Portable Cell Towers Help To Connect Isolated Towns

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(Host) Isolation and lack of communication have been huge issues in towns stranded by Tropical Storm Irene.

People in southern Vermont’s Deerfield and West River Valleys are accustomed to living without cell phone reception. But the storm left hundreds of residents without internet or telephone service or eliable roads.

But in two hard-hit towns, emergency portable cell phone towers are making a difference. VPR’s Susan Keese has the story.

(Keese) On a high hill in Dover, AT&T worker Jeremy Sicely is standing at the bottom of a 100-foot tower, talking on a phone plugged into a control panel in his van.

(Sicely) "Okay. Go ahead and do that and call me back. And tell him to hurry. We’re burning daylight. Hey, did you hear that?"

(Keese) Sicely has been here for three days, working to install a portable cell phone unit.

(Sicely) "This is a cell on wheels, we call it a cow. Typically it has a temporary pneumatic tower that goes up, but since we had the tower here, these guys been working extra hard to get the lines up the tower on the cell antennas."

(Keese) AT&T only has a few of these units on the entire East Coast.  And two of them are now in the neighboring towns of Dover and South Newfane.

That’s in part because of the urgency of the need.

Michael Smith is president of FairPoint Communications, the town’s main land line service.

(Smith ) "East Dover, two pieces of equipment, those big cabinets that you sometimes see on the side of the road, actually got swept down the river in Tropical Storm Irene. And we’re replacing those as we speak."

(Keese) Newfane Town Clerk Gloria Cristelli says the service was badly needed.

(Cristelli) "That pocket didn’t even have electricity. And, of course, FairPoint went down, SV Cable went down. So the phone seemed to be the one thing that would actually be able to get them in touch with the world."

(Keese) Cristelli says that Newfane has been holding informational potluck suppers in the Grange hall since the floods.

(Cristelli) "When we asked, with the first potluck, what are your needs, and what do you have to offer, communication was top on the list. We need to be able to communicate."

(Keese) State Senator Peter Galbraith, who was at the potluck, mentioned the temporary cell towers brought in for President Obama when he was in Martha’s Vineyard.

Galbraith made the initial call, and Cristelli carried the ball from that point. Within days, a portable cell tower and generator were up and running in Newfane. After roads were repaired, it was moved to a better location.

Donated cell phones were distributed in both Newfane and Dover to reconnect residents.

For VPR News, I’m Susan Keese in East Dover

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