High speed Internet, cell phone bill moves forward

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(Host) A plan to extend high speed Internet service and cell phone coverage to every part of the state is moving ahead.

The Vermont Senate gave its unanimous approval late this afternoon to legislation that’s designed to make the services available throughout the state by 2010.

VPRs Bob Kinzel reports:

(Kinzel) This bill is one of Governor Jim Douglas’s top priorities for the session.

While many of Vermont’s more urban areas have access to high speed Internet and cell phone service, many rural communities don’t because it’s not cost effective for private companies to provide service in these areas.

The key to the bill is the creation of a Vermont Telecommunications Authority. The panel will be allowed to issue up to 40 million dollars in new bonds to help finance the construction of a communications infrastructure that will include new towers.

Chittenden senator Jim Condos told his colleagues that he strongly supports the bill:

(Condos) “Having sat on 2 committees of jurisdiction on the bill I would just like to offer a few comments, one, H534 will become known as one of the major pieces of legislation that this body will address during this biennium. The positive impacts of this bill will affect in positive manner Vermonters for decades to come.”

(Kinzel) The governor says he’s very pleased that the bill has received strong support in both the House and the Senate:

(Douglas) “This is like telephone service or electricity a generation or two ago. It’s important. It’s infrastructure that people need. It’s important for public safety, for education, for e-health initiatives for government to provide more services and of course for our economy to grow strong.”

(Kinzel) Douglas says the goal of the plan is to forge a public – private partnership to build new towers. The state will pay for the construction of the towers and then lease space to private companies.

The bill also calls for a streamlined review process for new towers – it’s a process that would be exempt from local zoning permits.

Some lawmakers were concerned about this approach so a section was added that calls on the Public Service Board to strongly respect local zoning decisions when the PSB considers applications for new towers.

The governor thinks this approach makes sense.

(Douglas) “It just wouldn’t work if a company wanted to put up a string of towers along a part of Vermont and one of those towers were held up because of some local decision making. So I think it’s fair that when three or more towers are proposed, the Public Service Board have the responsibility and the power to make the decision.”

(Kinzel) Because the Senate legislation is different from a bill passed earlier this session by the House, a special conference committee will meet to resolve these differences.

For VPR News I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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