VAN BUREN, Maine — The actions of Van Buren resident Lisa Brissette have led to AT&T purchasing cell towers from southern Maine to northern Aroostook County in an effort to increase and improve cell phone coverage throughout the state.
Van Buren will be the first community in Maine to receive enhanced coverage, beginning this spring as the company buys, modifies, and improves an existing tower on the Marquis Road previously operated by Northeast Wireless Networks.
Brissette was motivated to act after the death of her husband Arthur on Jan. 13, 2017. She says his death easily could have been prevented if the region had better cell phone coverage.
Almost two years to the day following his death, the widow told Van Buren town councilors during their Jan. 15 meeting how her husband’s truck had slid into a snowbank on the Madore Road in neighboring Cyr Plantation during a storm and he could not get a signal on his cell phone to call for help. After the 56-year-old walked up the road about half a mile to find help, Arthur Brissette and a young man pushed his truck out of the snowbank, but then Brissette collapsed and died at the scene.
Lisa Brissette said that unreliable cellular telephone service added nearly a half hour to the response time of emergency medical personnel, who were unable to revive her husband.
“Following Arthur’s death, the more I thought about it, the more I knew I had to make some changes,” the widow told councilors. “I wrote my story and sent it to U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and then Gov. Paul LePage. I waited a week and then called their offices to ensure they’d received my letter.”
Since then, Collins helped Brissette file a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission and Maine Public Utilities Commission. Also, former Gov. LePage helped her contact a public advocate, who then reached out to several cell phone carriers and found that AT&T was willing to take on a project to improve coverage in Maine.
A recent press release issued by AT&T states that the company has acquired “nearly 170 cell sites from Northeast Wireless Networks,” and that each site will receive an “LTE upgrade to improve coverage in the area,” a modification the company says will not only expand its network, but through its collaboration with FirstNet, will “enhance public safety communications in the area.”
The company and state are partnering with FirstNet, an independent authority authorized by Congress in 2012, which is dedicated to the development and operation of a nationwide broadband network “designed to strengthen public safety’s communication capabilities, helping first responders coordinate and respond more quickly and effectively in accidents, disasters, and day-to-day scenarios.”
Gov. LePage approved AT&T working on the FirstNet communication platform in Maine in August 2017, according to the release.
“Bringing better communications technology to our rural areas is critical,” LePage said before leaving office. “The FirstNet buildout will help connect our first responders, providing a stronger safety net for our people during times of crisis. AT&T’s expansion of the network will save lives and improve the wellbeing of Mainers.”
The acquisition of existing towers and FirstNet partnership will “significantly improve AT&T’s Maine network and give Maine first responders access to critical, modern public safety resources,” Owen Smith, regional vice president of AT&T Maine said in the release.
Smith added that he was “honored to have the ability and opportunity to help with [Brissette’s] mission to upgrade cellular network coverage in Van Buren,” and grateful for former Gov. LePage’s dedication to this effort as well as for the work of Public Advocate Barry Hobbins, “all of which was integral to bringing FirstNet’s public safety benefits to Maine and making Van Buren a priority.”
While the press release indicates that Van Buren will be the first area to be upgraded, it does not say specifically when and where other areas of the state will be upgraded. AT&T officials and the Maine Public Advocate were not available for interviews by press time.
“I never backed down,” Brissette told councilors on Jan. 15, “and I was very tenacious in my hope of never letting what Arthur and my family endured that day happen to anyone else.”
Councilors thanked her for her hard work and all in attendance applauded after she spoke that night.
Just days later, on Jan. 17, her reasons for fighting were reinforced when, on what would have been Arthur Brissette’s 59th birthday, she visited the spot where her husband got stuck and died.
“Every year, on his birthday, I hang balloons on a cross at that spot,” she said. “This time I got stuck in the exact same spot, and I wasn’t able to call anybody. So I walked the exact same path that Arthur did, and someone who worked for Meals on Wheels picked me up and brought me to a garage.”
“How ironic,” she said. “Ever since Arthur passed, I walk on that road, and it gives me peace.”
She said she still sometimes talks to her husband when she walks and had told him that she wanted to know how he felt that day.
“Now I do, and it’s just another point in proving that this is a problem.”
She hopes it won’t be for much longer.
This was originally published in the Fiddlehead Focus.