Douglas proposes ‘state authority’ to build wireless infrastructure

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(Host) In his inaugural address, Governor Douglas said that a modern telecommunications network is the key to economic prosperity.

And to jump Vermont over the digital divide, he’s proposed a “new state authority” to pay for some of the new technology.

VPR’s John Dillon takes a closer look at the proposal.

(Dillon) The governor plans to invest up to $40 million in state-backed bonds to build the infrastructure needed for the broadband and wireless network.

State officials realized that the state had to play a larger role for two reasons:

First, they’re convinced that Internet and wireless connectivity is no longer a luxury, but a necessity for many residents and businesses.

And second, they say the private sector is not doing the job as quickly or as thoroughly as needed.

(O’Brien) “We can’t afford to let broadband be an economic dividing line between different parts of the state.”

(Dillon) David O’Brien is the commissioner of public service. Last year, about 84% of Vermonters had access to broadband Internet services. O’Brien says the rest of the population is the hardest to reach. And some places, such as Orange County, have just 40% coverage.

Private companies will eventually cover more of the state. But O’Brien says:

(O’Brien) “It’s not enough to get us there. And we don’t want to wait to wait for this natural process to take root, because we simply can’t afford to.”

(Dillon) Under the governor’s plan, the new Telecommunications Authority would step in to pay for the needed infrastructure – towers for wireless services, for example.

The state doesn’t plan to sell broadband directly to consumers. That would still be done by private companies.

Tom Murray is state commissioner of information and innovation. He says the $40 million state investment should leverage about $200 million in private dollars. The state would get a return on its investment through leases of its facilities.

Murray says the ultimate goal is to make Vermont by 2010 the national leader in high-speed Internet and universal cell phone coverage.

(Murray) “The initial focus is going to be on covering the places where there is nothing. We need to get out there to make sure the authority is leveraging broadband services and wireless services in places that there isn’t service today. But there will be a longer term approach to say we want to make sure Vermont is always ahead of this curve. This isn’t a one time thing. We want to make sure we’re positioned for the long haul.”

(Dillon) Reaction among lawmakers to the proposal was generally positive. Susan Davis is a new Progressive Representative from West Topsham in Orange County. Davis said she heard a lot about broadband on the campaign trail.

(Davis) “A lot of home businesses, local artists, there are some cheese makers, people who have small businesses in their homes – they’re saying they need broadband to market their products.”

(Dillon) The Legislature will have to approve the new Telecommunications Authority.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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