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May 04, 2007

Vermont E-State Bill Passes Senate

H248, the bill, which paves the way to making Vermont the nation’s first e-state with 100% cellular and broadband coverage by 2010, passed the Vermont Senate yesterday.  Next step is a committee of conference to iron out the differences in the House and Senate portions of the bill.

Although both the Senate Economic Development and Senate Finance Committees which had jurisdiction over the bill eventually recommended it to the full Senate without debate, the legislative trip through the Senate wasn’t nearly as easy as these votes indicate.  Both committees and their chairpeople (Vince Illuzi R-Essex-Orleans and Ann Cummings D-Washington) took their review roles seriously and listened to scores of witnesses – including both Mary and me - on scores of issues.  Amendments were offered; some stuck; some didn’t; some were in turn amended.

For awhile it looked like the bill would be encumbered by some earmarks which would have prevented the authority set up by the bill from allocating the proceeds of the up to $40 million of authorized revenue bonds in whatever turns out to be the best way to meet the goal of 100% connectivity within the constraint of fiscal responsibility (the bonds have to be paid back).  In the end the Vermont Senate resisted the temptation to emulate its federal counterpart and removed the earmarks.

Not surprisingly, the regulations governing placement of telecommunications towers were the most contentious issue.  Vermonters pride themselves both on protecting the environment AND local control.  Although towers won’t be huge, they will be visible; their coverage area is limited to line of sight.  Under current law if a network of fifteen towers is going to be built in fifteen towns, each town would hold its own hearings on “its” tower and one or more regional commissions would weigh in as regulators under Vermont’s Act 250.

Each town would have to become expert in telecommunications towers for probably no more than one set of hearings.  Any change made by one jurisdiction would result in redesigning the rest of the network and rehearings in other jurisdictions.  The process would simply not end in a predictable amount of time nor would it result in building a network with the most coverage for the least impact. Under the current law tower builders build low towers to escape regulation and the consequence is there is not enough room above the tree tops for WISPs (wireless ISPs) AND there are too many towers for too little coverage.

So H248, as it came from the House, proposed that a network of three or more towers can be authorized after hearings by the State Public Service Board if it finds that these towers meet a number of criteria including compliance where possible with town plans.  The PSB has a deadline it must adhere to so those investing in towers have some assurance of how long it’ll take to actually build something and get some revenue.  Some in the Senate wanted to preserve a veto for towns an/or regional commissions.  Some recognized that there may be a problem with existing law  but wanted to set up a study committee and act on changes when the legislature meets again in 2008.

Finally, a study committee WAS set up (in the Senate version) but the PSB hearing process was left in the bill until the legislature changes it or three years pass (at which time it sunsets but hopefully will have proved its worth and be extended).  Senators understood that the ability to plan tower construction on a predictable schedule this Fall will be essential to those who want to bid on the key frequencies the FCC will be auctioning off starting in January.

So, at the moment, things look good for Vermont passing the starting line to becoming the first e-state although no bill is passed yet.  Implementation, of course, will be even harder than legislation.

Good News from the FCC is about the upcoming frequency auction.

Vermont, The First E-State is an introduction to Vermont’s bold plan.

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