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Vermont utility regulators are being asked to restore cellphone service across rural swaths of the state, ensuring people there are able to call 911, even though the communications company providing the service is behind on bills.

Vanu CoverageCo wants the Public Utilities Commission to order Consolidated Communications, which serves as the state's primary landline telephone system, to get cell service back in about 26 towns in hard-to-serve areas of Vermont. CoverageCo runs "microcells" the company has installed on utility poles in the towns, allowing residents full coverage.

But Consolidated has basically shut off that service since the financially strapped CoverageCo is behind on its bills.

Both companies are scheduled to making their cases to the state's public commission board. Final documents are due Tuesday. A decision could come soon after that if the companies haven't come to agreement.

Public Service Commissioner June Tierney told lawmakers Friday that CoverageCo is receiving outside financial and technical assistance to keep its network running, Vermont Public Radio reported.

"Please know that I share your concern for Vermonters who stand to lose cell service — in particular cellular E-911 access — if CoverageCo cannot find a viable business path forward for continuing its operations," Tierney wrote.

CoverageCo said it will provide a business plan to the state later this month, Vermont Public Radio reported. Tierney said the state could seek a new vendor to run the system if it appears CoverageCo is unable to continue.

During a hearing last week on the request, CoverageCo Attorney David Mullett said the loss of the service puts people at risk.

Consolidated Vice President Jennifer Spaude said the company has a responsibility to collect what is owed the company or it will increase costs to provide services.

"We've had an ongoing relationship with CoverageCo for several years and we've worked with them for more than a year in attempt to bring their account current," she said. "After working with them in good faith for several months, they were unable to meet their commitments to Consolidated."

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