Laura Sibilia: Bills aim to improve broadband in rural Vermont


The House Energy and Technology Committee deals with matters relating to energy, including the regulation of power generation, transmission facilities, energy efficiency, natural gas facilities, and siting of energy facilities; utilities, including rates and quality of service; telecommunications, siting of telecommunications facilities, the buildout of cellular and broadband services, and rates and quality of service; and the state's information technology systems. Tim Briglin of Thetford was named chair of the committee and I am serving as vice chair.

We passed several bills out of our committee this year, most notably an omnibus telecommunications bill which we worked on for most of the first half of the session. Rural Vermont has been waiting a long time for broadband. Private providers have failed to serve the least profitable parts of Vermont and as a state we do not have the more than $600 million needed to develop a public fiber network. H.513, an act relating to broadband deployment throughout Vermont, will help communities create broadband solutions in areas of the state that are underserved.

This bill encourages communities to form multi-town Communications Unions Districts and apply for state planning funds to create a fundable plan for the build out and operation of symmetrical broadband service in their region. Financial tools to implement those plans are part of the bill. The governor included broadband priorities in his budget, most notably a new Vermont Economic Development Authority lending program and $1 million in one-time funds that were incorporated into the bill.

H.513 provides:

- Technical assistance for Communication Union Districts and Municipalities - Creates a new position of rural broadband technical assistant specialist in the Department of Public Service and establishes a new Broadband Innovation Grant Program to provide $700K in grants (maximum of $60K) for Communications Union Districts and communities to conduct feasibility studies on how to build and finance broadband to Vermont's unserved and under-served areas.

- Looks to the future for communications infrastructure in Vermont - Redefines "highspeed broadband" as providing internet connectivity with speeds of at least 25Mbps download and 3Mbps upload. This is the federal definition of broadband. The technology currently capable of this speed is cable and fiber and some fixed wireless connections; Funds a $50K feasibility study to consider how electric utility infrastructure might be used to extend broadband to the last mile establishes a group to consider future funding and support of Public Educational and Government Access (PEG TV) channels.

- Adds financing tools for Communications Union Districts and communities - Adds a one time infusion of $205K to the Connectivity Initiative to be awarded as match grants to internet service providers to bring broadband to underserved and unserved areas of Vermont; increases the Vermont Universal Service Fee by .04 percent - roughly .40 on a consumer's $100 phone bill - to add a million dollars annually to the Connectivity Initiative; creates the VEDA Broadband Expansion Loan Program of $10.8 million in loans, requiring a municipal 10 percent match, to build fiber; Governor's Office, Treasurer's Office and Bond Bank have been asked to provide a recommendation in December on the advisability of municipalities issuing General Obligation bonds to finance build out in underserved and unserved areas.

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- Increases accountability of hosts, users and regulators of our communications networks - Creates "one-touch make ready" policies for pole attachments which is expected to streamline the deployment of broadband; refines the timeframes for the statewide Telecommunications Plan which is updated every three years and requires reporting on E911 services that don't work without power. Authorizes and funds municipalities access and deployment of 2G microcell technology already owned by the state.

These are the former CoverageCo radios.

House Energy and Technology also passed out:

- H.133 Miscellaneous Energy Subjects — clean up for Department of Public Service, allowing standard offer for small hydro, adds definition for CPG for energy storage.

- H.135 Agency of Digital Services — cleans up Vermont law regarding the Agency of Digital Services created in 2017.

- S.95 An act relating to municipal utility capital investment — Allows for town select board or commission to authorize certain levels of capital expenditures for municipal utilities, grandfathers net metering for schools that were eligible prior to Act 46 and establishes timeline for PUC approval of uncontested net metering systems.

State Rep. Laura Sibilia, an independent, represents the Windham-Bennington District in the Vermont House.


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