An hour or so ago the Vermont House and Senate both gave final approval to a bill designed to make Vermont the nation’s first e-state. As defined in Vermont, e-stateness means cellular and adequate broadband coverage – fixed and mobile – everywhere in the state by 2010. The initial definition of adequate fixed broadband is 3 megabits per second service in at least one direction; but the bill contains a mechanism for ratcheting that up as requirements escalate. It is estimated that this requirement may be as high as 20 megabits in both directions by 2013.
Although the bill passed the Vermont House with an overwhelming 132-2 vote more than a month ago, it was by no means assured of passage. Vermont’s citizen legislature is hoping to adjourn for the year sometime tonight. There was a danger that the Senate would not have the time it needed to consider all aspects of this very large bill. But they did!
There was lots of debate in the Senate (not unexpectedly) on changes to Vermont’s regulatory process aimed at allowing speedy review of projects. There were earmarks that found their way into the bill – and then were removed. The bill that came from the Senate last week was different in many respects from what the House had passed so the committee of conference, which met off and on for the last week, had a lot to do with adjournment day looming. They got their work done and the House and Senate approved the resulting compromise – still an excellent bill – on voice votes this evening. Governor Jim Douglas’ signature is expected within the next couple of weeks.
This achievement is the more impressive for being bipartisan (actually tri-partisan since three parties are represented in our legislature). Governor Douglas, who made the initial e-state proposal is a Republican. The Democrats have enough votes in both houses to override a veto. But this debate – tough as it was at times – was never partisan. One of the most effective and thoughtful advocates for the bill was Democratic Treasurer Jeb Spaulding. The leaders of the conference committee were Democratic Representative Warren Kitzmiller and Republican Senator Vince Illuzi.
The bill encourages both public and private provisioning of service. It includes authorization for up to $40 million in revenue bonds by the State to build infrastructure like radio towers and middle-mile fiber. The State is NOT authorized to become a retail ISP but the plan is to encourage private wireless ISPs (WISPs), wireline ISPs, and cellular operators – as well as municipalities – by making infrastructure broadly available at a reasonable cost even in areas where the short term economics are tough. The bonds need to be repaid out of revenues but this will be “patient” money,
Private tower-builders and the State will both benefit from an expedited approval process for networks. Without this new process, each tower in a network would have needed individual approval, usually by a different jurisdiction or combination of jurisdictions than each other tower. The process is designed to provide environmental protection while encouraging the most coverage for the least impact. Operators also benefit from the clear right to put antennas on utility poles similar to the way wires for phone, cable, and power all have a right to co-location.
Vermont towns and cities which want to emulate the successful fibering of Burlington or pursue other municipal broadband projects are aided both by a blanket approval to do so (Burlington needed a charter change) and by access to the Vermont Municipal Bond Bank to help with these projects.
The law gives every building owner the right to put up small antenna like the one Mary and I have on our house so that one house in a neighborhood can serve as a hub for providing wireless broadband to everyone else. WISPs find this an effective way to extend coverage into hollows and behind hills without having to put big towers everywhere.
Of course, this bill is just a beginning. Now the State, the towns and the private sector all have the huge but greatly worthwhile task of making this vision come true by 2010.