Senate advances bill on broadband

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MONTPELIER -- The Vermont Senate on Tuesday advanced a bill designed to fulfill the years-old promise of bringing broadband Internet and cellular phone service to all corners of the state by the end of 2013, and add upgrading the state’s electric lines with "smart grid" technology to the to-do list.

State Sen. Vincent Illuzzi, chairman of the Senate Economic Development Committee, said the effort to expand the technologies in Vermont began in earnest four years ago but took until now to come to fruition thanks to a big infusion of federal stimulus money.

"In 2007, the industry brought to our attention the almost insurmountable hurdles in deploying the infrastructure necessary to bring our state up to par with many of the other states that already were enjoying robust broadband and cell phone coverage," Illuzzi, R-Essex-Orleans, told his Senate colleagues.

The new bill aims to simplify the state permit process for deployment of cellular antennas, which are expected to be used both for phone and high-speed Internet access in rural areas, Illuzzi said.

Fights are expected Wednesday when the bill comes up for final approval over some provisions that critics see as weakening environmental protections in favor of faster deployment of the technology.

Gov. Peter Shumlin, a Democrat, has been a strong advocate of expanding broadband and cellular service in Vermont, just as Republican Gov. Jim Douglas was before him. It’s been a challenge in part because the state’s mountainous terrain and widely dispersed population make cellular coverage expensive.

The bill comes amid frustration in some quarters that the efforts the state has made already to expand communications technology have not borne more fruit.

The findings at the beginning of the Senate bill list the money already set aside or spent in the effort:

-- $7.35 million appropriated in the current fiscal year.

-- $40 million raised through bond sales but untouched.

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-- more than $174 million in federal stimulus funds distributed to initiatives involving the state and private telecom companies.

-- $69 million earmarked by the federal government for smart-grid deployment by the state’s electric utilities.

Illuzzi and other backers of the bill said that unless the federal money is spent soon, the state will lose access to it -- hence the desire to speed the work up.

But some see the effort as a giant give-away of public money to the telecommunications industry, with insufficient promises that the key public goal -- broadband and cellular service along every mile of dirt road -- will be met.

State Sen. Mark MacDonald, D-Orange, said much of the money spent so far went to projects in areas that already had high-speed Internet and cell phone service. He said a key demand the state should be making, but isn’t, is that upload speeds should be required to be as fast as download speeds.

If not, he said, Vermonters will be able to get "all the rock and roll tunes you’ve ever heard of," and be able to ship money out of state to pay for them but they’ll be much less able to upload and send out their own creative work product, MacDonald said.

"Economic development is based on uploading," he said. "This bill is woefully short on uploading technology."

He also said if private companies are getting public dollars to set up new fiber-optic backbones around the state, they should be required to welcome other users, even competitors, onto their networks.

Illuzzi replied that major telecom firms would not invest in Vermont if faced with such requirements. "It’s a laudable goal, but it’s just not going to happen."

State Sen. Ann Cummings, D-Washington and chairwoman of the Senate Finance Committee, argued that lawmakers should acknowledge the limits of their control over the industry.

"It’s a very bitter pill for many to swallow to realize that we’re not omnipotent, that we’re not all-powerful," she said.


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