC) regarding their response to Brissette’s death, blaming the quality of cell phone coverage and wireless 911 availability in northern Maine.

The Fiddlehead Focus reported during the incident this January, Brissette tried over a dozen times to reach emergency services, but his cell phone never picked up a signal. After walking a half mile to find help and attempting to dig out his vehicle, he collapsed. According to his widow, Lisa Brissette, unreliable cell service added nearly a half hour to the response time of emergency medical services, who were unable to revive her husband.   

Mrs. Brissette wrote a letter to Gov. LePage and U.S. Senators in the state, noting, “Even if there is no service in certain areas, 911 should always be available.”

In fact, all wireless carriers in Maine are required to connect to the state’s 911 system. However, calls need to first reach the 911 system, which is an issue in areas where “dead zones”…an unfortunate but standard industry term… exist.

In response to Mrs. Brissette’s letter, LePage questioned which agency could best evaluate the quality of 911 and cell phone service and was not pleased with the response by PUC General Counsel Michael Tannenbaum. “For a mobile phone user, the ability to connect to the wireless network depends on signal strength and line of sight range to the nearest cell provider tower. Signal strength of a user’s handset can also be affected by battery strength and handset type or conditions of use, such as dense forest, inside buildings or beside buildings, and even weather,” noted Tannenbaum.

To blame Brissette’s death on such factors is “unconscionable,” wrote LePage. “It happened because cellular coverage in that area is spotty, unreliable and often nonexistent.”

While Maine does have a statewide Next Generation 911 system that interfaces with all telephone service providers, areas with less than ideal coverage do exist, Tannenbaum conceded in his response to Morris. The challenge is that PUC has little control over the matter. “In low-density population areas, it is a business decision of the wireless company on how many towers to place for coverage, and where to point their directional antenna, and the company’s choices may leave weakly covered areas or even gaps,” he wrote.

Tannenbaum said the PUC was developing mapping that depicts cell towers and approximate coverage areas. But the Maine PUC, “does not have the regulatory authority to order wireless providers to expand coverage with investments in a given area,” as wireless providers are regulated by the FCC rather than any state agency.

As a next step, Tannenbaum noted that FirstNet is being deployed over the next few years.

October 27, 2017               

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