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August 21, 2010

Broadband vs. NIMBY

Question: Now that the funding for border-to-border no-residence-left-behind highspeed broadband access in Vermont is at hand, what could stop us from fulfilling our e-state dream? (see here for the good news on funding).

Answer: Us!

Question: How can we save us from ourselves?

Answer: Un-sunset 30 V.S.A. § 248a.

To understand this bureaucratic answer, read on.

The plan for extending highspeed broadband to every residence depends on radio links using next generation cellular technology called LTE. The technology will provide us mobile as well as fixed service through a single account. It will indubitably lead to improvements in coverage for cellular voice service as well. But there's a catch. The base radios for this service – like all cellular services – need antennas mounted above interference. Although some of these antennas can go on public buildings and in places like church steeples, many if not most of them will have to be placed on towers. And most of these towers will be new. If we already had towers in the unserved parts of the state, those parts of the state wouldn't be unserved.

The towers can't be invisible or they won't work. At a minimum, the antennas need to be mounted twenty feet above the tree tops. If there are multiple service providers on a tower, which we hope there will be, the antennas for each service need to be separated by ten vertical feet. In general the tops of towers will be forty feet or more above the tree tops. Towers in high places are also a good thing from a communication point of view and high places aren't invisible either.

Although most people in a given area will be happy with new service, it is inevitable that some of those with the best views of the towers aren't going to want to have towers built in their view. NIMBY – Not In My BackYard syndrome – is a fact of human nature; it's not unique to Vermont. But those who oppose projects of any kind have learned how to use Vermont law – particularly Act 250 review by District Commissions and local zoning reviews – to impose very long and often fatal delays on projects.

Remember, the federal stimulus money awarded to Vermont Telephone (VTEL), the Vermont Telecommunications Authority (VTA), and others must be spent within three years! If these projects are unreasonably delayed, they may literally never get done.

When the Vermont legislature enacted Governor Douglas' e-state proposal in 2007, it recognized the danger that NIMBY poses to execution of this ambitious plan. To assure that tower-building didn't get unreasonably delayed, it allowed applicants for projects of three or more towers to go to the Public Service Board (PSB) rather than District Commissions for approval and set strict timelines for hearings. Moreover, local jurisdiction over these projects was preempted by this new 248a process. The 248a process was deliberately modeled after the procedure used by the PSB for electric utility projects. To oversimplify, Act 250 review considers only the negative aspect of a project including aesthetic impact (towers aren't invisible); 248a review requires the PSB to minimize impact BUT allows for the reasonable mitigation of impact by the public good that comes from a project (you need towers to get coverage).

Town by town review of multi-tower projects would be impossible. If one town insisted on re-siting one tower, than other towers would have to move to avoid coverage gaps and the project would start all over again. The 248a single review of the whole project by the PSB solves that problem.

But the whole authorization for 248a reviews expires (sunsets) July 1, 2011 – just when we're likely to need it most. Very simply, execution of our e-state plan for border-to-border broadband and cellular access depends on the next legislature and the next administration cooperating on a bill to removes the sunset clause. The language is as simple as "30 V.S.A. § 248a(i) is hereby repealed." This should happen in January at the start of the new legislative session so that project planners will know that they can become project builders in a reasonably short time. We have a lot to do and we can't let NIMBY stop us.



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