(Host) The Vermont Senate has advanced a bill designed to expand broadband Internet and cell phone service in the state.
But critics say the bill does not do enough to set deadlines and performance standards for communications companies.
VPR’s John Dillon reports:
(Dillon) Building out a communications network comes down to money and geography. Vermont’s hilly terrain gets in the way of cell signals and wireless Internet. And with relatively few people living on the back roads to pay the bills, companies have been unwilling to invest in the needed infrastructure.
So the federal government stepped in and provided hundreds of millions of dollars in grants and loans through the stimulus bill.
The catch is that if the money doesn’t get spent in three years, it goes back to the federal treasury. So now the Legislature is poised to relax permitting requirements so companies can quickly put up telecommunications facilities.
Essex-Orleans Senator Vince Illuzzi says the legislation is needed because of the sheer number of improvements needed to enhance service.
(Illuzzi) "We are expecting that because of the build-out of the infrastructure, there will be an estimated 30,000 connections to telephone and utility poles around the state.’
(Dillon) The legislation exempts many minor projects from local zoning or state land use review. Ten-foot high extensions on phone poles, for example, would be considered minimal improvements and would not require additional permits. The bill also sets a 40-day deadline for the state to issue stormwater permits for high elevation projects.
The Shumlin administration’s goal is to have full statewide coverage by the end of 2013. That’s three years after the Douglas administration’s original deadline to roll out high speed Internet and complete cell phone coverage.
But critics of the bill, including Orange Senator Mark MacDonald, say the legislation does not give the state enough control over the quality of broadband services that private companies will provide.
MacDonald says companies need to do more to boost upload speeds to transfer data over the Internet. He says faster uploads are needed by small businesses in rural areas. But instead, he says, the companies have focused on improving download speeds because they make money when customers download content, such as movies.
(MacDonald) "I am disappointed in the bill because I believe it takes more public money to do what companies would do profitably. There is no guarantee that it gets to the outlying communities. There’s no provision in the bill to inventory and see that they are dealt with by 2013 when many have testified in the committee that it will not happen."
(Dillon) But Senate President John Campbell called the bill an important piece of the state’s economic development strategy. He says job growth will come from start-ups and small businesses.
(Campbell) "And the only way that they are going to be profitable and to expand would be to have the availability of communications that we find that everyone should have in the 21st century."
(Dillon) Campbell says the bill wasn’t perfect, but he urged his colleagues to support it.
For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier
(Host) The legislation comes up for final approval on Wednesday. You can listen to the House and Senate whenever they’re in session by going to VPR.net and clicking on the link to live streams from the Statehouse.