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March 19, 2007

Vermont Legislature Advances E-State Initiative, Next Step Natural Resources

H.248, the bill which can make Vermont the nation’s first e-state, took a significant step forward when the Commerce Committee of the Vermont House approved it on a unanimous 11-0 vote.  An observer called this a “tripartisan effort” since there are three parties (Democrats, Republicans, and Progressives) represented on the committee.

The committee under Chairman Warren Kitzmiller (D – Montpelier) worked hard on the bill – last week’s schedule, devoted almost entirely to witnesses on H.248, is a good example of the range of people they heard from. They worked until nearly midnight Thursday before voting on Friday.  The result of all this work was that the bill as reported from Commerce was better than the bill which went in.  Just the way the process is supposed to work. (Unfortunately only the original version of the bill is online now.  Presumably this system will be improved as part of making Vermont an e-state.)

Next week, before the whole House votes on the bill,  the Natural Resources Committee will take a look at proposed regulatory changes.  Obviously any change to environmental regulation should and will get full scrutiny in Vermont. 

It is important that regulatory changes be made as part of this bill or it will not be possible to meet the goal of 100% availability of broadband access and cellular coverage everywhere in Vermont by 2010.  This is a tight schedule recognizing that people without good broadband access are increasingly disenfranchised in an online world; the regulatory changes are aimed at making sure that regulatory oversight is appropriate and timely.

Thinking purely as environmentalist, there’s a lot to like in this bill.  Most important, good communication substitutes for transportation.   Today people are driving downtown for good Internet access; tomorrow they’ll have that at home.  More people’ll be able to work at home; more (but not all meetings) can take place online.  Documents can be transmitted instead of delivered.  When a home is also an office, there is only one space to heat instead of two (cooling’s not much of a problem here).

Current regulation has encouraged a proliferation of very short towers which were built short in order to avoid the expense and uncertainty of hearings which taller towers would have required.  However, each service on a tower (cellular operation, Internet access) must be separated by about ten vertical feet from each other service so the short towers are too short to be shared.  The result is MORE towers have been built than would have been needed if the towers were higher. 

Under current law, communications towers which extend more than 20 feet vertically are subject to development review.  H.248 clarifies and extends this by specifying 20 feet “above the highest point of an attached existing structure” or 50 feet above ground level in the case of a new structure.  Twenty feet above ground level doesn’t make much sense for a tower among the trees!

Also under current law, each tower ends up going through separate environmental review.  This is a very poor way to plan for the maximum coverage with the minimum number of towers.  H.248 says developers of three or more towers may bring an entire plan to the Public Service Board for review at once and sets a schedule within which the PSB must review the application.  It is absolutely essential that review be governed by a predictable timeline!

Of course, the PSB will still reject the application if it doesn’t meet environmental or other criteria.  Some people will argue that the cases should go to the regional commissions set up under Act 250 (Vermont’s landmark measure to regulate development) instead of the PSB.  The very strong counter-argument is that communications are every bit as much a utility as power and ought to be regulated in the same way and under the same criteria of public good (my view).

Probably non-controversial is a provision which requires utilities to allow wireless antennas to be placed on their poles (given safety requirements) similar to the requirement today that they allow cable, telephone, and power wires to be hung from the poles.  Reusing existing poles for this purpose rather than building new towers is an obvious environmental gain.

There is also a provision which allows any homeowner in the state to put a support structure for an antenna on his or her roof so long as the structure is no more than twelve feet above the roofline.  Towns cannot prohibit this.  These tiny antennas (much less unsightly and less bulky than old style TV antennas) are another way to reduce the need for larger antennas and still get universal coverage.  There is one on our roof.


Our neighbors in Stowe point little dishes (below) at it in order to get their Internet access through the local ISP.


There will indubitably be discussion over the fact that the homeowner antenna provision and the review by the PSB pre-empt local zoning.  Again, this is similar to existing law for other utilities and necessary to make sure each town doesn’t decide just to benefit from towers built one town over.  The pockets of population cut off from good communication cut across town boundaries.  It’s both good environmental policy and good social policy to serve these pockets with well and cohesively planned communication facilities.  And to connect them fast.

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